7 of the Most Famous and Recognizable Portraits in Art History Still Relevant to Pop Culture Today
What's in a Face?
Of all the faces that move in and out of our lives, which ones are the most recognizable to us? Those of our family and close friends are surely recognizable and known. When we see them, their names dance at the tip of our tongue and quickly form into syllables without the slightest hesitation. Of course this is perfectly normal, one should know the faces and names of their friends and family, but what about those other faces? The ones of people we have never met or even people who have long since passed away. What is it that allows those names and faces to cling to our memories with nearly the same strength as those of our own blood. It is hard to say, but there is no denying that certain faces have become iconic to our modern pop-cultural language. The following seven faces, all of people long dead and gone, have been preserved forever; first through the artist’s hand, and then through our modern visual cultural.
#7 "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I" by Gustav Klimt, 1907
In 1903 wealthy Jewish Viennese businessman Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Gustav Klimt, an eccentric symbolist artist from Austria, to paint a portrait of his wife Adele Bloch Bauer the hostess of a popular Viennese Salon in the early 1900s. The portrait took three years to paint and was not publicly displayed until 1907. Klimt went on to paint another portrait of Adele in 1912. She is also suspected to be the model for an earlier painting called “Judith” completed in 1901.
It has been suggested that Adele Bloch Bauer and Gustav Klimt shared more than an intellectual relationship and were in fact lovers. While this has never been confirmed concretely, it is impossible to deny the level of care and intimacy with which Klimt painted Adele. Helen Mirren, the actress who played Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, in the 2015 movie about the painting reportedly said that the glow surrounding the painting was “clearly postcoital.” Gustav Klimt was notoriously good with women. He fathered 14 children out of wedlock and carried on affairs with countless beautiful women in his studio. He also typically went commando under his famous painter’s smock. It has been said that the artist never painted the same woman twice, however Adele seems to be the grand exception to this rule, with three portraits to her credit.
Although a renowned piece of art in its own right, the painting has been cemented into popular culture by the complex legal battle surrounding its ownership involving the Nazi’s rise to power. In 1925 after a lifelong struggle with poor health, Adele died of meningitis at the age of forty-three. Shortly before her death, Adele Bloch-Bauer expressed her wish that the painting to be given to the Austrian State Gallery, however, before this could take place it was seized by Nazi forces as a part of their organized effort plunder Europe’s artistic treasures to build the glory of the Nazi regime. In opposition to his late wife’s request, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer stated that the paintings were to be the property of his surviving nephew and nieces. Despite this request, the Austrian government kept the painting. It was only returned to the Altmann family in 2006 after a long and contentious legal battle with the Austrian government. Maria Altmann, niece of Ferdinand and Adele, then promptly sold the painting at auction for $135 million dollars, making it the highest grossing painting to that date.
The story surrounding the famous painting was immortalized in the popular 2015 film Woman in Gold. The painting can be seen by the public at the Neue Art Gallery in New York City.
#6 “Marilyn Diptych” by Andy Warhol, 1962
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, is perhaps Hollywood’s most iconic female star and sex symbol to date. She was born in Los Angeles in 1926, to a mentally unstable mother who was unable to care for her. She spent the majority of her childhood bouncing between various foster homes and orphanages. When she was just sixteen years old she married twenty-one year old James Dougherty who left soon after they were married to serve in the Pacific during World War II. While he was gone, Marilyn’s modeling career took off and the couple divorced when James returned because he did not approve of her aspirations to become a Hollywood actress.
She went on to claim great fame in Hollywood as America’s most revered sex symbol of the 50s, appearing in now classic films such as Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, How to Marry a Millionaire, All About Eve and Some Like it Hot.
Her movies were not the only things that made her famous, her extremely public love life also pushed her further into the lime light. In 1954 she married Joe DiMaggio, a famous baseball player for the New York Yankees. The marriage however did not last long and the couple divorced only 22 months later. Then in 1956 Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller, a famous Hollywood playwright. The couple stayed married for five years and were divorced only one week before the release of The Misfits, a movie written by Arthur Miller starring Marilyn. In addition to her marriages, Marilyn supposedly had love affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy.
The Misfits would be the last film that Marilyn completed. She died of a barbiturate overdose in August of 1962 in her Los Angeles home at the age of thirty-six. It was suspected to be a suicide. In the months following her death, pop artist Andy Warhol made more than twenty silkscreen paintings of the star based on her head shot from Niagara a film she had starred in, in 1953. These silk screened images came together to create “Marilyn Diptych” one of Andy Warhol’s most recognizable works to date helping to cement both himself and Marilyn into modern pop culture. Even today, Marilyn Monroe is a cultural icon, whose face and iconic bombshell blonde image is easily recognizable to audiences who were born decades after her death.
