What is a portrait painting?

A portrait painting is a work of art that depicts the likeness of a specific person, usually their face and upper body. It is often created with the intention of capturing the subject’s character, personality, or mood through various techniques such as color, composition, and brushwork. Portrait paintings can be created in a variety of styles, ranging from realistic to abstract. They can be executed using a variety of media, including oil paints, watercolors, pastels, and pencil or charcoal to create sketches.

The history of portrait painting dates back thousands of years to the ancient world, where portraits were created to immortalize powerful individuals such as kings and emperors. Over time, portrait painting has evolved into a complex art form that encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques. Realistic portraiture, which seeks to capture the subject’s likeness with the greatest possible accuracy, remains a popular style today. However, many contemporary artists have also explored more experimental and abstract styles, using portraiture as a means of naturing ideas such as identity, representation, and perception.

famous portrait paintings - girl with a pearl earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer via Artsper

Portrait paintings you might know…

Portraiture has been a key component of art and art creation since the beginning of time. There is a never ending list of famous canvas paintings that are recognisable to the masses – some by name alone! One of the most famous portrait paintings of all time is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa,’ painted in the early 16th century. The Mona Lisa is considered a masterpiece of the Renaissance era and is beloved and known across the world.

Other iconic portrait paintings include Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat’ and Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’

These paintings are perfect examples of portrait paintings that everyone – even those uninterested in art – have heard of… But what about the paintings you might not have heard of?

Be the first to commission a canvas painting from your local da Vinci! Need some inspiration? Check out some canvas painting ideas.


10 Portrait Paintings You Might Not Know

Two women linking arms portrait art
Segment of Kehinde Wiley’s artwork for “Economy of Grace” via Wide Walls

1. ‘An Economy of Grace’ by Kehinde Wiley (2013)

An Economy of Grace is a series of portrait paintings created by Kehinde Wiley. The series features African American women in poses and settings inspired by classic Western art, such as rococo and baroque paintings.

The women in the paintings are often shown in ornate, patterned dresses and posed against colorful, floral backgrounds. The title of the series, “An Economy of Grace,” refers to the way that Wiley seeks to highlight the inherent beauty and value of his subjects, who are often marginalized in traditional Western art. Through his reinterpretation of classic forms and poses, Wiley seeks to challenge the dominant narrative of art history and create a more inclusive and diverse vision of beauty and grace. [Source: Kehinde Wiley]


Lesser known portrait paintings
Flower Vendor by Diego Rivera via Diego Rivera.org

2. ‘Flower Vendor’ by Diego Rivera (1941)

‘Flower Vendor’ is an oil on canvas painting that depicts a young woman in traditional Mexican dress selling flowers from a basket. The painting is notable for its vibrant colors and the strong sense of movement and life that it conveys.

Rivera was a prominent figure in the Mexican Muralist movement, which sought to create public art that celebrated the culture and history of Mexico. “Flower Vendor” is a more intimate work than many of his public murals, but it reflects the same spirit of cultural pride and celebration of everyday life. Her dress is adorned with intricate embroidery and her hair is braided with colorful ribbons, adding to the sense of celebration and vitality in the painting. [Source: Diego Rivera]


Self portrait of Amirta Sher-Gil
Self-portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil via Sotheby’s

3. ‘Self-portrait’ by Amrita Sher-Gil (1931)

Amrita Sher-Gil was a famous Indian artist known for her unique style of blending Western and Indian art traditions. Her 1931 self-portrait is a powerful example of her talent and vision, and it is considered one of her most iconic canvas paintings.

Sher-Gil’s self-portrait is also notable for the way it reflects her unique blend of Indian and Western art traditions. While the frontal pose and realistic rendering of facial features are reminiscent of Western portraiture, the use of bold color and the emphasis on the subject’s individuality and inner strength is more characteristic of Indian art. This blend of traditions was a hallmark of Sher-Gil’s work and helped to establish her as a groundbreaking and influential artist in her time. [Source: Sothebys]


Portrait of two people, Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews
Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews by Alice Need via Barbican

4. ‘Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews’ by Alice Neel (1972)

The painting ‘Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews’ features a couple, who were neighbors of the artist in Spanish Harlem, sitting together on a couch.

Alice Neel was known for her intimate and psychologically insightful portraits, and “Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews” is no exception. The painting depicts the couple in a natural and relaxed pose, with Benny leaning slightly towards Mary Ellen and his arm draped around her shoulders. Mary Ellen, in turn, is holding a cigarette and looking directly at the viewer with a frank and engaging gaze. Through Alice Neel’s careful and sensitive rendering of the couple, she captures not only their physical likeness but also their personalities and individual spirits. [Source: MoMA]


Self portrait of art at work
‘Self portrait’ by David Hockney via mumok.at

5. ‘Self portrait’ by David Hockney (2012)

David Hockney is a renowned British artist known for his distinctive art and sketches and use of bold, bright colors. In 2012, he created a self-portrait that captures his characteristic style and approach to art. Hockney’s self-portrait is notable for its loose and expressive brushwork, which gives the painting a sense of movement and energy. The artist’s face is only loosely rendered, with broad strokes of color capturing the shape of his features and the essence of his expression.

