8 Real-Life People Who Became the Stars of Art History’s Most Famous Paintings

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No matter the scope of their favorite subjects, most artists have dabbled in the age-old art of portraiture. Defined by portrayals of people, this genre has been practiced by art history's most influential painters, culminating in an extensive collection of world-famous portraits.

While the artists behind these pieces are universally well-known, the subjects are often less obvious. Though many, including Gustav Klimt's glimmering gold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, indicate the identity of the sitter, some are more vague, like the whimsical Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse. In both cases, learning more about the paintings' subjects can help us see these familiar and famous portraits in a new light.

Mona Lisa

Arguably art history's most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa was painted by Italian artist, inventor, and writer Leonardo da Vinci in 1506. The masterpiece features a half-length portrait of a seated woman in a loggia (a room with at least one open side) that overlooks a hazy natural landscape. The figure looks toward the viewer and softly smiles.

So, who is the Mona Lisa? For centuries, the identity of the highly recognizable figure remained a mystery. However, in 2005, German scholars discovered a handwritten comment in the Heidelberg manuscript that positively identified her as Lisa del Giocondo(née Gherardini), a Florentine noblewoman. The portrait was commissioned by her husband, Francesco Giocondo, a merchant.

Though the portrait that hangs in Paris' Louvre Museum is the most famous Mona Lisa, it's not the only one. For centuries, many artists—including, in the case of the Prado Museum's copy, Leonardo da Vinci's pupils—have created their own portraits of the now-legendary Lisa del Giocondo.

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