The Stories Behind 3 of the Most Famous Portraits in History

We all know of a few famous portraits and can name them off the top of our heads. But how well do you know the story behind them? What makes these famous portraits so, well, famous? People travel far and wide to gaze upon some of the most prized portraits in history, but why?

Let’s dive into the story, creation, and uniqueness of each of these well-known portraits.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Artist: Johannes Vermeer

Year: 1665

Current Location: Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague Netherlands

Medium: Oil canvas

Current Value: $10.62 million

The Story Behind the Painting

This well-known portrait is, in fact, not a portrait at all. This painting is considered to be a tronie, which is the Dutch word for a common type of work from the Dutch Golden Age. The painter, Johannes Vermeer, didn’t have a person sit and pose for this painting. Rather, he came up with this woman in his head and put it on a canvas.

While this painting is famous now, it wasn’t always. In fact, this portrait didn’t become well known until around the 19th century thanks to a French critic by the name of  Étienne-Joseph-Théophile-Thoré (also known as William Bürger). This critic brought to light the beautiful techniques Vermeer used for this painting, showing everyone its true worth.

But the fame for this painting truly skyrocketed in the 1990s. During this time, a novel was written about the painting and a few films were created. While this painting has moved around to different museums in America, Japan, and Italy, it will now stay, for the time being, at its true home in the Netherlands at the Mauritshuis Museum.

Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait

Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Year: 1889

Current Location: Musée d’Orsay (since 1986)

Medium: Oil paint

Current Value: $71.5 million

The Story Behind the Painting

Most people know Van Gough’s paintings to be filled with bright colors and daring paint strokes. But did you know that much of his earlier work was very dark and dreary looking? Van Gough didn’t begin painting until his late 20s and he lived a short life where he struggled with mental illness.

Van Gough was extremely close with his brother, Theo, and shared many paintings with him and his wife (Vincent’s sister-in-law). And it was because of them that Van Gough became famous. His art didn’t actually sell much while he was alive. But after he died, his brother and sister-in-law began showing off his work more and it caught the eye of multiple critics.

Van Gogh created over 30 self-portraits between the years 1886-1889. This one, however, is important because it may have been his last self-portrait before he died. Many of his paintings reside in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam; however, some of his more famous paintings, such as Starry Night, have been moved around to different museums around the world.

The Mona Lisa

Artist: Leonardo Da Vinci

Year: 1503

Current Location: Louvre Museum (since 1797)

Medium: Oil

Current Value: $650 million

The Story Behind the Painting

The Mona Lisa: one of the most famous paintings in the world. People have long speculated if she’s smiling or not, what her expression is telling the viewers, and so much more. 

But do you know about the numerous scandals behind this painting’s history?

Because the Mona Lisa is such a sought-after painting, many people throughout history have made attempts to steal or maim the portrait. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre and it wasn’t returned until 1914. After many false accusations, investigators discovered the culprit was an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia who worked for the museum and even helped construct the glass protective casing for the portrait. 

The reason for his theft? He felt that the portrait belonged in Italy and was committed to bringing it there. Peruggia kept the painting in his apartment for 2 years before being discovered. He served 6 months in jail for the theft, yet is seen as a hero among many Italians for this ‘heroic’ act.

Over the years, many others have tried to ruin the painting with rocks, spray paint, and knives. One rock-throwing incident caused some of the paint to chip off the portrait on the Mona Lisa’s elbow, but other than that, the painting has been well protected by a bulletproof glass case. 

You Can Live on Forever in a Portrait!

When a person is painted as a portrait, their face essentially lives on forever. Everyone is taking and posting photos these days, so why not have a physical copy, a one-of-a-kind painting of yourself. There’s nothing quite like a portrait and it can be passed down from generation to generation.

You can easily get your portrait painted through Instapainting in any medium of your choosing. You could have your face be painted with watercolors, oil paints, or a more modern vibe with a variety of different colors. A portrait painting also makes an incredible gift for someone you care about (whether that be a person or a pet!).

Get your portrait started today!