#5 Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
“Girl with a Pearl Earring,” painted just over 160 years following the Mona Lisa is often considered “the Mona Lisa of the North” or the “Dutch Mona Lisa.” It is believed that the girl in the portrait is Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maria whose features appear in many of Vermeer’s other works. In 1665 upon the completion of the portrait, Maria would have been 12 or 13 years old. It is unclear whether or not this work was commissioned, however most believe the work to be a Dutch tronie—a kind of portrait meant more to entrance a possible buyer than to be a likeness of the sitter. Tronies were commonly sold in open air markets for relatively low prices. At this time there existed a hierarchy in painting in which landscapes and still lives occupied the lowest caste, and therefore commanded the lowest prices. Tronies, such as this one, were considered to be on the same level with the aforesaid categories. It is then perhaps because of its status as a tronie that the painting was sold in 1881 for nearly nothing to Arnoldus Andries des Tombe at a sale at the Venduhuis der Notarissen in the Nobelstraat in The Hague.
Like the Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring has a certain degree of mysterious allure, which artists and viewers over the years have been unable to pin down. Perhaps because of this mysterious and enchanting aura, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has remained relevant in pop culture to this day inspiring a 1999 novel by the same name writing by Tracy Chevalier, which later became a movie featuring popular Hollywood beauty Scarlet Johansson.
#4 “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Over the course of Vincent Van Gogh’s short career, he painted over 900 paintings, making him one of the most prolific painters to have ever lived. Of those 900 works over 30 are self-portraits. This was reportedly because Van Gogh often could not afford to pay models for his paintings and thus resorted to painting landscapes, still lives, and himself.
Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853 to Theodorus Van Gogh, a Protestant minister, and Anna Carbentus. He was the oldest living child of the family of six; his mother had given birth to a stillborn boy also named Vincent exactly one year before he was born. Although Vincent was an extremely bright child and did well in school, he dropped out at the age of sixteen to become a trainee at the international art dealer company called Goupil & Cie. Through his job with Goupil & Cie the young Vincent was transferred to their London branch where he toured British museums and began to nurse his growing affection for art. In 1875 he was transferred to Paris, but was soon after let go by the company in 1876. Upon his dismissal he returned to England where found a job as a school teacher and preacher, however, upon the request of his father during a visit home during the Christmas of 1876 he never returned to England. In the next several years Vincent worked many odd jobs until finally deciding to become and artist after the encouragement and financial support of his brother Theo with whom he kept a steady correspondence.
During his lifetime Vincent found little success as an artist and never made enough money to support himself. He instead relied on the kindness of his brother Theo who continued to work for Goupil & Cie in Paris. After living on and off with his parents and in Antwerp, Vincent came to live with Theo in Paris in 1886 where he was introduced to the colorful and vibrant works which were prominent in the French art scene at the time. This led Van Gogh to begin experimenting with color in a way he had not done before, marking a distinctive change to the style for which he is now most famously known. After two years of living in the bustling city of Paris, Vincent sought to return to the countryside, so he moved to a yellow house in the small town of Arles in the South of France. In October of 1888 fellow artist Paul Gauguin came to live with him. While the two collaborated on some truly exceptional paintings, their friendship was often strained by stark differences in artistic opinions and methods. This tension led to many heated debates between the two men and eventually erupted into violence shortly before Christmas in 1888. While historians now are unsure whether Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of lunacy, or whether it was cut off by Gauguin in a scuffle, it is undisputed that the painter gave his severed ear wrapped it in newspaper to a local prostitute named Rachel.
Following his release from the hospital only two short weeks after this incident Van Gogh painted “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.” His mental health fluctuated unpredictably, leading the artist to voluntarily admit himself into Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital where he continued his painting career in the hospital garden. In May of 1890 Vincent Van Gogh was released and went to live in Auvers-sur-Oise close to Paris and his brother Theo. Although his mental health seemed to be improving, upon receiving news from Theo that he was considering leaving his job with Goupil & Cie to start his own business, anxiety over the future and the financial risks of such a venture caused Vincent to sink into a deep depression. On July 27, 1890 Vincent shot himself in the chest with a pistol in a wheat field outside of his home. He did not die immediately from his injuries. The wounded artist managed to stagger back to his room. Theo soon received news of his brother’s condition and managed to come from Paris in time to witness Vincent’s death two days after the incident.
Today Van Gogh is still popularly known for his bold and colorful style as well as his persona. He embodies the idea of the tortured artist, suffering for the sake of his craft. His life has inspired the creation of several movies with the most recent being Van Gogh: Painted with Words a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the artist and using the artist’s own words from the letters he kept with his bother Theo to tell his tragic story.
