Top 10 Best Portrait Artists
World's Greatest Portrait Painters and Photographers.

Pin it

Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael
Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
(1514-15) Louvre, Paris.
By Raphael.

World's Best Portrait Artists


The Top 10 Portrait Artists
The Top 12 Portrait Photographers

Portrait of Jan Six (detail) (1654)
The Six Collection, Amsterdam.

By Rembrandt.
For a list of the Top 50 Portraits,
see: Greatest Portrait Paintings.



A portrait painting is a picture of a person in which the face is the main focus of attention. Traditional easel portraits can be executed in a variety of poses, such as head-and-shoulders, half-length, or full-body. In addition, there are numerous varieties of portrait art, including: individual, group, or self portraits. In all cases, the portrait is usually specially composed, in order to depict the character and the unique attributes of the subject. Other forms of portraiture include representations of pets or animals.

Portrait art was ranked number 2 in the hierarchy of the genres (behind history painting) by the great European academies of fine art. The other types of pictures (in order of importance) were History, Genre-Works, Landscape and Still Life. The high ranking given to portraiture was because of its high human narrative content. The work was supposed to convey the "noble" attributes of the sitter, either as an individual or a symbol of humanity.

Portrait art was practised during the earliest civilizations, as exemplified by the wonderful collection of Egyptian Fayum Mummy portraits. From the era of Renaissance art, however, the evolution of portraiture has mirrored the evolution of society in general. At first, Christian deities were the principal subjects, then Popes, Kings and Cardinals, then nobles and other important citizens. Complex rules evolved concerning pose, angle and background of the sitter, while the overall effect was progressively enhanced by the introduction of oil paint, as well as the painterly techniques of varnishing, sfumato and chiaroscuro. Increased middle-class commercial prosperity during the 17th century opened up this genre to a new range of patrons. Portraits can sometimes take considerable time. Cezanne, a notoriously slow painter, sometimes required more than 100 sittings to complete a portrait. On rare occasions, a completed canvas is completely rejected by the sitter. The portrait of Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland was famously rejected by the sitter who kept it in storage until he died, whereupon it was destroyed.

Self portraiture, an independent artform, has been explored by nearly all portrait artists, not least as a way of honing their painterly skills. The greatest exemplars of self-portrait painting include Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Egon Schiele, to name but a few.

For more about the different forms
of visual art, see: Definition of Art.

For more information about
exponents and styles of portrait
art see these resources:
Renaissance Portraits (1400-1600)
Venetian Portrait Painting (1400-1600)
Baroque Portraiture (1600-1700)
Rococo/Neoclassical Works
19th Century Portraits
20th Century Portrait Artists

For a list of masterpieces,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

See our compilations of the top
creative practitioners in history:
Best Artists of All Time
The greatest painters & sculptors
Best History Painters
Top 10 exponents of allegorical,
mythological, narrative art.
Best Genre Painters
Top 10 exponents of genre
painting, notably Dutch Realists.
Best Landscape Artists
Top 10 view painters and
plein-air specialists.
Best Still Life Painters
Top 10 exponents of still life

For information about the world's
most highly priced works of art
and record auction prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings

The Top 10 Portrait Artists

This list of famous portraitists has been compiled by our Editor Neil Collins MA LLB. It represents his personal view of the ten best exponents of portrait art. Naturally, like any such compilation it reveals more about the personal tastes of the compiler than the portrait painters being ranked.

No 10. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593)

After a conventional start as a religious painter in Milan, Arcimboldo was appointed court painter to the Imperial court in Prague, where he was able to give full expression to his range of artistic talents. He became involved in costume and stage design, wrote a treatise on the theory and practice of fine art, and became the official art agent for the Emperor. He also invented a completely new genre of portrait painting, which involved the arrangement of flowers, fruits, animals, books and other everyday objects - into a recognizable human portrait, typically with allegorical meanings. The results of this naturalist-Mannerist style are nothing short of amazing, and - as a piece of creative visual art - rank with the finest examples of Surrealism, if not at times Dadaism. Considering that all this was achieved some four centuries before the arrival of Salvador Dali, Arcimboldo must surely rank as one of the greatest and most innovative of portrait artists since the Renaissance.


