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What Makes a Portrait Memorable?

Violette, Marina Chisty, portrait
Violette, Marina Chisty

If you are an art lover, at some point you have probably found yourself loitering in front of a portrait that has you truly mesmerized. I want to pick apart why that is – what is the magic formula that pulls people into a portrait and leaves them with a lasting impression of a complete stranger, captured in a specific moment of time.

Eye-Catching Portraits

Here are four stand-out portraits that have left a deep impression on me, each for a very different reason.


Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1965

When I look at these three portraits of Lucian Freud I feel the portrayal of intense emotions. The raw movement and expression of the paint on the canvas, the colors and tones all combined have a mesmerizing effect. The more you look at the portraits the more detail you see, they come alive and morph right in front of you. I can feel the immense experience of the artist and the close relationship he had with the sitter. I also chose this example because often artists rely heavily on capturing the character of someone through their eyes and here, Francis Bacon shows that the spirit of someone can be found without using realism to define a person’s true features.


Olympia by Édouard Manet, 1863

The painting Olympia caused a lot of controversy when it was first exhibited at the Salon of 1865 in Paris. The level of nudity on display was perfectly acceptable in the 1860s as long as the subject was presented as a classical goddess. However, the painting was of a modern woman nude and this was considered provocative. In this context she was views as a prostitute, especially with her gaze being directed at the viewer – the ‘client’. The second provocative element of the painting is represented by the presence of the black maid. Fifteen years before this painting was exhibited slavery had been abolished in France and in the years following the racial makeup of the working class was changing.


What I really enjoy about this painting, is that I find myself thinking about the studio set up and the painting process. How the mood was in the room at the time it was being created? What was the dynamic between the two models and the artist?



Myra by Marcus Harvey, 1995

In 1997, a portrait of Myra Hindley caused outrage in London. The painting was vandalized twice on the opening day. In the first attack, artist Peter Fisher threw red and blue ink over the painting and the second attack was delivered by another artist Jacques Role, who threw eggs at it. The portrait was meticulously crafted using hundreds of children’s handprints which was a shocking concept to the public who knew her to be one of the most notorious child serial killers the UK had ever seen. The image created was based on the original police mug-shot of when she was arrested in the 60s. At that time most people hadn’t even thought that a woman could be capable of torturing and killing so many children. The black and white portrait used strong contrasting shadows and highlights and at 3.4 meters high was incredibly dominating and intimidating to witness. To be in its presence was to feel haunted, watched and vulnerable.


Ella by Gerhard Richter, 2007

I can’t pinpoint what I find so striking about this portrait but I think I am just entranced by the subtlety and the sophistication of perspective. At first glance you would think it was a painting but it is actually a photograph. Even without being told, you have a knowing that the subject is close to the artist – the perspective is from the position of protectiveness, care and guardianship. The viewer is put in the position most likely of a parent. There is a level of comfort, the subject is off-guard, relaxed and deep in their own thoughts. The color palette is warm but fresh which for me reflects the feeling of home and youthful energy. This was my final selection because I like how the painterly effect used by the photographer creates a sense of movement, change and nostalgia – a fleeting moment in the life of the subject.     


I’d love to hear which portraits have left a memorable impact on you. Please leave your comments below. 

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love this!

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