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Contemporary Portrait Paintings That Became Instant Icons

May 14, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

Did you ever think about some of the world-famous portraits made earlier in history, and how they got where they are today? What is it that makes a portrait become so popular and widespread, that it goes beyond painting and becomes an icon? And what does it, ultimately, mean, to make a portrait? It cannot simply be reduced to the most obvious fact – depicting other person. It is much more than that. Probably the most successful portraits are the ones which help us realize that both the person in the painting and the one behind it are human beings, made out of flesh and blood, and full of true emotions. This is perhaps even more obvious in painting than in photography, since the time that an artists spends with his “sitter” is a precious one, as it allows for the artist to meet the model. Still, for a portrait to become iconic it takes just a little something to complete the picture. It is certainly not just about the technique – Mona Lisa is not the only painting from da Vinci’s oeuvre to present his outstanding skills. It is not about the explicit beauty of the model either, although it does turn out to be quite helpful. After we take a look at this list of some contemporary examples of paintings which became iconic in no time, we will come to realize that it is mostly the bond between the portraitist and the sitter that makes the picture iconic, as well as the choice of subject matter. If the person is not already an icon him/herself, they have to be an icon in the eyes of the artist – and in some cases, this means that the artist is going to make a self-portrait.

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Jonathan Yeo - Frank Underwood

If Jonathan Yeo‘s portrait looks to you like it depicts Kevin Spacey, you must have not watched Netflix’s popular TV Series House of Cards (yet). But since I believe that everyone here knows (and loves) the show, I’m sure you recognize that the painting does not portray the actor, but his character – Frank Underwood. What an amazing thing to do! Who would have known that a painting, an inanimate, static medium, has the capacity to deliver a fictional character played by a real person so convincingly? This is probably thanks to Yeo, being a skilled painter that he is, and Spacey as well, since he is obviously a terrific actor.

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Banksy - Kate

This is another portrait that simply could not fail (although it is not a painting in a classical sense). It represents one of the most popular art muses since Marilyn Monroe, in a way in which Monroe herself was represented a few decades earlier, by the outrageously famous pop artist Andy Warhol. And all of this is done by one of the most popular people in the world. After the initial stencil, made in 2005, a great number of prints was made, each representing the beloved British top model Kate Moss, depicted in varying, psychedelic hues. You can only imagine how much the piece is worth currently, but if you’d like to check, you can always go to Banksy’s auction page.

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Lucian Freud - Benefits Supervisor Sleeping

Lucian Freud has made a lot of iconic portraits, even the one of Kate Moss, during her pregnancy in 2002, which would have certainly been on this list if there wasn’t for an even more famous painting by Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping from 1995. The painting represents a Job Centre supervisor Sue Tiley, who used to weigh around 127 kilograms at the time. She was introduced to Freud by the Australian performer Leigh Bowery, who used to be Freud’s model as well. Freud’s fascination with Tiley’s body is quite evident, but it is even better understood when put in his own words: “It’s flesh without muscle and it has developed a different kind of texture through bearing such a weight-bearing thing“.

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Kehinde Wiley - Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps

The contemporary version of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps became extremely popular mostly because of its reference to an existing painting, made by the influential French neo-classical painter, Jacques-Louis David in 1801. Kehinde Wiley‘s interpretation of Napoleon is done in his recognizable manner – Wiley overlaps the repetitive ornamental elements from the background with the figures of young dark-skinned men, dressed in their everyday clothes. Wiley usually approaches people on the street and asks them to model for him, and so it happened this time as well. The referential painting was chosen by the model.

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Gerhard Richter - Ella

Gerhard Richter has been in the art business for a long time, and time has shown that his paintings are not made to match any particular style, but they are nonetheless idiosyncratic. He has been through a lot of phases, constantly experimenting with different techniques. Ella, painted in 2007, is a wide-known portrait of his daughter; reminiscent of his interest in the medium of photography, and how painting and photography can intertwine at times, lending visual effects from each other. Because of this blurred effect present in some of his paintings, Richter is dubbed to be the creator of the so-called “photographic impressionism”.

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Jenny Saville - Reverse

Self-portraits can turn out to be quite iconic, and Jenny Saville has demonstrated this principle quite a few times. Although she is best known for her obscure nudes, one of her most famous paintings is Reverse, a self-portrait which does not show her body, but it is somehow full of strange erotic energy. The naked shoulder, the facial expression and the seemingly aroused skin suggest that there is something going on, something sexual perhaps, but we simply do not know. Reverse is one of those intimate portraits which simply do not let you take your eyes off them, and when you eventually do, they stay embedded in your mind for a long time.

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Tony Bevan - Self Portrait

So now that we’re talking about self-portraits made in our recent past, it is a good time to mention another British artist. Irresistibly reminiscent of Francis Bacon, but still very unique in his expression – Tony Bevan has made a line of iconic portraits, and most of them are his self-portraits. The example presented here is one of his earliest self-portraits done in this manner (and the “oldest” painting on our list), made in 1992. But it was only a predecessor of a series of portraits, which he continues to do in a similar manner today. Bevan’s portraits are not made in a realistic manner, but there is something painfully real about them. Perhaps it is the sincere emotion that somehow gets through.

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Reginald Gray - Tracey Emin

Artists have been portraying other artists since who-knows-when, and there is certainly something particularly thrilling about that. Besides, it is quite a good way to make the painting twice as iconic. The Irish painter Reginald Gray has portrayed a few of his colleagues (among them the ever interesting Francis Bacon, and the French actress Juliette Binoche), but one of his most popular paintings was made in 2007, and it is the portrait of Tracey Emin. The work was apparently well received by Emin as well, and it is now featured on her Wikipedia page.

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Ishbel Myerscough - Helen Mirren

Because of the dark backdrop, the portrait seems to be slightly cut-out. This is either done deliberately, in order to put the famous actress in a spotlight, or intuitively, with a certain sense of respect for the actress, posing as”herself”. The painting made by Ishbel Myerscough is one of her most famous paintings from this period, but it is one of the few in which we cannot feel any emotion at all. We can even compare Myerscough’s depiction of Mirren to Yeo’s portrait of Underwood, in order to present the difference between a portrait of an actress and a portrait of a character.

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Victoria Russell - Fiona Shaw

Victoria Russell could be said to be the mistress of translating emotions, kind of a medium perhaps. The portraits that she makes are ripe with emotion, usually depicting women in underwear, surrounded by sheets and linens, suggestive of a very intimate atmosphere. It is hard to imagine an iconic person, a celebrity in such an atmosphere, but Russell did it in 2001, when she made a groundbreaking portrait of Fiona Shaw. Yet again, this is another approach to the difficult subject of portraying an actress, but Russell does it fearlessly, from her own angle, presenting Shaw as a powerful figure, even when in her underwear.

All images used for illustrative purposes only.