Artists that Changed the Portrait Game

Portraiture has been a staple genre of art throughout history.

A portrait represents the power, strength, and timelessness of an individual. We can trace this train of thought back to the Ancient Egyptian Civilization where portraits served as a way to immortalize a subject, like Pharoah. From there we can see portraiture evolve and change throughout time. However, there are artists who took the genre to new heights by questioning what a portrait exactly could be and reinterpreting it the definition in inventive ways. Here are some artists who’ve done just that.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593)

The Renaissance painter Arcimboldo challenged the very idea of portraiture. Although his peers were pioneering new ways to paint portraits, they still followed the main ideas of traditional portraiture. Arcimboldo, however, took a surreal approach to portraits that ended up inspiring artists generations later. In 1563, he became the court painter for the rulers of the Habsburg, first for Maximilian II in Vienna and then for Rudolf II in Prague. It’s during this time he created his most recognized portrait composites in which he would use objects like books, instruments, and plants to create portraits. Some of the most famous examples of this work are “The Seasons” he created to celebrate the reign of Emperor Maximilian II. Each of the four portraits includes plants that correspond to a particular time of the year. This series also shows the intense studies Arcimboldo did to examine botanical science to make sure his plants were scientifically accurate.

Related: Artwork for Catharsis & Empathy: Picasso’s Blue Period

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

Modigliani’s infamous portraiture style is one that has left a mark in art history. Each portrait seems to have the same facial features of elongated faces and necks, almond-shaped eyes, and tiny mouths. It’s believed Modigliani was inspired by a range of non-western art he might have come across in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. With this inspiration, he managed to merge motifs of Renaissance Classicism with North African, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Island art.

Hank Murta Adams (1956 – )

A painter turned glass artist, Adams creates unique and peculiar portrait-like busts out of cast glass and industrial items. However, unlike traditional glasswork, he casts glass in a way that doesn’t play with light, but rather captures it. The resulting sculptures reflect an inner glow or essence that parallels with that of each human being. These figures are not based on real people, rather they are characters Adams has created and captured in his brilliant busts.

Amy Sherald (1973 – )

Known for her infamous portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama that hangs in DC’s National Portrait Gallery, Sherald paints to demonstrate an important perspective to the world. In her portraits, she depicts African American subjects in a dreamy world. However, these subjects’ skin-tones aren’t what is expected, rather they are in rendered in gray-scale while everything else in the portrait is in color. This is, as Sherald states are, “to exclude the idea of color as race.” These portraits engage the viewer to engage the individual in a way that feels intimate while also causing an internal discussion on the complexities of the subject’s emotions, aspirations, and life.

Each of these artists has stretched and pulled at what makes up a portrait. They’ve dared the viewer to look deep into themselves and engage with the subjects they portray. It’s in this ingenuity artists are able to show a more in-depth depiction of the complexities of the human experience.

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