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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November 4, 2013 - 8:00am
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