Reasons why People were Creating Art Portraits in the Past

There were many reasons why artists created art portraits in the past. One of the reasons was that artists got commissioned to create something that the buyer wanted according to customs in the past. Popular commissions were the creation of artistic portraits. Many commissioned portraits have become famous portraits. Like we have family photos on our walls today, it was famous for patrons to commission portraits of the family. And for the artist, it meant money. 

Self-portraiture forms part of this genre, and there are many famous art portraits painted as self-portraits. A self-portrait was seen as a way to gain insight into an artist’s “soul” and beliefs. Most women artists in that time created self-portraits because they weren’t able to paint nudes or in the public sphere throughout most of history.

We’ve chosen five well-known portraits, including older and newer portraits, to illustrate some of the reasons why portraits were created.

Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent

“Roosevelt” was a commissioned work. The US federal government commissioned it to create the official White House portrait of the twenty-sixth President. Sargent painted this portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. 

For Sargent, the whole process was very annoying. It was difficult for him to work with such an “intimidating” person as President Roosevelt. To get a suitable place for Sargent to paint where the lighting was good, tried Roosevelt’s patience. 

But there is an exciting story about finding the right place. Sargent couldn’t find a suitable room on the first floor. While they were looking for the right place on the next floor, Roosevelt told Sargent he did not think he knew what he wanted. Sargent answered that he did not think the President knew what was involved in posing for a portrait. Roosevelt swung around on the stairs, placing his hand on the rail, and exclaimed, “Don’t I!” Sargent immediately told Roosevelt not to move – he found the pose and the place! For Sargent, that was the ideal pose and location for the sittings. 

But the President’s busy schedule that only allowed for short sittings frustrated Sargent. Finally, however, when Sargent had finished the portrait, Roosevelt considered it a great success. He liked it and favored it for the rest of his life. 

Vendangeuse (The Grape Picker) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

This artist is known and famous for his portrayal of the female figure. He created many famous portrait paintings in the art history of sensual female nudes, but In “Vendangeuse”, he painted a portrait of a young and humble grape picker. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted the portrait “Vendangeuse” in 1875. The work is also known as “The Grape Picker.” Bouguereau’s exceptional oil technique and sensibility gave soul to this portrait.

The girl carries a wooden basket that is filled with bunches of grapes. She is seen leaning back a little to counterbalance the basket’s weight. She faces the viewer by rotating her neck forward. Bouguereau’s knowledge of anatomy allowed for a very convincing posture.

Bouguereau also used contrasting features and colors. For example, the red fabric wrapped around her hair complements the green background vegetation. The painter’s attention to detail in this portrait famous painting is extraordinary.

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Grant Wood created this portrait in 1930. In “American Gothic,” Grant Wood depicted images of an earlier generation. The portrait features a farmer and his daughter. They both are dressed and look as if they were from an old family album. Behind them, you see their 1880s-styled home. That style is known as Carpenter Gothic. 

According to Wood, he thought that the two figures in the portrait would probably be the type of people living in the 1880s house. But during the work’s first exhibition, viewers speculated about the figures and the story behind the painting. 

Many art critics thought “American Gothic” to be a satirical comment on the US Midwesterners – that Wood saw them as out of step with a modernizing world. But Wood later declared that he had intended it to convey a positive image of rural American values. He tried to offer reassurance to everyone at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Self-portrait III by Vincent van Gogh

There are more than 35 self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh. In principle, two main factors contributed to this significant number of self-portraits. Firstly, he was financially not in a position to afford models, and secondly, it resulted from the decline of his mental and psychological health. 

Van Gogh admitted himself in a later stage of his life to an asylum after he had had a break-down. After he had spent a month in a room in the asylum to recover, he went back to painting and producing self-portraits. 

Generally, when a painter creates a self-portrait, it is much more than just portraying him or herself. A self-portrait is also the window to an artist’s soul. In “Self Portrait III” Van Gogh captured the intensity of his life’s struggle and the newly found calmness. 

The eyes in the painting stare into the viewer’s eyes to transmit to the viewer much about Van Gogh’s life and distress. Van Gogh considered coloring a critical aspect. In this work, Van Gogh’s skin and hair create a beautiful contrast to the rest of the painting. 

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt created many portraits of little girls playing dress-up. “Child in a Straw Hat” also depicts such a little girl. Usually, the girls portrayed look as if they are taking pleasure in dressing up, but in this portrait, the child’s expression suggests that she is not enjoying herself. 

She is isolated and stands still, looking frustrated and bored. Despite this “silent” scene, Cassatt used broad, visible brushstrokes throughout the composition, creating abstract patterns in some areas. 

The paint has been applied quickly and directly to the canvas, which lends an appearance of spontaneity to work. This way of applying paint to canvas is referred to as alla prima. 


As briefly shown in this article, there are definite reasons why portraits are so important within art history. Most art lovers and collectors try to own a famous picture or a reproduction of it. 

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