Art History Lab

12 Modern Portrait Painters Who Redefine the Human Form

Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Portraiture

Portraiture, in the context of painting, has been a celebrated art form for many centuries. Portraiture immortalizes and captures the essence of a subject, often depicting them in arresting and eye-catching poses.

The evolution of portraiture as an art form has been remarkable, with sub-genres and meanings of the art form changing throughout art history. Modern and contemporary portraiture is testament to the creativity and versatility of the art form.

In this article, we shall explore the world of modern and contemporary portraiture, the definition and significance of portraiture in painting, the evolving meanings and sub-genres in portraiture throughout art history, portraiture in the digital age and the recontextualization and intimacy in portraiture.

Definition and Significance of Portraiture in Painting

Portraiture in painting is a means of capturing the likeness, character, and personality of a person. This art form connotes the human need to record, create and recreate images of ourselves and others.

Portraits communicate the social, cultural and historical status of the sitter and depict the values, attitudes and beliefs of a society. The earliest known portrait painting is the Fayum mummy portraits from Egypt, dating back to the 1st century BCE.

Portraiture has been a significant art form in painting over the centuries. It immortalizes and captures a subject’s essence, creating a lasting memory of the person.

Portraiture has also been used to establish status, communicate power, and convey the relationship between the sitter and the artist. Furthermore, it has been used in the building of personal and public identity.

Evolving Meanings and Sub-genres in Portraiture Throughout Art History

Throughout art history, the meaning of portraiture has evolved to include a wide range of sub-genres. These sub-genres include memorial portraiture, religious portraiture, self-portraiture, group portraiture, environmental portraiture, celebrity portraiture, and political portraiture, among others.

Memorial portraiture creates a lasting memory of a person after they have passed away. Religious portraiture is reflective of religious beliefs, with the sitter depicted in religious apparel.

Self-portraiture is a unique form of portraiture that allows the artist to be both the subject and the object of the artwork. Group portraiture, on the other hand, shows a group of people in a single piece of artwork.

Environmental portraiture shows the sitter in a particular environment, and celebrity portraiture depicts famous people. Political portraiture captures the likeness of political leaders and often reflects the political beliefs and values of the society in which they live.

One of the best known contemporary political portraits is the portrait of Barack Obama painted by

Kehinde Wiley in 2018. The portrait depicts the former US President in a relaxed pose, sitting in front of a green and white partially floral shaped background.

Shifting Landscape of Portraiture in the Modern and Contemporary Era

Portraiture in the digital age has transformed beyond its traditional means. Photography is now widely accepted as a viable art form in portraiture.

Photography has its own distinct style and associated techniques. This digital age has introduced new challenges for the art form.

Some have argued that photographic portraiture can be alienating as it might disconnect the sitter from the artist and reduce the authenticity of the experience. Additionally, photographic portraiture can objectify the sitter, further reducing the authenticity of the work.

Intimacy and Recontextualization in Portraiture

Intimacy can be achieved between a sitter and artist in various ways. It could be achieved through the careful selection of poses and exhibition angles, which create moments of intimacy between the sitter and the viewer.

The sitter is viewed in an intimate space, such as their personal environment, which is removed from public spaces. The employment of unconventional exhibition formats, such as the use of slideshows, immersive installations, and soundscapes, can also contribute to the intimacy of the artwork.

Recontextualization is another element of portraiture that has become popular in contemporary art. Recontextualization challenges the traditional practice of portraiture by placing the sitter in an unfamiliar environment, or skin.

This act challenges the viewer’s perception of the sitter and offers an alternative interpretation of the person.


In conclusion, portraiture in painting has been a significant form of artistic expression throughout history. It is an art form that immortalizes and captures the essence of the sitter while standing as a reflection of the society in which it was created.

As we move into the digital age and beyond, portraiture and the forms it takes will evolve, but the unique power of this art form will remain.

Top 12 Most Famous Modern Portrait Painters of All Time

If there is one genre of painting that has always been lauded and revered, it is portraiture. The art of capturing a person’s likeness in a painting has been a fixture of painting for centuries.

Modern and contemporary art, in particular, has seen the likes of many incredibly talented portrait painters who have made their mark in this genre. In this article, we highlight the top 12 most famous modern portrait painters of all time and their unique styles of representing the world.

