Famous Paintings of Women to Celebrate the Female Principle
The female body is one of the oldest and most commonly depicted motifs in visual arts. Famous paintings of women had a profound influence on the world of art and popular culture that graced them with remarkable fame and an audience spanning far beyond the museum-going elite.
In the following article, we’ve examined ten of the most popular paintings of women to see what makes them so extraordinary and appealing for people of various backgrounds and time periods.
In the mid-1480s Sandro Botticelli revolutionized the art world by painting the first non-religious nude since the ancient times. His famous Birth of Venus painting represents the true return to the ideals of antiquities as the artist borrowed both the narrative and the elements of the composition from ancient Greece. The story about Venus’s ride on the shell was taken from the celebrated poet Homer while the main subject’s intricate pose is reminiscent of the Greek statue entitled Capitoline Venus.
Several centuries later, an image of Mona Lisa represented a step further in the development of female portraiture. By using oil paint, which was a novelty at the time, and his exquisite technique of shadowing (sfumato), Leonardo da Vinci achieved a new level of realism that influenced many Italian renaissance artists that followed. Thanks to this innovative technique, Mona Lisa’s skin looks smooth, her eyes highly expressive and her vivid smile so intense that it continues to captivate viewers and artists for centuries.
The 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 or Whistler’s mother as it is commonly known, was noted both for its original title as well as its unusual composition. By this time its author, James McNeill Whistler, has adopted a musical way of titling his pieces and named them by their dominant color while the intentionally pared down composition helped achieve the type of psychological depth that stimulates people to see different emotional undertone each time they observe the artwork.
In early 20th century, two Viennese painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt took the female form to a new level and created some of the most famous paintings of women ever. By surrounding his subjects with gold, Gustav Klimt introduced Egyptian art to Europe and was one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau movement. His slightly distorted poses and erotic depictions of the female form were quickly inherited by his pupil Egon Schiele who added his own emotionally intense and often disturbing style to his famous paintings of women.
Primitive self-portraits by Frida Kahlo infuse elements of naive and folk art but also feminists approach visible in her uncompromising depiction of female body and mind.
Finally, Andy Warhol used to portray the society’s obsession with celebrities that can be as disturbing and brutal as any other unhealthy obsession.
Scroll through our list of famous paintings of women and follow the evolution of the female form through centuries
Sandro Botticelli - Birth of Venus, mid 1480s
Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts the Greek goddess of love while emerging from the sea as an adult woman. The painting represents the dual idea of Venus depicted in the work of ancient Greek writers who saw her both as an earthy figure who symbolized physical love, but also as a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love characteristic for human beings.
Leonardo da Vinci - Mona Lisa, 1503 - 1505
Widely known for her mysterious smile and everlasting beauty, one of the most famous paintings of women ever made, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, represents a classical renaissance half-body portrait, set against a background of a distant landscape. The curved lines that depict the subject’s hair and clothing, are echoed in mountains and rivers behind her, thus portraying the connection between humans and nature.
Johannes Vermeer - Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665
A painting many call the Dutch Mona Lisa due to the enigmatic appearance of its main subject, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring represents a luminous study of a female head. The pearl earring is the main focal point of the painting that’s widely praised for its masterful portrayal of the interplay between the light and shadow.
Edouard Manet - Olympia, 1856
Edouard Manet’s nude depiction of a courtesan caused an outrage among the people of Paris as it humanized prostitution which was not very popular at the time it was painted. The way Olympia’s eyes seem focused on the viewers also enraged the public since it was unusual for women yet alone a nude prostitute to stare at someone so bluntly as the main subject of the painting.
James McNeill Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Whistler's Mother), 1871
As its title suggests the painting was meant to serve as a study of colors and behave as an assembly of gray, black and white. But though it was meant to represent a study of color and form and its subject matter, the painting dubbed Whistler’s Mother quickly become the symbol of hardships endured by many during the Great Depression. The artist juxtaposed the thinly painted dark dress of the painted woman with luminous and layered hands and face to animate his subject and defy traditional narrative art. The oil on canvas painting presents a portrayal of artist’s mother while sitting in a chair in the comfort of her home.
Gustav Klimt - Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
The following two famous paintings of women come form early 20th century Vienna. This captivating portrait of a woman dressed in gold is created in Gustav Klimt’s celebrated golden era and it’s widely known for its subject’s captivating gaze. The luminous and beautifully executed gold leafs-painting features Adele Bloch-Bauer, a patron and close friend of Gustav Klimt.
Egon Schiele - Portrait of Edith, The Artist's Wife, 1915
Another famous artist from Vienna, Egon Schiele, made the stunning portrait of his wife in 1915. The tender image of Edith Harms that’s painted the same year they married shows her doll-like features and long conspicuous arms. Her colorful dress dominates the artwork as her blue eyes peer with childlike innocence from her pale face.
Pablo Picasso - Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937
Throughout the ages, Pablo Picasso painted numerous portraits of his lover and noted photographer Dora Maar. This particular portrait depicts her while sitting on a chair and it is executed in typical Cubist fashion that’s marked with distorted forms and vivid colors.
Frida Kahlo - Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940
Frida Kahlo painted numerous self-portraits during her brief yet fruitful life. This particular piece features the artist’s favorite pets, monkeys that often symbolized the children she could never have. Another conspicuous motif is the hummingbird that’s hanging on the thorn necklace that’s cutting the painter’s throat yet she seems calm while patiently enduring the pain.
Andy Warhol - Shot Blue Marilyn, 1964
Andy Warhol’s paintings of women many adored, sexy and seductive Marilyn Monroe do not embody the idea of extraordinary fame and glitz as some would assume. Considering that that this representation of the actress was done after her untimely death in 1962 its obvious that the painting carries an ominous, much darker undertone. The series of four portraits done by Andy Warhol including this one with the blue background stand not only as a symbol of American cultural history but also as a reminder of its obscure, and brutal side.
All images via Wikimedia Commons.