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Contemporary Female Portrait Artists

The Evolution of Portraiture

Through Contemporary Figurative Artists


As I have furthered my education and immersion in the world of art, I have found so much inspiration through the work of current portrait artists. I’d like to share these inspirations, as a way to show you what guides my own artwork.


Portrait artists generally attempt a representative portrayal of the subject, as Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones once stated, "The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything temporary, fleeting, or accidental.” The use of symbolic elements placed around the sitter was often used to encode the painting with the moral or religious character of the subject, or with symbols representing the sitter's occupation, interests, or social status.


Chloe Wise merges the classical European style of portraiture from the Renaissance period with present day pop culture references sprinkled throughout some of her oil paintings.  She skillfully renders traditional portraiture in a fresh spin on classical art, composing portraits of her friends in likeness to the 16th century masterful works by figurative and portrait painter Piero di Cosimo. For me, she stands among the strongest contemporary female portrait artists today.


Another notable name is contemporary figurative artist, Jarvis Boyland, who is represented by Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, renders Black queer men garbed in the most beautiful, joyful of colors. A Tennessee native, Boyland navigates intersections of Black identity through portraiture. Boyland is a gifted colorist and portrait artist. Broad expanses of rich, modulated color dominate the backgrounds, expertly coordinated with the clothing and fabrics in the paintings. 


Boyland uses a background style similar to that of Venetian Rococo painter Rosalba Carriera’s 1726 painting, “Portrait of a Boy”, and Early Renaissance Italian painter Antonello da Messina’s 1475 painting, “Portrait of a Man.” For early portraiture, including both of these paintings, it was common for artists to have plain backgrounds of one color to give the composition breathing room. The background can be totally without content or a full scene which places the sitter in their social or recreational milieu. Most of the work by me- Marisa Rheem- incorporates this historic aesthetic, as seen in my paintings “I’ll Pick You Up on Friday”, “Gucci Gucci Goo”, and “Hang on Guys, I Need a Quick Breather."


American artist, Kehinde Wiley, (arguably one of the most impressive contemporary portrait artists in the world), blurs the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men. His subjects are dressed in their everyday clothing most of which are based on the notion of far-reaching Western ideals of style, and asked to assume poses found in paintings or sculptures representative of the history of their surroundings, providing a juxtaposition of the “old” inherited by the “new” style of portraiture. Wiley, along with all of these portrait artists, including myself, are great examples of the evolution of portraiture.


In modern times, art has often been considered to be something that is just aesthetically pleasing and facilitates the elevation of interior design. And while it can be used for aesthetic purposes only, art is also intended to connect with human emotion. Our first question when we look at a work of art is, what is it about? In portraiture, there are always deeper meanings to discover behind the brushstrokes.

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