A BRIEF HISTORY OF PORTRAIT PAINTING
It is known that portrait painting is one of the oldest forms of the art of painting. The main theme of any portrait is a representation of some person or just some human face. The history of portrait painting dates back to the ancient times. The first portraits are related to cave painting of Paleolithic era (31,000 BC). The most developed ancient portrait painting was found in Egypt and China. In the middle ages, the invention of paints made it possible to create new types of portraits. One of the earliest portraits of this period is Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a woman. (Fig.1) (Aymar 39)
There was a so-called turning point in the history of portrait painting in the period of Renaissance. Portraits became important objects of society and were highly valued as the items of social success and high status. Portrait painting found new levels of balance and harmony. The famous artists of this period are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael who became the “geniuses” of painting art. (Fig.2)
In 17-th and 18-th centuries, during the Baroque and Rococo periods, portraits represented mostly powerful leaders and political officials in order to affirm their authority in the society. The famous painters Sir Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt were the masters of portraiture. (Fig.3)
19-th century is the age of Romantic and Realist artists in portrait painting. They used not only new techniques such as directed light in order to define proper texture and the acute roundness of faces, eyes, lips and so on, but also they changed the subjects of their art works. They portrayed lower and middle class people and different scenes of social life. The famous portraitists of this period are Vincent Van Gogh, Thomas Eakins and others. (Fig.4)
The 20-th century portrait painting is known for its new trends and themes. Expressionist portraitists provided some new psychological elements in their works. Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Willem de Kooning and others are the masters of expressionist portraiture of this period. (Fig.5) (Aymar 129)
LEONARDO DA VINCI AND HIS MASTERPIECE MONA LISA (1503-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci is the greatest master of art and the creator of Italian High Renaissance of the 16-th century. He was not only the talented painter but also he was a great architect, sculptor, engineer, and scientist. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists who used oil paints. Moreover, he invented some new techniques which helped him to improve the quality of painting, such as chiaroscuro which defines contrast of light and shade in the picture, and sfumato which defines the use of glazes in different tones in order to create transition from light colors to dark ones.
The artist’s masterpiece Mona Lisa is a portrait of a beautiful woman who was a wife of some Florentine merchant. The artist uses a so-called pyramid design, as the image of the young woman is placed in the center of the picture. Lighting plays an important role in the picture because it helps to create geometric shapes. Special attention is paid to the smile of Mona Lisa which symbolized innocence and calm. Moreover, the smile can be seen in different ways. The artist uses the special technique sfumato in order to create shadows.
Leonardo da Vinci uses portrait painting in order to express his feeling and emotions. Mona Lisa is an ideal woman for him. The artist demonstrates not only her beauty, but also her inner world which is full of harmony and balance. (Zollner & Nathan 28)
WILLEM DE KOONING AND HIS PORTRAIT WOMAN V (1952-1953)
William de Kooning is a Dutch American artist of 20-th century who adheres to expressionism in painting. His style of painting is a new one and belongs to action painting. It is also known that Willem de Kooning is a representative of New York School which is based on absolutely new trends in art, such as Surrealism, the contemporary avant-garde art movements: action painting, abstract expressionism and so on. (Lieber)
Most of the artist’s works portray women. The artist created several portraits on this theme. The portrait Women V is one of them. One of the peculiarities of abstract painting is that it needs explanation of the artist’s ideas. The artist uses different bright colors in order to show his psychological state. The image of the woman depicted in the picture gives positive emotions because the artist uses a lot of light colors and avoided shadows. Moreover, the wavy lines and rhythmic color changes give an opportunity to feel the emotional state of Willem de Kooning. (Cateforis)
Although Leonardo da Vinci and Willem de Kooning used the same medium, portrait painting, and the same subject, the representation of the image of a woman, it is difficult to say that there are too many similarities between them. The portrait Mona Lisa belongs to the representational art, while the portrait Woman V belongs to abstract art. Leonardo da Vinci created his work in order to show the women’s beauty, their wide inner world, and their wonderful smiles. He wanted to express his love for weaker sex. However, Willem de Kooning created his work in order to show the psychological state of a woman. He wanted to prove the fact that women’s mood is variable. Women can be calm and gentle, but in a minute they change their emotional state and become furious and angry. (Shaw-Eagle) Although there are many differences between two art works discussed in the paper, there are also some similarities. Both artists discuss the theme of women’s nature and women’s beauty. It means that they are not indifferent to women’s role in the society. They love and respect women.
Cateforis, D. Exhibition Reviews: Willem de Kooning. Art Journal. Vol.53(4) 1994. Available from:
Aymar, G. C. The Art of Portrait Painting, Chilton Book Co., Philadelphia, 1997. Print.
Gormlie, F. What Is the Role of the Artist-Intellectual in Society. The Obrag. November 29, 2009. Available
Lieber, E. Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, Harry Abrams, Inc. 2000. Print.
Shaw-Eagle, J. De Kooning and his ‘Women’; Show traces the abstract expressionist’s obsessions. The Washington Times. October 19, 2002. Available from:< http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000843223>
Zollner, F., Nathan, J. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Taschen Publishing. 2003. Print.
List of Artworks Discussed in the Paper
Fig.1 Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a woman
Fig.2 Mona Lisa
Fig.3 Rembrandt group portrait, The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild, 1662
Fig.4 Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875
Fig.5 Willem de Kooning, Woman V (1952-53)