Fascinating Facts About The Most Famous Portrait Paintings

Portrait

A picture is often worth a thousand words; the same can be said about paintings; a single art portrait may hold within itself a myriad of words that tell different stories. Moreover, art gives the freedom to aesthetically express ideas, emotions, and opinions in a manner that ordinary words cannot articulate. According to 20th-century artist Edward Hopper, if it could be said in words, there would be no reason to paint.

Whether seemingly complex or straightforward, the iconography of a painting, i.e., its imagery and symbolic language, can capture and communicate the depth of any artist’s intent and even the inspiration behind it.

However, beyond the stories that finished works of art tell, some interesting ones are behind the scenes. Our favorite paintings appear even more captivating after we discover the curious details surrounding their creation. Let’s take a look at the intriguing facts about some of the most famous portraits.

Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

This iconic 1665 oil painting by Vermeer depicts a young girl in an exotic attire and what is thought to be a pearl earring. The model’s identity is speculated to be Vermeer’s daughter Maria who appears in many of his other paintings and bears a strong resemblance with the girl in this painting.

Although the painting’s background is a black void today, the artist had initially painted it with a green curtain as the backdrop, which faded over time. It is believed that the drastic fade occurred because Vermeer worked from the background to the foreground.

Additionally, the “earring” in one of the most famous portraits is merely an illusion. Upon taking a closer glance, it becomes clear that the girl has no earring hook in her earlobe. The illusion of the pearl earring was achieved with touches of white paint.

Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent

The subject of this famous painting is Madame Pierre Gautreau, the American wife of a French elite. Sargent created the portrait without commission because he believed painting a picture of the Madame would be suitable for his career.

The original rendition of the portrait had the right strap of the Madame’s dress falling off her shoulder. However, this detail had the opposite effect on Sargent’s reputation from what he had expected when he embarked on the project. When he debuted the painting at the 1884  Paris Salon, he was ridiculed for painting something so scandalous. Parisian nobility believed the portrayal was not worthy of a lady with the Madame’s social status.

Sargent had to repaint the strap on her shoulder to remedy the situation and appease critics.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

This 1930 portrait is one of the most famous art portraits in American art history, with several representations in American pop culture; it is also Wood’s most famous painting. The name American Gothic is derived from the house’s architectural style in the painting’s background.

To begin with, the house in the painting is an actual location that can be visited. Called The Dibble House, it is located in Eldon, Iowa. The artist was inspired to create the painting when he saw a small town in Iowa and spotted the farmhouse built in the Carpenter Gothic style.

Another fact worthy of note is that as opposed to the erroneous belief that the portrait is of a married couple, it depicts a farmer and his daughter. Wood recruited his sister and his dentist as models for the picture. 

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Arguably the most famous art portraits globally, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is widely championed as a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. Thought to portray the Italian noblewoman and wife of Francesco del Giocondo, Lisa Gherardini, the painting is one of the priciest paintings in the world, with an insurance valuation worth $870 million. It is also one of the first portraits to use an imaginary landscape for a backdrop.

Furthermore, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been so fascinated by the painting that it once hung on his bedroom wall in the Tuileries Palace. It is also said that it inspired his affection for an Italian woman named Teresa Guadagni, a descendant of Lisa Gherardini.

Another curious fact about the Mona Lisa is that da Vinci does not mention it in any of his journals or sketches.

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

This 1939 oil painting is a double self-portrait of celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It depicts two versions of the artist, similar except for their outfits. The Frida on the left is illustrated in a white Victorian dress, while the Frida on the left is dressed in traditional Mexican attire.

Some suggest that the two figures in the portrait symbolize Frida’s dual heritage–a German father and a Mexican mother. Others argue that the figures represent her style choice before and during her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera.

According to the artist, the portrait was inspired by the memory of a childhood imaginary friend.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Created sometime between 1482 and 1485, this painting is undoubtedly one of the most adored artworks in the world. It depicts Venus, goddess of love from Roman mythology, emerging from the water on a giant scallop.

The painting is believed to be commissioned by the famous Medici family of Italy, seeing as the painting also features orange trees, an emblem adopted by the Medici family.

The painting also set a record and new standard with its size, a staggering six by nine feet.

Conclusion

Beholding an impressive work of art leaves the viewer awe of its artistry. The mind then tries to unravel the mysteries and symbolism contained in the art. As fascinating as this can be, sometimes the genuinely spectacular details lie in the facts behind the famous portrait paintings.

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