#3 “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, 1930
American Gothic, painted in 1930 by American Artist Grant Wood in the beginning of the Great depression, has become an iconic image of American Midwestern life. The painting was first displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was awarded a three-hundred-dollar prize.
Grant Wood said that the inspiration for the painting came from visiting a small town by the name of Eldon in his home state of Iowa. While there he saw a little old wood farmhouse in the “Carpenter Gothic” style distinctive of the area. He was especially fascinated by the single large window, which is featured in the painting. The Artist reportedly said that “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house.” To complete his vision, he asked his sister and his dentist to model as the farmer and daughter seen in the painting.
Grant Wood intended the painting to be a positive depiction of the Midwestern character and values in the face of the hardships that the region faced during the Great Depression; however, many have interpreted the painting as a satirical commentary on the simple farm life which pervaded the rural Midwestern landscape at that time.
Regardless of your interpretation of the image, it cannot be denied how recognizable and iconic it has become in our culture today. It has inspired countless Halloween costumes, and parodies including an appearance on SpongeBob and the Simpsons as well as a Horror Movie by the same name which was released in 1988.
#2 “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” by Frida Kahlo, 1940
Frida Kahlo once said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best." Given this statement it is no wonder that an astounding 55 of the 143 paintings Frida created in her lifetime were self-portraits. She often painted herself as a way to cope with the physical and psychological pain of her life. When Frida Kahlo was just 18 years old she and her boyfriend were in a terrible bus accident in which a handrail pole pierced her body shattering her pelvis in three places and causing terrible internal damage. In addition to this injury which left her unable to carry a pregnancy to term, she had broken her spinal column, her collarbone, her third and fourth ribs, as well as having fractured her right leg in eleven places. The injuries from her bus accident would haunt her both physically and mentally for the rest of her life.
While recovering from her accident, bedridden and depressed, she began to paint. This was the beginning of a ritualistic need to paint herself whenever she was going through a troubling time. This particular painting is believed to be inspired by her divorce from fellow Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera. Their ten-year marriage was marked with endless fighting and frequent infidelity, however, Kahlo and Diego were never able to truly forget each other entirely.
About twenty years following Kahlo’s death in 1954, her fame rose to international levels with the growing popularity of the Neomexanismo and the revival of the surrealist branch of Mexican art and culture that Frida is considered to be a part of, despite the fact that she claimed that “they thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
Even now, more that sixty years after her death, Frida’s image has become an emblem of Latin-American identity and female sexual liberation. Her face and paintings have been reproduced onto every possible surface, mugs, purses, pillows, shirts, you name it. As her face and image have grown more popular over the years, so has the fascination with her persona and celebrity as an artist. In 2002 Frida, an incredibly successful movie about the life of the artist and her work, was released starring Mexican-American actress Selma Hayek
#1 “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1503
The Mona Lisa is without a doubt the most famous portrait in the world. You can find references to Da Vinci’s renaissance masterpiece in movies, literature, and modern art despite the fact that it is over 500 years old. Leonardo Da Vinci completed the painting around 1503. It is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Italian merchant, although some theorize that it could be a self-portrait of Da Vinci as a woman. Before finding its way to the Louvre in Paris, where it is displayed today, it was hung in Napoleon’s bedroom. In 1911 the Mona Lisa was catapulted into the international spotlight when it was stolen by an Italian man by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia. In order to complete the heist, Peruggia hid in a supply closet overnight then took the painting from its frame and walked out with it under his cloak. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre just over two years later after Peruggia was caught attempting to sell the painting.
Despite her safe return, the Mona Lisa was not safe for long. She faced yet another threat from the aggressive expansion of the Nazi regime during World War II; however, before the Nazis were able to reach Paris, the Mona Lisa along with nearly 4,000 other works, were taken from the walls of the museum and sent to French Castles across the country to be kept safe. When the Nazis did reach Paris in 1940 the museum was largely empty, although still open to visitors. After the war ended the Mona Lisa was restored to the Louvre where it has remained ever since.
With such an overarching cultural influence, one might expect that such a painting would be large, however the Mona Lisa is a relatively small, measuring only 77 x 53 cm. Today she hangs in her own temperature controlled room behind bulletproof glass. Which in 2009 helped to successfully repel a mug hurled at the painting by and angry Russian visitor who had been denied citizenship by the French government.
The public’s fascination with the Mona Lisa has often been linked to her inscrutable expression. Is she smiling or isn’t she? This question has long fascinated viewers of the work for decades. It wasn’t until 2000 that Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone, came up with a concrete scientific answer. It seems that whether or not she is smiling is determined by where you happen to focus your gaze and by how your brain processes that visual information. So the answer is both yes, she is smiling and no, she isn’t, depending on where you look.