5 people whose faces and stories inspired the most famous portraits in history


As look through search the art history, we will find a lot of paintings that were not only artistic masterpieces but absolutely genre-defining pieces. A part of those paintings are portraits of people who were neither famous at the time, nor well known to us now. They meant a great deal to the artists but even though almost everyone knows their faces, their names and stories remain hidden under the cloak of the passage of time. Today we will look at five of those faces and discover a little bit of what was hiding behind their history-changing glances.

1. Mona Lisa


Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting in the human history. Created in 1506, it is hung in the Louvre and attracts hundreds of people every day who want to see the glance the follows you wherever you go. For quite some times nobody knew who the soft glance belonged to, until in 2005 German Scholars discovered a handwritten comment in the Heidelberg manuscript that identified her as Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini), a noblewoman from Florence. Apparently, the portrait was commissioned by her merchant husband, Francesco Giocondo.


Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci

2. American Gothic


Grant Wood‘s American Gothic, painted in 1930, is arguably one of the most famous modern American paintings. It shows two farmers but the models weren‘t farmers at all. They were the artist’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and a dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby. Since the painting was inspired by a particular dibble house, the artist looked for someone who looked like they could live in it. Wood‘s intention was to show a father and a daughter but in 1941 he wrote that “these particulars, of course, don’t really matter. What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it.”



American Gothic by Grant Wood

3. Arrangement in Grey and Black


Another painting almost everyone knows, even if from the Mr. Bean movie, is Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, created by James Abbott McNeill in 1871 which is actually a portrait of his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. The painting shows the 67-year-old woman after she came to England to live with her son after the death of her husband, with whom she moved from North Carolina to Russia. This is what the artist said about the painting in 1878: “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color. . . that is why I insist on calling my works arrangements and harmonies.”



Arrangement in Grey and Black by James Abbott McNeill

4. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer


There was a certain period in Gustav Klimt‘s life, that was called his Golden Period. It was when he began embellishing canvases with gold leaf. His new turn in his artistic path culminated in two of his marvelous paintings: The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Adele Block-Bauer was a wealthy Jewish woman who lived in Vienna. It‘s commonly thought that she was either a friend or a mistress of the artist. No matter who she was to Klimt, she was a huge patron of the arts. Adele and her husband had a collection of over 400 works of art, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer— which was commissioned by Ferdinand as present for his in-laws for their anniversary. After its stay in Vienna’s Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, in 2006 it was returned to the Bloch-Bauer family. They sold it for 135 million dollars.



Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt

5. Girl with a Pearl Earring


IGirl with a Pearl Earring is a very well-known painting, created in 1665, by a Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Many historians wondered about the identity of the woman in the portrait but one of the most well-known theories is that the woman is Maria Vermeer, the eldest daughter of the painter. The interesting part is that Girl with a Pearl Earring is technically not a portrait. It is a tronie - a study of an unidentified person. Tronies were very popular during the Dutch Golden Age, when such artists like Vermeer and also Rembrandt began using unnamed subjects for their “portraits.” Often, these people are dressed in opulent clothing and situated against a plain backdrop, which emphasized their anonymous nature.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer