Monday, January 24, 2011

How to identify favourite portrait painters

I want to create an opinion poll to find out which are your favourite portrait painters - but to do that I first have to come up with the answers to two key questions
  1. What's a "portrait painter"?
  2. Who are the popular portrait painters?
I have to confess when I address questions like these, the process of sorting through lists and looking at artwork is enormously invigorating in terms of reminding me about the great art which has been produced in the past - particularly the portraits

Diego Velasquez - self-portrait (Las Meninas)
What's a "portrait painter"?

Here are some definitions of "portrait painter".  Do you know any more?

Here's the Princeton definition
 (n) portraitist, portrait painter, portrayerlimner (a painter or drawer of portraits)
Princeton University - wordnet definition of "portrait painter"
This is the wikipedia version - which focuses on what portrait painting is more than what a portrait painter is
Portrait painting is a genre in painting, where the intent is to depict the visual appearance of the subject. Beside human beings, animals, pets and even inanimate objects can be chosen as the subject for a portrait.......Portraitists create their work by commission, for public and private persons, or are inspired by admiration or affection for the subject.....A well-executed portrait is expected to show the inner essence of the subject (from the artist's point of view) or a flattering representation, not just a literal likeness. 
Wikipedia - portrait painter
Websters provides a list of synonyms and translations for "portrait painter"

Ignoring for the moment that figurative art can include subject matter which are not figures, for me the difficulty arises over:
  • Where does portraiture start and finish and where does figurative art takes over?
  • Is an artist a superior portrait artist if able to draw and sculpt as well as paint?  
  • Should the query be about which are the best portrait artists or the best portrait painters?
What's your thoughts on these conundrums?

Who are the popular portrait painters?
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent
    A portrait is a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth.
    John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American painter of many portraits
    I also need to come up with the names of favourite portrait painters!  Plus I also need to decide who is and who is not a portrait painter - as per the conundrum re portraiture and figurative art (in the sense of painting figures)

    Interestingly Wikipedia is surprisingly silent on this topic - having a very lightweight list of portrait artists.

    This is the list of The Top 10 Best Portrait Painters according to the Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art (which is a wonderful resource for all those interested in art history)
    1. Rembrandt van Rijn
    2. Leonardo da Vinci
    3. Diego Velaquez
    4. Jan van Eyck
    5. Raphael
    6. John Singer Sargent
    7. Hans Holbein the Younger
    8. Sir Anthony van Dyck
    9. Theodore Gericault
    10. Giuseppe Arcimboldo
    Now that's not the list I would have come up with.  I don't see either Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael as primarily portrait painters - and why would you include those two and not Michaelangelo Buonarotti - unless you're ruling out an artist on the basis that representation of mythical/fantasy people doesn't count?

    Also Gericault and Arcimboldo would never make it into my top 10.  Recognised portrait artists who do nothing for me include van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Joshua Reynolds - and I tend to think of Gainsborough as being more of a landscape artist.

    Concept Art has a thread about Who was the greatest portrait painter? 

    My top 10 portrait painters

    This isn't so much a list as a statement of current musings!

    My top ten would include definitely Rembrandt, Holbein, Velasquez and Singer Sargent - and probably Jan van Eyck.  However it would also include some more contemporary artists such as Chuck Close - who has been amazingly innovative and has really stretched the concept of how portraiture is created.

    Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini
    Does Lucian Freud deserve to be included as well?  I'm not sure - he never takes commissions.  Neither does David Hockney who has also developed a strong focus on portraiture as part of his oevre.  Should they be classified as figurative artists instead?  

    Other contenders for me would include Giovanni Bellini - mainly because of the famous Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501), Albrecht Durer, Jan Vermeer, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.  

    I'm particularly aware of the fact that I know very little about artists outside Western Europe.  I suspect that also goes for many other individuals who study western art history.  However we need to remember that other cultures have produced very good portrait artists.  For example, if one was going to include John Singer Sargent, shouldn't one also include Valentin Serov?

    Recently I've also been very impressed by Sir Thomas Lawrence - who I think is unparalled in his portraits of children.

    Holbein - Lady with a Squirrel
    Since animals can be legitimate subjects for portraits should one also consider artists like John James Audubon?

    Who are your top 10 portrait artists?

    • Tell me who are your top ten portrait artists are!
    • PLUS which are the top portrait artists missing from the above lists?
    I look forward to reading your comments.


    1. Lucian Freud, hands down favourite.

    2. Hi Kathy,
      The contemporary artists that I'd nominate are Charles Weed - and Louise Fenne - are artists that I'm fortunate to know - they have astonishingly high standards of practice and work only from life. They paint a real and convincing sense of humanity. Ooh, and also in that category are:
      Anastasia Pollard -
      Teresa Oaxaca -
      Dana Levin -
      Kate Lehman -
      I could go on, these are some of my first favourites

    3. Such an interesting topic, thanks ! will explore the painters you mention. Some of the portraitists I prefer from previous centuries could be Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Agnolo Bronzino, Eugeen Blaas, William Orpen, Horace Vernet, C├ęsar Helleu, Nicholas Hilliard, David Martin, Ingres... Lately, I came across some gorgeous portraits from Russian painters, they paint definitely in the style I really love, just two of them are Nanama Gorb with "Painting school girl" and Maria Rudniskaya with "A girl in the garden".

    4. I don't believe you left out any portrait artists, but I wanted to add portraits that I have enjoyed by Rogier van der Weyden at the National Gallery (DC). Arcimboldo did receive commissions for portraits, no matter how unusual and hardly a likeness of the subject.
      B.J. Adams

    5. Hello Kathrine,
      my prefer one is Boldini.why?
      because most of ladies portraits are moving person . dress is turning following the movment of the body.
      At the very beginning he made usual portraits, but going on he changed into a sort of storm movment of all dress so the person is a live.
      Please look at "Ritratto della Marchesa Casati con penne di Pavone "or Ritratto di signora Mrs George Blumenthal" and you'll see what I mean.
      regards renata


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