Art History  •  Movements and techniques

Famous Portrait Paintings from Early Modern History

Portrait painting has been a central genre and artistic pursuit for centuries. Historically speaking, commissioned portraits were status symbols used to convey the wealth and prominence of their subject. A portrait could be used to intimidate as in the case of certain royal portraits, to pay homage to the gods, or to link certain people to the wealth, success, fertility or even the divine. In this article, Singulart takes a look at a collection of famous portrait paintings throughout the Renaissance and the surrounding decades.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck

 Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

This austere famous portrait paintings was made in 1434 by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. The identity of the couple in the painting is unknown though it is likely that they are Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. The portrait likely commemorated the pair’s wedding though it is also possible that it marks the death of his wife. It has been proposed that Giovanni di Nicolao’s first wife Costanza Trenta died in childbirth by February 1433. The woman in the painting rests her hand upon her round belly as if indicating pregnancy. Details in the painting such as the snuffed candle above the woman, the scenes after Christ’s death on her side of the background roundel, and the black dress of the man, could support this theory.

Other notable elements of the painting include the positioning of each subject as well as their poses. The man stands close to the window representing his engagement in the public sphere while the woman is closer to the bed referencing her role as the manager of the home. The man and women also hold hands in a curious manner. His hand is vertically raised, possibly representing his authority, whilst her’s his in a lower, more submissive pose, facing palm up to her husband. The wife however looks directly at her husband signifying their equality. Art historians agree that the couple are members of the Burgundian court life wherein men and women were considered equal.

Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses sœurs by an Unknown Author

Unknown author,  Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, c. 1594.
Unknown author, Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, c. 1594.

Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters is a painting by an unknown artist around the year 1594. The painting curiously portrays Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of King Henry IV of France and her sister, sitting nude in a bath. Gabrielle holds a ring while the unnamed sister pinches d’Estrées’ right nipple. The strange gesture is often interpreted as a coy announcement that Gabrielle is pregnant with King Henry’s illegitimate child, César de Bourbon.

Furthermore, the ring that Gabrielle holds is thought to be Henry’s coronation ring, a token of the King’s love given on or before the occasion of her pregnancy. The ring could easily symbolize, marriage, commitment, the cycle of life, wealth and status or all of the above. The fact the Gabrielle does not wear the ring but rather pointedly holds it out for the viewer to see confirms the ring as an intentionally symbolic component of the painting. In the background, a young woman can be seen sewing, perhaps preparing a dressing for the child.

The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth

Attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, The Rainbow Portrait, 1600–02.
Attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, The Rainbow Portrait, 1600–02.

This painting, made between 1600-1602, is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It is perhaps the most symbolic portrait of the queen in existence. Though the portrait was made when the queen was in her sixties, in this painting an ageless Elizabeth appears dressed as if for a festival. Her linen bodice is embroidered with spring flowers and a mantle draped over one shoulder. Her hair is uncharacteristically loose beneath a stunning headdress. 

Perhaps most curiously are the subtle symbolic elements of the painting. In particular, the queen’s clothing has much to tell us. Her cloak is embroidered with eyes and ears, the serpent of wisdom, and the celestial armillary sphere. It also carries a rainbow, hence the title, with the motto non sine sole iris (“no rainbow without the sun”). The ears and eyes on her cloak represent her all-seeing and hearing power as the sitting monarch while the armillary sphere points to her ongoing projects of colonization.

Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

This 1656 painting of the Spanish court by the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velázquez, is one of the most famous portrait paintings in existence. The painting shows a private room in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid, the court of King Philip IV of Spain. In the portrait are several figures, most famous faces from the Spanish court, captured as if in a snapshot. Some characters look out of the canvas towards the viewer, establishing an external relationship with their audience, while others interact among themselves, seemingly oblivious to having their portrait made.

At the center of the painting is The young Empress Margaret Theresa, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs. She is surrounded by her entourage composed of maids, a chaperone, a bodyguard, two dwarfs and a dog. Just behind them, Velázquez has inserted himself into the portrait working at a large canvas. Its complex and somewhat confusing composition raises questions about reality and illusion. The image also instill an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the painting’s subjects. Because of these interesting factors, Las Meninas has become one of the most widely analyzed works in Western art history.

Browse portrait paintings by contemporary artists on Singulart.

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