The creation of portraits is one of the oldest painting genres in history, and because portrait painting has been with us for centuries already, it is not so easy to identify the 5 best and most famous portrait painters in art history.
What makes it more difficult is that a specific artist might have created one or two famous portrait paintings without actually being on art historians’ lists of the best portrait painters in history.
In this article, we’ll look at five portrait painters who appear on most art historians’ lists of best portrait painters. Although some might not be so well-known to all art lovers, they are considered the best portrait painters in history.
We’ll provide summarized information regarding each of the five painters and list some of their famous portrait paintings. But to begin, we’ll briefly discuss the history of portrait painting and define “portrait painting”.
Brief History of Portrait Painting
The art of painting portraits goes back to ancient Egypt, which flourished already in the old civilizations about 5,000 years ago. A portrait painter always tries to capture a specific moment in time of the person being painted, just like a photo captures specific moments.
Most artists created portraits that needed more realism during the Renaissance and Middle Ages. They created stereotypical facial expressions and flat backgrounds and did not depict realistic features of the subject.
Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, portrait paintings were usually only for emperors and high-ranking people. However, during the Industrial Revolution, artists started to depict the middle and working classes in their portraits. In the mid-1900s, portrait painting became less popular, but it revived in the 1960s.
More about Portrait Painting
In short, a portrait painting is a picture of a person whose face is the main focus of attention. There are numerous varieties of portrait art, including portraits of individuals, couples, or groups. Self-portraits are also regarded as a specific type of portrait painting. Some portrait paintings also include representations of pets or animals.
In the hierarchy of the visual art genres, the great European academies of fine art in previous centuries ranked portrait art as number 2 (behind history painting).
Over the centuries, portrait famous paintings have been supposed to convey the “noble” attributes of the sitter. Usually, it takes many sittings before the artist has completed a work of art that could become one of the world’s most famous art portraits.
But let’s now look at our list of what we regard as the best five portrait painters in history. They are not discussed in any particular order.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
The Dutch Baroque painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, is usually known as Rembrandt. He was a painter, printmaker, and draftsman and is believed to be one of the greatest visual artists in art history, especially in Dutch art history.
Apart from all his other artistic work, he is the greatest-ever portrait painter in history. He is regarded as a very sensitive and perceptive painter of the human face. He regarded the face as the “gateway” to a person’s soul.
He was also a master of the usage of shadow and light, and his famous portraits have an almost super-reality and put them in a class of their own. His famous portrait paintings include:
- Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild
- The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp
- The Night Watch
- The Jewish Bride.
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
Diego Velazquez was one of the very greatest artists produced by Spain and is just as famous as other Spanish painters such as El Greco, Goya, and Picasso. He was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal. He painted many royal portraits.
As an individualistic artist of the Baroque period, he significantly influenced his contemporaries and later-generation artists, just like Rembrandt van Rijn and Leonardo da Vinci. For instance, Velazquez’s style influenced Edouard Manet and Francis Bacon. His two world-famous portrait paintings are:
- Portrait of Pope Innocent X
- Las Meninas.
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
The Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck, was active about 50 years before Leonardo da Vinci and about two hundred years before Rembrandt van Rijn and Velazquez and was a pioneer in the use of oils. He is regarded as one of the most significant representatives of Northern Renaissance art.
He embedded symbols and clues with hidden meanings in many of his portraits. His famous portrait paintings include:
- The Arnolfini Wedding
- Man in a Red Turban
- Ghent Altarpiece.
Raphael was only 37 years old when he died, but many art historians and critics consider him the leading portraitist of the Renaissance in Rome. This Italian painter was the architect of the High Renaissance. His work brought the classical triangle composition to a high level while using circular forms. His famous portrait paintings include:
- Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
- Portrait of Pope Leo X
- Agnolo Doni.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
No list of famous portrait painters can be complete without Leonardo da Vinci as one of the listed artists. Da Vinci was a universal genius; therefore, his portrait paintings are regarded as some of the best ever made.
Some art historians, however, believe that Da Vinci didn’t have the same empathy with the sitters as, for instance, Rembrandt van Rijn. His famous portrait paintings include:
- Mona Lisa
- Lady with an Ermine
- Drapery Study for a Seated Figure.
Although it is difficult to list “the five best” portrait painters in history, you’ll find the names of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Jan van Eyck, Diego Velazquez, and Rembrandt van Rijn on most art historians and scholars lists of most famous portrait painters. This is because they created some of the most famous portrait paintings in art history.