Famous portrait paintings by Arcimboldo
- The Librarian (1566) oil on canvas, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus (1591) oil/wood, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- Spring (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Winter (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- The Gardner (1590) oil on panel, Museo Civico, Cremona

No 9. Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)

Best known for his modern history painting "The Raft of the Medusa", the talented and highly influential, if somewhat indolent, French romantic painter Theodore Gericault was also an outstanding portraitist. In the early 1820s, he was commissioned by Dr Georget, head of the Paris asylum, to paint a series of portrait studies of the insane. These portraits, with their infinite compassion and sensitive characterization have rarely been bettered. A monumental study of humanity.

Famous portraits by Theodore Gericault
- Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (1822) oil, Fine Arts Musrum, Lyons
- Woman Addicted to Gambling (1822) oil on canvas, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Kleptomaniac (1823) oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent

No 8. Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

One of the greatest Flemish painters after Rubens, whom he excelled only in portraiture, Anthony Van Dyck was court painter first to the Archduchess Isabella, governor of the Netherlands, then King Charles I of England (of whom he painted dozens of portraits). His success as the leading North European portrait painter of his age, rested on his keen observation, his life-like portrayals (none of his subjects appear stiff or artificial), and his unique ability to convey the majestic dignity of his sitter, albeit with occasional flattery. Van Dyck was also a skilled etcher, who produced a series of 100 large scale portrait etchings of famous contemporaries.

Famous portraiture by Sir Anthony Van Dyck
- Portrait of Cardinal Bentivoglio (1623) oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
- Queen Henrietta Maria (1633) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
- Triple Portrait Of King Charles I (1635) British Royal Collection
- Equestrian Portrait of Charles I (1637-38) National Gallery, London
- Self-Portrait (1634) Private Collection

No 7. Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543)

The greatest portrait painter of the 16th century Northern Renaissance, the talented Hans Holbein eventually settled in London at the age of 29, where he specialized in painting portraits of the Tudor Royal Court, and the merchants of the continental Hanseatic League. Characterized by meticulous attention to detail, together with a combination of clinical detachment and perceptive characterization, Holbein's masterpieces include portraits of the astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer, Henry VIII, The Ambassadors, The Merchant Georg Gisze, Erasmus of Rotterdam. The Gisze picture, in particular, illustrates Holbein's fusion of Renaissance simple grandeur with Northern European detail: the latter exemplified by the still-life quality of the objects and items depicted. Holbein also took up miniature portrait painting, becoming one of the best miniaturists based in England.

Famous portraiture by Hans Holbein The Younger
- Portrait of Henry VIII (1536) Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
- Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) National Gallery, London.
- Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1527, Frick Collection, New York)
- Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28) London.
- Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
- Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1532-4) National Portrait Gallery, London.
- The Ambassadors (1533) National Gallery, London.


No 6. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

In a curious if unintentional confirmation of John Singer Sargent's growing stature as arguably the greatest portrait painter of the modern era, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art at a recent exhibition juxtaposed the works of Velazquez with those of some of his admirers, including Edouard Manet and Sargent. While the Frenchman's paintings were made to look quite weak in comparison, those of the American retained all their robustness and style. Sargent's acknowledged masterpiece is Portrait of Madame X (1884), painted in Paris when he was 28. Aside from exemplifying his unsurpassed hand-eye coordination and his classical "au premier coup" technique (one precise stroke of the brush, no reworking), its daring composition gives this controversial work intense value and interest. His quite different and complex group portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is a masterful mixture of classical form and Impressionist brushwork, and ranks as one of the greatest Impressionist portraits. See also his atmospheric gypsy painting El Jaleo (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Famous portraiture by John Singer Sargent
- Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) Boston Museum of Fine Arts
- Portrait of Madame X (1884) Metropolitan Museum of Art