One of the most striking aspects of Hockney’s self-portrait is its sense of openness and transparency. The artist is shown at work in his studio, surrounded by his tools and materials, and there is a sense of honesty and vulnerability in the way he presents himself to the viewer. Through the painting, he invites us into his world and shares with us a glimpse of his process and his personality. [Source: NGV]


Portrait of Pablo's lover 'woman in a hat'
Woman in a Hat by Pablo Picasso via Fine Art Multiple

6. ‘Woman with Hat (Olga)’ by Pablo Picasso (1935)

“Woman with a Hat” is a painting by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, completed in 1905. The painting depicts a woman, most likely a close friend or lover of the artist, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a green ribbon tied under her chin. Her face is rendered in a series of bold, angular brushstrokes, with her eyes looking out at the viewer with a sense of defiance and energy.

The painting is considered a landmark work in the history of modern art, and is often cited as an example of Picasso’s “Rose Period,” a phase in his career characterized by a warm color palette and a focus on themes of love, beauty, and joy. “Woman with a Hat” is particularly notable for its innovative use of color and form, with the woman’s face and hat rendered in a series of overlapping planes and facets. [Source: Arthive]

Unknown dated canvas painting
Flower Girl by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo via Mutual Art

7. ‘Flower Girl’ by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (16??)

“Flower Girl” is widely regarded as one of Murillo’s most beloved works, and it is considered a masterpiece of Spanish Baroque art. One of the most striking aspects of the painting is its sense of innocence and purity. Murillo captures the youth and beauty of the girl, who is shown with a serene expression and a calm demeanor. The flowers she carries are also beautifully rendered, with bright colors and intricate details that convey the richness and complexity of nature. 

Another notable aspect of the painting is its use of light and shadow. Murillo creates a soft, diffuse light that illuminates the girl’s face and dress, casting a gentle shadow across her basket of flowers. This effect gives the painting a sense of depth and realism, as if the girl is standing before us in a real-life setting. [Source: Arts and Culture]


portrait painting of woman sneezing
Sneeze by Dana Schutz via icaboston.org

8. ‘Sneeze’ by Dana Schutz (2002)

“Sneeze” is a painting created by the American artist Dana Schutz in 2001. The painting depicts a person in mid-sneeze, with their mouth open and their face contorted in a humorous and exaggerated expression.

One of the most striking aspects of “Sneeze” is its sense of humor and playfulness. Schutz captures the absurdity of the sneeze, a bodily function that is both universal and inherently comical. The exaggerated expression of the subject adds to the painting’s whimsical and lighthearted tone, making it a memorable and entertaining work of art.

At the same time, “Sneeze” can be seen as a commentary on the fragility and vulnerability of the human body. The image of a person caught in the midst of a sneeze captures a moment of physical weakness and loss of control, reminding us of our own mortality and the limits of our bodies. [Source: Dana Schutz]

Colourful painting of a woman
Portrait of Din by Mickalene Thomas via Artland

9. ‘Portrait of Din’ by Mickalene Thomas (2011)

Mickalene Thomas’ employs bold, bright colors and intricate patterns to create a visually stunning image that draws the viewer in and captures their attention. The geometric shapes and patterns that adorn Din’s clothing and the background of the painting add a sense of depth and complexity to the work, making it an engaging and thought-provoking piece of art.

As a Black woman, Mickalene Thomas often explores themes related to Blackness and femininity in her work, and “Portrait of Din” is no exception. The painting celebrates the beauty and power of Black women and challenges traditional notions of beauty and representation in Western art. [Source: Artland]

Self portrait of Jordan Casteel
Self portrait by Jordan Casteel via Culture Type

10. ‘Self Portrait’ by Jordan Casteel (2012)

“Self Portrait” is a painting created by the American artist Jordan Casteel in 2012. The painting features a self-portrait of the artist, depicted in a realistic and detailed style that captures her physical features and personal essence. 

Casteel portrays herself with meticulous accuracy, capturing every detail of her features and clothing with a careful and precise hand. The resulting image is a faithful and honest depiction of the artist, reflecting both her physical appearance and her inner essence as a person.

Jordan Casteel employs a soft and subtle palette, with muted colors and gentle shading that give the painting a sense of depth and dimensionality. The gentle light that illuminates the scene adds to the painting’s sense of intimacy and vulnerability, inviting the viewer to share in the artist’s personal journey of self-discovery. [Source: Culture Type]