Jan van Eyck was one of the first painters to use oils on panels. Born in Netherlands, the Flemish is now regarded as one of the best painters of the 15th century.
His paintings show a great technique and are full of details. In 1433 he completed what is now seen as his most famous work. He titled it simply “Portrait of a Man”, and it could be a self portrait. It shows a quarter view of a man wearing a red chaperon, with its sides lifted.
Although might seem unusual today, for that time in the Western Europe this type of head wear was common. The black background, dark garments of the subject as well as the light that falls from one side make his face stand out and emphasis its volume, making it appear three dimensional. Another great visual impact is the contrast between the red chaperon and the dark surroundings.
Van Eyck makes use of the technique called “sfumato” which is applying the paint in overlapping thin layers to blend the hues. This makes the portrait look smooth without any hard edges or visible brush strokes.
While some praise him as an incredible talented artist and others describe his works as being similar to those made by a two year old, Pablo Picasso was never the less an influential painter that “broke” the traditional rules of painting and cast a new light on what people were regarding as art.
He and his friend started the cubist movement, one that has lead to a more abstract style. Although he was able to pint in a realist manner his creative spirit wanted to bring something new and never seen before. Therefore he began mixing more than one viewpoint of his subjects into a single form and the resulted work seemed “broken”, containing straight lines and sharp angles.
This was called “cubes” by a French art critic in the early 20th century and there resulted the term “cubism”. Dora Maar was the name of one of Pablo’s girlfriends. She was a professional photographer and the artist depicted her in a number of paintings.
In “Dora Maar au Chat” we find her in a calm state, resting on a chair with a black cat behind her right shoulder. Picasso breaks the image in a way that the sense of space and depth is lost, while the shapes seem to be colliding violently. The woman’s red and dark blue dress is ornamented with dots and her green blouse with horizontal black lines.
The hat is also represented as an important element of Dora Maar and her involvement with the surrealist movement. Known for her coquette hands, they are painted here with long sharp nails symbolizing both femininity and violence.
When we hear the name “Vincent van Gogh” we immediately think of two things: his impressionist paintings full of color and the fact that he cut off his ear. While his works are now worth a fortune, he was only able to sell a few paintings during his lifetime.
What is generally not known is that Vincent started painting only in his late twenties and his style was totally opposite to the one that made him famous. He started using dark earth tones and then moved on to brighter ones after being told by his brother that these were the kind of paintings that got sold.
Because of his mental illness he was assigned to Doctor Paul Gachet who took him under his custody. At first Vincent was reticent about him and was even questioning the doctor’s sanity but as the time passed by he got to accept him and even painted his portrait. The “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” depicts the doctor sitting at a table with his head held by the right hand, while the left hand rests on the table.
There we also find the books written by two brothers, probably suggesting the close relationship of Vincent and his doctor, and a vase of flowers used for a heart medication that might represent the doctor’s health condition. His eyes have a melancholic feel, also empowered by the eyebrows, and even make his physical appearance seem sick.
Through the warm colors and the blank stare van Gogh manages to depict Paul Gachet in a calm absent state that gives us strong clues about the doctor’s own condition, as seen by the artist.
While now it is regarded as one of Netherlands’ finest painters of the 17th century, Johannes Vermeer was only discovered much later in the 19th century when his works caught the attention of a French art critic and a German historian.
Vermeer lived in a small house together with his many children, wife and her mother. There in his studio he has arranged and reproduced a series of domestic activities such as writing or reading a letter and playing a musical instrument as well as social gatherings. One of his paintings of a young girl has attracted many viewers.
The “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is sometimes considered to be the “Mona Lisa of the North”. Her identity is unknown. The portrait depicts a young woman half turned towards the viewer. Her garments are not common and, while her dress could be something worn by a child, the headpiece is probably inspired by another painting.
Whatever the case, Vermeer has adopted his two usual colors for the headwear: bright yellow and ultramarine. This contrasts greatly with the dark background that has also been preferred by the artist to highlight the face and make it appear three dimensional.
The central point of the portrait, the pearl earring, is sitting in the shade and its outline is not presented through hard lines but rather suggested with a few touches of gray and white.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is probably the most recognized portrait in the world. You are likely to ask why it is so well known.
The piece was completed in 1519 by the already famous Da Vinci that was not only a painter but also a sculptor, an architect, a scientist, a mathematician and more. After being owned by a number of French Kings, the painting was finally placed in the Louvre museum in Paris.
At the beginning of the 20th century it was stolen and only recovered a couple of years later. Together with the growing appreciation from symbolist painters and art critiques this has boosted its popularity. Further more in 1962 it was lend to the United States for a televised tour.
The painting has always been surrounded by a shroud of mister as the identity, although widely accepted as Lisa del Gioconda, is still not certain and people continue to speculate. The mysterious half smile was also fuel for the imagination. The sitter is placed in the center of the painting, forming a pyramid with the hands forming the base and the head being the top.
The separation between her and the viewer is due to the placement of the chair, thus creating a sense of distance, reservation and dignity. The soft yellow light creates a feeling of intimacy and silence, while the contrast between the face and the darker area surrounding it draws the attention to her gentle eyes. As if breaking the solemnity and gravity of the composition, the barely perceivable smile expresses calmness and comfort.
Born in 1862, Gustav Klimt he impressed his art teachers from the Viena Art School with his talent. Prior to completing his studies he was already taking commissions for money.
Along with a friend and his brother, Klimt was painting themes from mythology and history. But after the death of his father and brother his style changed drastically. He began appreciating female forms as works of art and incorporated this into his works. He was commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the University’s Hall. However the community of art was shocked and disgusted of his nude paintings.
Klimt did not care about their opinion and even gone as far as wanting to return the money and take back the art works. His paintings took a big turn when he began using golden leaves as well as other decorative elements. This period of his career was called the “Golden” period and it is now known as the most prolific. This is when the portrait of a rich industrialist’s wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was done.
The full body painting depicts her with her head gently looking to the right while her eyes look towards the viewer. She is wearing her hair pulled up and her neck is covered entirely by a necklace. She holds her hands elegantly up to her chest. Her dress, while yellow as the background, stands out due to its texture and abundance of ornaments.
The portrait of “Adele Bloch-Bauer” was confiscated by the Nazis in 1945 when they occupied Austria, as it was not regarded as art by Hitler. It was later returned to one of Adele’s nieces, Maria Altmann, after a court established in 2006 that she is the rightful owner of the art piece.
I thought it would be interesting if each month I would add a post about a famous portrait.
I will begin this month with Klimt. I will also say a few words about the artist that created the portrait.
Who should I write about next?