I decided recently to give portraiture a go – I had never painted a portrait before so it was quite an experiment. I had no intention of trying to be like the great masters – there was just no way at a first attempt that I was going to produce paintings like those of my top ten favourite portrait artists. And in no particular order here they are:
- The great Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is listed first simply because his work always springs to mind first. Maybe because I discovered his colourful paintings way back when I was an art student. He completed many self portraits, often revealing the tensions he felt with life. All his work – later work anyway – have a vibrancy I feel is unmatched by many – full of colour and large paint swirls. And I don’t know many people who have not heard of Van Gogh.
- Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was probably the most influential twentieth century artist and probably the most famous artist of modern times. He was able to artfully use many different styles, but probably became popularly know for his cubism which he invented along with his friend Georges Braque – a style he used in many of his portraits which were distorted and fragmented with rigid paint strokes and in strong colours, but at the same time most captivating. Picasso moved to Paris in 1901 and was to spend most of his days in France.
- Another great artist of the twentieth century was French man Henri Matisse (1849-1954). A talented man who trained as a lawyer, but found art to be his vocation. The south of France was a great attraction to him and he settled in Nice in 1917. He had a great skill in use of colour and was a fluid draughtsman. Matisse would often use bright and unnatural colours in his work rather than showing things as they really looked. By the mid 1970’s and with a declining health he could no longer paint in the traditional way and so he took to painting with scissors – as he would say – but we refer to them as cut-outs!
- Another of my favourites is English artist David Hockney (b.1937) who over the years has spent his time residing in the UK and America. I love the strong, expanse of colours and strong distinguishable shapes that he has sometimes used in his work and in particular in a lot of his portraits. Many of his portraits feature the whole environment and not just the head and shoulders which brings out the character of the individual or individuals – he sometimes painted more than one person in his portraits. Fascinated by people and how he could represent them in art Hockney has been a consummate portrait artist since his teenage years. On his return to Los Angeles in 2013 he set out to paint as many portraits as he could with the subject sitting on the same chair and with the same blue backdrop and all on the same size large canvas in acrylics. Seventy seven portraits have been completed with stunning complexity revealing each persons character. Hockney has stunned the world of art with other great works too, but his portraits are what stand out for me!
- The Viennese creator of rich, decorative paintings Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) often shocked the people of his day with his bold use of nude figures. But later he started painting jewel-like and bright landscapes and portraits for which he became much sought after. His inspiration for adding gold leaf to his pictures came from ancient golden mosaics that he discovered in Italy – the most famous of his works being ‘The Kiss’.
- Closer to present day and much more graphical in style is American artist Andy Warhol’s work (1928-1987). He was most recognisable for wearing a silver ring and sun glasses. But far exceeding his persona were his bold, brash and commercial creations revealing his great fascination with celebrity. Towards the end of his life he focussed on painting portraits for the famous. His most famous portrait being that of the actress Marilyn Monroe.
- Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was probably one of the most prolific artists of the seventeenth century who was not only a great portrait artist but a brilliant scholar and diplomat. He was born in Siegen in what is now Germany and lived for a while in Antwerp. But after a trip to Venice and seeing the work of great artists there he settled in Italy. And in honour of his love for the country he would often sign his name in Italian. On returning to Antwerp upon his mother’s death he was persuaded to stay to see out his days. His portrait paintings were famously big, bold and quite extravagant. They were almost photographic in style and while that is not to my taste I admire his great technical ability in creating the true-to-life.
- One of the greatest British portrait painters is how I would describe Lucien Freud (1922-2011). His portraits were often muted in colour but there was great draughtsmanship in the strong brush strokes. Paintings and drawings of people were quite central to his work as he wanted to bring drama to his paintings and he believed this would be achieved through portraiture as the smallest of human gestures showed drama.
- Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France. He had a magical way of elongating the face without losing the freshness of the individuals. Sadly, for him, his style was not appreciated at the time and it was only after his premature death that his portraits became popular.
- Most artists are known by their surname but not Rembrandt (1606-1669) – Rembrandt was actually his first name! His full title was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn which is self-explanatory on why his first name was adopted! Probably the most successful Dutch artist of the time famous for his powerful portraits. He was born in Leiden and then moved to Amsterdam where he was to see out his years. He was a great master producing many fine art portraits to almost photographic detail. They were often dark and moody.
There are two additional artists that I must add to this post – firstly the most universally acclaimed portrait of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his portrait is probably one of the most talked about portraits of all time; and so he should not be excluded from the list of great portrait artists. He was not only a great artist but an excellent mathematician who worked with great precision in striving to create perfection.
And of course the twelfth name is me – okay, I know there is a little difference between them and me but we all have to begin somewhere! All the portraits seen here are acrylic on canvas board and all by me: