The art world has crafted many iconic paintings over centuries cementing artists names into the cultural landscape for decades to come. But what about the portraits on the canvases? Who are they? We uncover the people artists like Picasso, Vermeer and Magritte were inspired by to create some of their greatest works of art.

Johannes Vermeer, ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ (c.1665)

Who is the enigmatic girl, famed for her pearl earring? One theory is that she is Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, who would have been aged 12 at the time. Magdalena, his patron’s teenage daughter, is another candidate. In Tracy Chevalier’s fictionalized novel she becomes Vermeer’s servant girl, Griet. In the movie adaptation Scarlett Johansson plays her; ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ certainly has star quality, despite, and perhaps because of, her anonymity.

Pablo Picasso, ‘The Weeping Woman’ (1937)

Picasso had a nine-year affair with the Surrealist artist Dora Maar. In 1937 she photographed Picasso creating ‘Guernica’. Alongside this mural-sized painting, he made a related series of ‘Weeping Woman portraits’ focused on mourning; Dora Maar modelled for these. While they reflect his outrage at the suffering caused by the bombing of Guernica, they also indicate the couple’s tumultuous affair. “Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman”, Picasso explained.  

René Magritte, ‘The Son of Man’ (1964)

‘The Son of Man’ is one of Magritte’s most puzzling paintings. Who is the bowler hat man, hidden by an apple? The artwork started out as a self-portrait. However, letters written by Magritte indicate that he found it difficult to paint himself and used an apple to hide his face. In true Surrealist fashion, the picture also plays with perception and reality, the visible and invisible. As Magritte said: “everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Mona Lisa’ (1503)

Who is the world’s most famous woman, Mona Lisa? Surprisingly, she was a rather ordinary, middle-class woman called Madam Lisa Giocondo. The wife of a Florentine cloth merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, she had five children and led a comfortable, and by no means unusual, life. What is unusual is that the dark veil that covers her hair is sometimes considered a mourning veil. It leaves the viewer wondering why she is smiling.

David Hockney, ‘Portrait of an Artist: Pool with Two Figures’ (1972)

Selling for $90.3 million, this painting made Hockney the world’s most expensive living artist. It’s also a break-up painting. Looking down at the sun-dappled pool, and dressed in a hot-pink jacket, is Hockney’s former boyfriend and painter, Peter Schlesinger. Underneath the water a young man swims towards Peter; he is thought to be Peter’s new lover and photographer, Eric Boman.

Auguste Rodin, ‘The Thinker’ (1902)

Rodin’s towering sculpture stands nearly 20 feet tall. The pensive, nude male is Dante Alighieri, author of ‘The Divine Comedy’. For months Rodin couldn’t decide whether or not to clothe him. However, eventually Rodin chose to leave ‘The Thinker’ naked, following in the style of the heroic nudes of Michelangelo and other Renaissance sculptors. Yet, in contrast to their daring, action-man heroes, here thinking is depicted as a powerful exercise.

Constantin Brâncuși, ‘Princess X’ (1915-16)

In 1920 Brâncuși exhibited this sculpture, rather coyly titled ‘Princess X’, at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. It was removed after Picasso said it looked like a phallus. Brâncuși was infuriated by the comparison; he insisted the sculpture was a portrayal of a feminine ideal and not a sign of his desire for its model. Maybe this was because she was the French princess, Marie Bonaparte, and great-grand niece of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Ophelia’ (1851-1852)

In this painting Millais portrays Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, Ophelia. The model was Elizabeth Siddall, a 23-year-old Pre-Raphaelite muse, artist and poet. To represent the drowning Ophelia, she posed, during winter, in a bathtub full of water for five hours. She almost died, and afterwards became very ill with pneumonia, from which she never fully recovered. She committed suicide, aged just 32, echoing Ophelia’s tragic story.  

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Portrait of Dr Gachet’ (1890)

For the final few months of his life, van Gogh was looked after by Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic doctor. He was friends with, and treated, many artists including Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and Cézanne. Some people have blamed the poor care of Gachet for van Gogh’s suicide. However, van Gogh declared, “My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.”

Chris Ofili, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ (1998)

Ofili painted this artwork while living in London. Taking the title from Bob Marley’s reggae song, it shows a crying woman. An inscription indicates that she is Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered as a teenage boy in an unprovoked racist attack in London in 1993. If you look closely, you can see tiny photographs inside her tears are images of Stephen.

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