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Famous Portraits Paintings that Carry Historical Significance

    Famous Portraits Paintings that Carry Historical Significance

    Throughout the ages, many different genres and artistic movements came to be their time’s prominent and defining styles. However, one genre that is vitally important to the entire history of art and is often overlooked is that of historical paintings.

    Long before the invention of the photograph, a painting was the only real way to capture the essence and memory of a historically significant event. Sure, there were written accounts. However, in most cases, these failed to capture the hearts and minds of the people in the same way a captivating painting did.

    The following article explores some of the most famous and important historical portrait paintings in art history, their inspiration, the artists who painted them, their impact, and the legacy they left behind. So, with all that being said, let’s jump right in.

    George Washington Crossing Delaware – Emanuel Leutze

    To a certain extent, the definition of a portrait is any painting that involves real people. It can be broken into three main categories, a portrait representing a particular person, a self-portrait, and a portrait of several people. The latter can be a family portrait or historical event, for example.

    In the case of portraits showcasing major historical events, more often than not, these paintings were composed long after the actual event took place and were achieved by using live models to re-enact the scene. German-American painter Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing The Delaware is one such painting.

    George Washington is one of the most important figures in American history and has had many portraits painted in his honor. Washington Crossing The Delaware is by far the most iconic of these paintings. It depicts the General and his army during the American Revolution and perfectly symbolizes the spirit of the American nation that was formed shortly thereafter.

    Napoleon Crossing the Alps – Jacques Louis David

    French Neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David is considered one of the greatest painters of the 19th century. He is critically acclaimed for a number of reasons but is perhaps best remembered for his famous portrait paintings of the French general Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Louis David’s catalog of paintings includes many of the most important events in French history, including the French revolution and the reign of Napoleon. David was also one of the first painters of the period to incorporate a Romantic overly dramatized style into his portrait paintings. His painting of Napoleon Crossing, The Alps, is a perfect example of this dramatic style.

    David crafted five versions of the painting and many others from important moments in the French General’s life. In these works, Napoleon appears larger than life and comes across as a mythological figure or superman. It is significant as it would be a major inspiration for the rise of the superhero symbol and, later, the comic book/movie industry.

    The Mona Lisa – Leonardo Da Vinci

    Lastly, look at the most famous portrait paintings ever created. When discussing famous art portraits, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is normally the one that first comes to mind. The portrait is the most famous and recognizable painting of all time, regardless of genre.

    It is the most iconic, most studied, most viewed, most valuable, and most reproduced painting in the whole world. It has become the quintessential portrait painting and is the benchmark that all other great portrait paintings in history are compared to.

    It is also a portrait painting with a rich history and legend. It has survived over 500 years, been hung in King’s palaces, was hidden during the war, stolen, attacked, and speculated upon more than any other painting in history.

    Liberty Leading the People – Eugene Delacroix

    Speaking of France and French history, Eugene Delcroix is another artist to rise to fame in the wake of the French revolution. As well as being a time of massive political and cultural change, France also emerged as the world’s art capital, with French artists dominating the art scene for many years.

    Around this time, the Romanticism movement began to flourish, with Delacroix becoming one of the early movement’s leading painters. His art inspired many great painters, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. First and foremost, Delacroix was a people painter. His paintings often involve multiple people and have a strong narrative and theme.

    Liberty Leading The People is Delacroix’s crowning achievement and is one of the most inspirational paintings ever conceived and is a portrait of a whole different kind. It is a portrait whose characters are more than just people; they are symbols and ideals. The portrait of lady liberty leading represents freedom, equality, and personal liberty and is one of the most powerful paintings of all time.

    The Third of May 1808 – Francisco Goya

    Spanish Romanticist painter Francisco de Goya is regarded as Spain’s most influential painter. He was also one of Spain’s greatest portrait painters and produced many fantastic portraits and self-portraits that also included artwork for the King of Spain and many other prominent historical figures.

    Despite his high standing in society and contributions toward the development of modern psychology through his art, perhaps Goya’s greatest significance to art and history is in his anti-war paintings. Art historians have praised Goya as the first mainstream anti-war artist who openly protested against war and violence in his art.

    Like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is much more than just a portrait. Instead of glorifying war as most artists did up until that point, Goya’s painting is a portrait of the horror of war. It significantly changed how the artists depicted the topic of war after that.


    These five paintings are just some of the greatest portraits that also hold historical weight and significance. Each one is both a fantastic preservation and a time capsule of the moments in history from which they were inspired.


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