Figuration has gone through different forms throughout the history of art and has been interpreted and approached in various different ways. Referring to representational and mimetic art derived from social reality, there are no limitations on a figurative painting’s visual possibilities but presenting a universally readable image. Ever since the dawn of abstraction and the appearance of avant-garde and movements that proceeded, figurative art has become the antithesis of abstract art and was discredited, shunned and labeled as retrograde. It seems that figurative and representational art are the relics from another world. Still for many artists of the 20th century, the line between figuration and abstraction was blurred and many have created works between the two.
In recent years, there seems to be a major shift towards figurative art with a number of young contemporary artists working within this field, and due to this renaissance of sorts, there has been a significant increase in works of figurative artists being sold at auctions in the past decade. We present you a group of renowned figurative artists whose works have recently sold for millions of dollars.
Editors’ Tip: A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today by Margherita Dessanay
Find out more about the contemporary artists embracing figurative and representational art. A Brush with the Real gives a closer look at these contemporary artists working within a realist tradition. The book examines the life and the work of each of them, analyzing their methods, motives or different sources and inspirations from various media. These 51 artists are breathing new life to painting and representational art, taking it a completely new direction. Some of them use appropriation and found images, some of them are trying to move closer to contemporary reality and a first-hand experience, some are using painting as a portal to an imaginary world. This book will give you an insight into the revival of figurative painting in the era of digital and infinite reproduction.
Featured images: Claude Monet - Nymphe (detail), via sothebys.com
Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian painter and sculptor, modernized the portrait and the nude. Characterized by elongated faces and figures, his paintings are specific and stylized evoking melancholy. Modigliani was living a bohemian lifestyle on the streets of Montmartre and Montparnasse of the 19th century, and he ended his life as a tragic figure at the age of 35 as a result of life-long alcoholism. His famous nude Nu Couché from 1917 made history at Christies’s auction in 2015, being sold for an amazing $170 million. The painting Paulette Jourdain from 1919 depicting his favorite model sold at Sotheby’s New York for $42,810,000.
An iconic tormented artist, Vincent Van Gogh used color as the chief symbol of expression. Although he remained poor and unknown throughout his life since he sold only one painting, he is now considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. Painting L'Allee des Alyscamps from 1888, created while Van Gogh was working with Paul Gauguin in Arles, sold for $59,000,000 as the star of the impressionist and modern art sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2015. A few months before, a painting Paysage sous un ciel mouvemente sold at Sotheby’s New York for $48,000,000.
Featured images: Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait; Vincent Van Gogh - L’Allee des Alyscamps, via sothebys.com
A founder of French Impressionism and the leading Impressionist artist, Claude Monet was a masterful colorist and a painter of light and atmosphere. His series paintings featured the same subject viewed at various times of the day. Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ series inspired by the lily pond in his garden are amongst the most celebrated paintings of the Impressionist movement. As he once said, the aim of this series was to supply ‘the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank’. The painting Nympheas from this famous series was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2015 for $48,000,000.
Featured images: Claude Monet - Autoportrait; Claude Monet - Nymphe, via sothebys.com
Best known for his unique treatment of nudes and impressive portraits, Lucian Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, was one of the major figurative painters of the 20th century. His work is dominated by the human form, but he has also produced cityscapes and detailed nature studies. The painting The Brigadier, painted between 2003 and 2004, is a powerful portrait of Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles. Following the tradition of military portraits, details and lucid brushstrokes transform the painting into a contemporary masterpiece. It was sold in 2015 at Christie’s New York auction for $34,885,000. Back in February this year, his painting Pregnant Girl was sold for $22,940,700 at Sotheby's New York.
As one of the art world’s most colorful characters, Paul Gauguin often referred to him as a savage. Turning his back completely on Western society, his art was immersed in a colorful mystical symbolism. He left Europe and his wife and five children to embark on a search for the primitive, spending his last years in Tahiti where he did much of his best-known work. He died alone and penniless, and the valued of this paintings was appreciated only after his death. His figure Therese that was lost since 1980 depicting a haunting figure of the woman who was a servant of the Marquesan Catholic bishop, Joseph Martin, was sold at Christie's New York auction in 2015 for $30,965,000. The painting Jeune homme a la fleur was sold at the same auction for $13,605,000.
Featured images: Paul Gauguin - Self Portrait with the Yellow Christ; Paul Gauguin - Thérèse, 1902, via youtube.com
A distinctive style he developed inspired by Surrealism, film, photography and the Old Masters, made Francis Bacon one of the most widely recognized figurative artists in the 1940s and 1950s. Focused on portraiture, often portraying the residents of Soho’s bars and clubs, his subjects are distorted and seem isolated and tormented. After the renaissance of painting in 1980, his fame was boosted even more. As Bacon didn’t paint female nudes often, it was a rare chance for art collectors to see his painting Seated Woman in the auction. It was sold for $25,000,000 at Phillips New York, at one of arguably the busiest auctions of the year 2015. A few months after, the painting Portrait sold at Sotheby’s New York for $15,650,000.
As one of the most influential artist of the twentieth-century painting, Paul Cezanne was famous for his often repetitive and exploratory brushstrokes. Being a link between Impressionism and the more materialistic or even abstract movements, it is considered his work has visually and conceptually paved the way of 20th-century modernism. His watercolour L'homme a la pipe was sold for $20,885,000 at Christie’s New York in 2015.
Featured images: Paul Cézanne - Autoportrait; Paul Cézanne - L'homme à la pipe, via mutualalert.com
Famous for his paintings, sculpture, printmaking and drawing, Edgar Degas is considered on the most influential Impressionist painter. Attracted by bohemian lifestyle of the 19th-century Paris, he captured the moments of urban life. Intrigued by the human figure, especially female dancers, singers and laundresses, his subject were portrayed in unusual positions. His paintings depicting lower-class subjects were heavily shunned. His famous painting Danseuses En Blanc was sold for $17,050,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2015, as a highlight of the auction. Known as the artist of the ballet who explored the subject in great depth, Degas captured here four ballerinas with a detailed knowledge of the ballet technique.
Featured images: Edgar Degas - Self Portrait, photograph; Edgar Degas - Danseuses en Blanc, via sothebys.com
One of the most representative painters of realism, Gustave Courbet challenged the academic painting and scandalized the Parisian society of the 19th century. Born into a wealthy family, he sacrificed bourgeoisie comforts to paint in a creative environment. Capturing the café culture of Bohemian Paris, he painted portraits of its denizens and scenes from daily life. Courbet’s painting Femme nue couchee was sold in 2015 at Christie’s auction for $15,285,000. This long-lost painting was formerly in the possession of the Hungarian Jewish collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany, but it was sold during the World War II. It resurfaced in Slovakia in early 2000s.
Featured images: Gustave Courbet - Le Désespéré (Self-portrait) (detail); Gustave Courbet - Femme Nue Couchee, via berthemorisot.org
Regarded as the greatest colorist of the 20th century, Henri Matisse emerged as a Post-Impressionist, but as being highly innovative, he became a leader of the Fauvism movement. He altered the course of modern art and inspired several generations of painters. He used color expressively and decoratively, and nudes and still life remained his favorite subject. The portrait of his only daughter Marguerite entitled Mlle. Matisse En Manteau Ecossais is an example of his bravura as a colorist and a manipulator of light. The painting was sold in 2015 at Sotheby’s New York for $13,690,000.