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9 Amazing Portraits That Changed Art

Anyone can snap a selfie. These passionate artists created portraits that changed art forever.

1. “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele

The painting of Schiele’s mistress is called the “face that launched a thousand lawsuits” for a reason. After being lost during World War II, Wally remained missing until 1997, when she somehow ended up in an American museum—an appearance that angered the Austrian government, which claimed ownership. It sparked a 13-year court battle that has influenced every art restitution case since.

2. “Portrait of Gustave Geffroy” by Paul Cezanne

Having your portrait painted by Cezanne was like running a marathon. The artist studied his subjects so intensely that he could not paint them in one fell swoop, but sometimes needed them to pose over 100 times. (For Geffroy’s portrait, Cezanne took three months.) The hard angles in Geffroy’s portrait inspired Cubists years later. 

3. “Portrait of Madame X” by John Singer Sargent

Everyone was shocked when Madame X was unveiled. Although nude paintings were everywhere, this painting was considered by far the most sexual many viewers had seen. Having posed as the model, Virgine Gautreau found her reputation briefly dashed, losing her status as Paris’s prime arm candy. Now lauded for being both revealing and concealing, the portrait is considered one of the greatest ever made.

4. All of Mary Cassatt’s portraits

Mary Cassatt may have grown up in Pittsburgh, but her portraits look like they came straight from France. Capturing the subtle social and private lives of women, Cassatt was one of the first women to successfully make painting her full-time job. By the looks of it, she was just as talented—if not more talented—as the men.

5. “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough

Back in the 18th century, lots of portraits looked like colorless voids—a palette of drab browns and grays. Artist Joshua Reynolds even dictated, “Masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses.” Thomas Gainsborough called that hogwash. He defied convention and sparked a surge in color with this brightly lit portrait of a boy in blue.

6. “Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler

Painted in 1871, some call this portrait the “Victorian Mona Lisa.” Although Whistler didn’t consider it a portrait—he felt it was a study in black and gray—it’s since become an icon for motherhood. Few paintings have been copied more.

7. “Pope Innocent X” by Diego Velazquez

The granddaddy of them all, art historians all over call this the greatest portrait of all time. The subject’s ruddy complexion is incredibly precise, arguably making it the most realistic portrait ever made. (When the pope first saw it, he recoiled and called it “too real.”) Velazquez did something that few people in the 17th century could do—he made one of the world’s most powerful men look human.

8. All of Van Gogh’s Self Portraits

In his final years, Van Gogh painted over 30 self-portraits. More than beautiful paintings, those portraits are records of every alteration of the artist’s technique—and a portal into how he viewed himself during those whirlwind years. Painted in 1889, his last portrait commanded one of the highest prices for a painting of all time, going for $71 million.

9. “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by Gustav Klimt

Sold for $135 million in 2006, Klimt’s golden masterwork is one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The portrait’s complex ornamentation helped establish the Art Nouveau movement, a style that has heavily influenced modern architecture, sculpture, and—of course—painting. 

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The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
iStock
iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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Tessa Angus
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Surprising Sculptures Made From Fallen Feathers
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor with an unusual medium: feathers. Her surreal, undulating works often take the form of installations—the feathers spilling out of a drain, a stove, a crypt wall—or stand-alone sculptures in which antique bell jars, cabinets, or trunks contain otherworldly shapes.

MccGwire developed her obsession with feathers after moving to a studio barge on the Thames in 2006, as she explains in a video from Crane.tv recently spotlighted by Boing Boing. The barge was near a large shed full of feral pigeons, whose feathers she would spot on her way to work. "I started picking them up and laying them out, collecting them," she remembers. "And after about two weeks I had like 300 feathers." At the time, concerns about bird flu were rife, which made the feathers seem "dangerous as well as beautiful."

When not supplied by her own next-door menagerie, the feathers for her artwork come from a network of racing pigeon societies all over the UK, who send her envelopes full every time the birds molt. Farmers and gamekeepers also send her fallen feathers from birds such as magpies, pheasants, and roosters.

The cultural associations around birds are a big part of what inspires MccGwire. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility," she told ArtNews in 2013, "but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”

The same duality is present in her own work, which she frequently shares on her Instagram account. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”

You can see some pictures of MccGwire's work, and watch the video from Crane.tv, below.

Kate MccGwire's installation "Evacuate"
Evacuate, 2010
J Wilde

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Convolous"
Convolous, 2015
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's installation "Gyre"
Gyre, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Gag"
Gag, 2009
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Writhe"
Writhe, 2010
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Quell"
Quell, 2011
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Taunt"
Taunt, 2012
Tessa Angus

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