No 5. Raphael (Raffaello Sanzi) (1483-1520)

A mere 37 when he died, Raphael is traditionally considered to be the finest painter of the High Renaissance. In addition, he was regarded as the leading portraitist of the Renaissance in Rome. His contribution to the art of portrait painting includes his Madonna portraits, and at least two individual masterpieces: "Portrait of Baldassar Castiglione" and "Portrait of Pope Leo X". Whereas the Madonna portraits had brought the classical triangular composition to its culmination, that of Baldassar Castiglione - the first great portrait of the Italian Renaissance - is based on circular forms. The papal work is more complex: Leo is sitting, framed by the presence of two cardinals in the background, and each man is looking in a different direction. The effect is unsettling, and generates a significant degree of underlying tension.

Famous portraiture by Raphael
- Agnolo Doni (1506) oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
- Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15) oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris
- Portrait of Pope Leo X (1518) oil on wood, Uffizi, Florence

No 4. Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

The leading representative of Flemish painting, active fifty years before Leonardo and some two hundred years before Rembrandt and Velazquez, Jan Van Eyck pioneered the use of oils, using them to create a number of outstanding true-to-life portraits. His most famous work is probably the double-portrait "The Arnolfini Wedding", a fiercely complex picture replete with symbols and clues of hidden meanings. Other portrait masterpieces include "Man in a Red Turban", supposedly a self-portrait, which exemplifies the brilliance and luminance of van Eyck's oils, and the figures of Adam and Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece, two of the earliest and most naturalistic nudes. Considering the antiquity of these works they are surely evidence of a remarkable talent.

Famous portraiture by Jan Van Eyck
- Adam/Eve, see: Ghent Altarpiece (1432) oil on wood, St Bavo, Ghent.
- Man in a Red Turban (1433) oil on wood, National Gallery, London.
- Arnolfini Portrait (1434) oil on wood, NG, London.
- The Virgin of the Chancellor Nicolas Rolin (1435) oil on panel, Louvre, Paris.
- See also: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

No 3. Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Any list of the world's best portrait painters must surely include Velazquez among its number. One of the very greatest artists produced by Spain, ranking alongside El Greco, Goya and Picasso, Velazquez produced at least two unforgettable masterpieces: "Portrait of Pope Innocent X" and the group portrait "Las Meninas". The former perfectly captures the penetrating gaze of a deeply ambitious man, while the latter is a stunningly complex portrayal of Margarita, daughter of Phillip IV, and her attendants, which weaves illusion with reality. Like both Rembrandt and Leonardo, Velazquez was a huge influence on his contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists, notably Edouard Manet and Francis Bacon.

Famous portraiture by Diego Velazquez
- Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) oil on canvas, Galleria Doria Pamphili
- Las Meninas (1656) oil on canvas, Prado Museum, Madrid


No 2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Probably no other artist has produced so little and received so much praise, and here's why. Leonardo was a universal genius. In fact he was so clever that he got bored too easily, which was why he finished so few works. Even so, I challenge anyone to see his tempera and ink drawing "Drapery Study for a Seated Figure" (1470s) in the Louvre and not feel the presence of genius. Moreover, his portrait of the "Mona Lisa" is by most reckoning the best example of portraiture ever produced, and "Lady with Ermine" (Cecilia Gallerani) isn't far behind. Nevertheless, despite his outrageous draughtsmanship, oil painting skills, mastery of sfumato and more, I feel he doesn't quite have Rembrandt's degree of empathy with the sitter.

Famous portraiture by Leonardo Da Vinci
- Lady with an Ermine (1490) (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani), Czartoryski Museum
- Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) (1503) oil on wood, Louvre, Paris

No 1. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

The foremost artist of the Dutch Baroque and probably the greatest ever portrait painter in the history of art, Rembrandt was the most sensitive and perceptive painter of the human face - the gateway to the soul - while his complete mastery of shadow and light lent his portraits an added drama - even super-reality. It is this combination of profound humanity and master craftsman which lifts him above the other great portraitists, into a class of his own. The Mona Lisa may be the finest individual portrait, but Rembrandt in my view is unquestionably the greatest portrait painter: a gallery of Rembrandts has almost every human quality from supreme confidence to suicidal despair. And no list of portrait masterpieces could exclude his group portraits "Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild" and "The Nightwatch", or his individual masterpiece "Portrait of Jan Six". As for self-portraits, I can think of no other artist who chronicled his aging with greater honesty or realism. His pictures may be dark, but Rembrandt's unique genius shines through regardless. Dutch painting of the 17th century elevated portraiture to a new high, but Rembrandt stands head and shoulders above his nearest rival.

Famous portraiture by Rembrandt
- The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis The Hague.
- The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum.
- Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) The Met, New York.
- Portrait of Jan Six (1654) Private Collection, Amsterdam.
- The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (De Staalmeesters) (1662).
- Lucretia (c.1666) Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
- The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Top 12 Portrait Photographers

In 20th century portrait art, the camera has come to supercede the paintbrush, leading to the emergence of a number of new and exceptionally talented portraitists, whose fine art photography in no way diminishes the genre. Here is a short selected list of the most important photographic portraitists.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
Born in India and the mother of six children, she took up photography at the age of 48, and produced some of the finest "romantic" portraits (of sitters dressed as literary and mythological 'characters) in the history of photography. A pioneer of soft focus and close up camera techniques, her best portraits are unrivalled and are highly sought after by collectors.
Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
One of the great pioneers of modern camera art, the versatile Steichen was noted for his photo-portraits of Auguste Rodin, Brancusi, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and other members of the Paris School.
Man Ray (1890-1976)
A key figure in Dada and Surrealism, Man Ray did numerous photographic portraits of members of the Parisian art world, including the surrealist Andre Breton, the writer Ernest Hemingway, the Polish painter Balthus, the Irish writer James Joyce, and the American art collector Gertrude Stein, to name but a few.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
American camera artist best-known for her portraits of migrant workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)
Famous for his unique style of portraiture in which the subject is merely one element in the overall composition, along with costume, background and pose. Noted for his elegant and refined portraits of royalty and aristocrats, as well as popular celebrities.
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
Armenian-Canadian photographer best-known for his famous portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, who went on to create photographic portraits of 51 out of the 100 most notable People of the Century, as listed by the International Who's Who.
Norman Parkinson (1913-90)
Revolutionized photo-portraiture by taking it out of the confines of the studio into an outdoor setting, in a style known as "action realism".
Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Best-known for his photo stills of the American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in his studio, which capture the artist action-painting.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
American photographer famous for her emotive and unsettling portraits of "freaks" and members of minority groups in New York City. Her own suicide contributed to her international recognition.
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Photographic genius famous for the breadth of his portfolio whose portraits and fashion shots helped to define America's image of style and beauty in the latter half of the 20th-century.
David Bailey (b.1938)
British camera artist best known as the iconic chronicler of the 1960s. Famous for his bold portraits of celebrities and fashion models.
Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)
The greatest photographer of popular American celebrities. Her portraits include those of Demi Moore (nude and pregnant), John Lennon and Yoko Ono - done 5 hours before Lennon was shot dead, Lauren Hutton covered in mud, Meryl Streep covered in make-up, and many more.
Steve McCurry (b.1950)
American camera artist celebrated for his National Geographic portraits, notably "Afghan Girl" (1985), as well as his contribution to travel photography.

See also: Greatest Photographers (1880-present).



• For a list of the top painters/sculptors, see: Visual Artists: Greatest.
• For more biographies of great portrait painters and photographers, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.