Chuck Close

Chuck Close is a modern portrait artist who became famous for his large-scale portraits of celebrities. He is known for his direct and honest representation of the human form in his artwork.

His most famous works include the portrait of Richard Serra, Bill Clinton, and Paul Simon, among others.

Lita Cabellut

Lita Cabellut is a contemporary portrait painter of Spanish origin. She is known for her large-scale paintings and her use of conceptual subject matter.

Her work is a combination of classical portraiture and contemporary art, and her paintings often evoke a sense of realism and emotional intensity.

Neale Worley

Neale Worley is a modern portrait painter known for his gentle beauty and the serene nature of his paintings. He has an ability to paint his subjects in a comfortably rested position, surrendering themselves to the whims of his brushes.

His approach to portraiture is delicate and thoughtful, resulting in paintings that depict a sense of vulnerability and honesty.

Samuel Adoquei

Samuel Adoquei is a contemporary portrait painter who possesses a classic artistry with a decidedly modern take. His paintings often employ soft brushstrokes, which lend a touch of gentle expressiveness to his subjects.

He is considered one of the most gifted portrait painters in America, with his work appearing at the Smithsonian Museum of National Art.

Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth Peyton is a modern portrait painter known for her distortion of her subjects. Her paintings often involve famous people, particularly her friends and celebrities.

Her portraiture embodies an optimism and spiritedness, which she captures using a range of color formats and techniques. Peyton infuses her paintings with a certain rhythm and life that make them a true joy to behold.

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville is a British contemporary portrait painter known for her abstracted and exaggerated approach to portraiture. Her work is grounded in classical figure painting, but she often takes unorthodox approaches to her subjects, portraying them with a wild, almost demented persona.

Jonathan Yeo

Jonathan Yeo is a UK-based portraiture artist whose work is often associated with the exploration of figures from pornographic material. This aspect of his work has frequently been the subject of controversy, but it has also given him notoriety and accolades.

Yeo’s paintings are evocative, with an intense power that can grip viewers.

Anastasia Pollard

Anastasia Pollard is a modern portrait painter whose work is dedicated to exploring complex and strong characters. Her paintings display a non-confrontational and busy nature, often involving layers and layers of paint, capture the beauty and bravery of her subjects.

Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald is a contemporary painter known for her now iconic portrait of Michelle Obama. Her paintings often aim to highlight the unseen histories of her subjects.

Her clean painting style, together with her unique lens on history, results in engaging, powerful and thought-provoking paintings that challenge any viewer.

Frans Smit

Frans Smit is a contemporary portrait painter known for his distortion of his subjects. His multi-layered portraits are often accompanied by provocative texts and combined with technology to create an immersive experience for viewers.

Smit is an artist who pushes boundaries, pushing the conventions of portraiture, and in the process redefining it.

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is an American contemporary portrait painter known for his ornate and decorative backgrounds and the politics of race. His portraits often depict African-American subjects in classical poses, highlighting the beauty and strength of people who have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream narrative of art.

Yasutomo Oka

Yasutomo Oka is a modern and contemporary portrait painter known for his mesmerizing hyperrealism. He has a unique style of reimagining women’s representation, a thematic strand in his work that he explores in various mediums, including painting.

His work is highly emotive, capturing the true essence of his subjects in paint.


Portraiture is a constantly evolving genre of painting, and the portraits of these 12 modern and contemporary portrait painters demonstrate that. Each artist has his or her unique style that sets them apart from others, invoking a sense of profound connection with their subjects.

These artists have greatly contributed to the genre, by creating vivid, enigmatic portraits that convey the beauty and complexity of the human condition. In conclusion, modern and contemporary portraiture has been a significant genre of painting throughout history, immortalizing and capturing the essence of people in a way that no other art form can.


Chuck Close to

Yasutomo Oka, the top 12 most famous modern portrait painters of all time have created vivid, enigmatic representations of their subjects that convey the beauty and complexity of the human condition. Each artist has his or her unique style that sets them apart from others and highlights the importance of individual expression.

Overall, their works demonstrate that portraiture continues to evolve and advance, creating new ways to connect with, and reflect on, the world around us.

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