Ten Famous Portraits of Artists’ Lovers

The Art Genome Project
Feb 10, 2016 11:00PM

Images of artists’ lovers, spouses, mistresses, and muses form a striking portion of iconic portraits in art history. From a 17th-century painting by Rembrandt van Rijn to Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s intimate documentations of their modern-day romantic lives, here are ten artists’ memorable portraits of their lovers. 


Young Muses

Pablo Picasso, Le Rêve (The Dream), 1932, and Femme en vert (Dora) (Woman in Green, Dora), 1944

Femme en vert (Dora) (Woman in Green, Dora), 1944
Fondation Beyeler

Almost as famous a lover as an artist, Pablo Picasso had several lifetimes’ worth of romantic partners, each of whom left a mark on his work. His 1932 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter—who was just 17 when she and Picasso began their relationship in 1927—shows the young woman lost in a contented reverie while inviting the viewer’s gaze with a knowing smile. In the following decade, Picasso’s style shifted away from classicizing curves toward an angular geometry, as shown in a portrait of Dora Maar from 1944.  The arresting, direct gaze of Dora in Femme en vert (Dora) contrasts sharply with the portrait of a dozing Marie-Thérèse. Maar, who became involved with Picasso in 1935, was a photographer, poet, and painter in her own right. She is reputed to have commanded a place as Picasso’s intellectual equal and artistic partner during their time together.


Paul Gauguin, Merahi Metua No Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents, or, The Ancestors of Tehamana), 1893

On the first of his famous voyages to Tahiti in 1891, Paul Gauguin saw his expectations of a natural, unspoiled utopia dashed by the realities of missionary influence and French colonialism, which had already dramatically changed Tahitian society. Unlike many of his iconic paintings from Tahiti, this portrait of Gauguin’s common-law “wife” shows the teenage Teha’amana posed in a formal seated position and dressed in the European-style clothing missionaries imposed on Tahitians. Although the frumpy dress and formal pose dominate the image, the flowers in Teha’amana’s hair and the Tahitian painted wall panel  are nods to what Gauguin believed to be the natural and sensual, which he contrasted against European artificiality.


Love and Loss

Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, 1981

David Wojnarowicz, 1981
Paul Kasmin Gallery

Peter Hujar’s arresting portrait of his longtime lover and fellow photographer David Wojnarowicz closely spotlights the bare-chested, reclining young man in the privacy of a bedroom. The photograph captures the moment of eye contact, not between the camera lens and the subject, but between two affectionate partners. In the moments after Hujar’s death from AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz made video and photographic portraits of Hujar’s body, documenting his private grief in order to make public what should not be forgotten.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Loving Journey—Yoko, 1985

Loving Journey – Yoko, 1985
Aki Gallery

In the 1970s, Nobuyoshi Araki stirred controversy with his no-holds-barred, often shocking images of sex workers in Tokyo’s red-light district. Araki had sexual encounters with many of his subjects—a fact he never attempted to hide—making the photographs even more controversial. The series that first brought him acclaim, however, was “Sentimental Journey” (1971), which documents mundane, intimate, and even sexually explicit moments from his honeymoon with his wife Yoko, to whom he remained married until her death in 1990. He paid tribute to his relationship with Yoko in several subsequent series, including “Loving Journey” (1985), which features this charming portrait that appears like a snapshot from a family album.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed in New York, 1983

For nearly a decade, Nan Goldin lived with her camera, capturing private moments from her personal life and the lives of her friends. The photographs appeared in the acclaimed work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), a slide show of over 700 images set with sound. Goldin documented her difficult, physically abusive relationship with her boyfriend, and snapped this self-portrait at an eerily evocative moment. The boyfriend turns his back to the camera while Goldin seems to defensively curl deeper into the bed, trying to catch his gaze. 


Intimate Portraits

 Archibald J. Motley Jr., Nude (Portrait of My Wife), 1930

The Chicago-based painter Archibald Motley rendered this portrait of his wife with erotic—but not idealizing—care. She stands naked facing the viewer, appearing as comfortable as if she were fully clothed. Her direct yet soft gaze holds the viewer’s attention. Motley, an African American man, married Edith Granzo, a white woman and his childhood sweetheart, during an era when interracial marriage was illegal in many parts of the United States.


Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654

Who is this unnamed woman shown wading into a stream while hiking her robe nearly past the tops of her thighs?  The sensuously unclad, luminous-skinned bather is most likely Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s common-law wife, who lived with the artist following the death of his wife Saskia. The riverbank setting gives few clues as to the portrait’s significance; it may have had personal meaning to the artist or been a study for a later piece. The same year Rembrandt painted this portrait, Stoffels became pregnant and endured public humiliation for bearing a child out of wedlock, yet she remained loyal to Rembrandt and stayed with him for the rest of her life.


Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Relationship, 2011

Relationship #33, 2008-2013
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Relationship #1, 2008-2013
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

Over the course of five years, the artists and partners Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst documented the everyday joys, intimacies, and hardships of their relationship as they each transitioned gender. The series cumulatively creates a portrait of the couple that is startling in its privacy, with the artists inviting viewers into their home and daily lives. In their unstaged, unpolished honesty, the photos also raise questions about whether it’s impossible to avoid performing for others—for our partners or the camera lens—in order to reaffirm our own self-conceptions.


Portraits without a Face

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hands and Thimble, 1919 

The photographer Alfred Stieglitz believed in the fragmentary nature of the portrait, stating that a portrait must evoke the countless aspects of the self rather than capture likeness. Stieglitz took hundreds of portraits of the pioneering American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who became his wife in 1924, and this photograph of her hands curled over soft drapery conveys grace and sensuality as effectively as any image of her face.

Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself, 2007

Take care of yourself. Latinist, Anne Marie Ozanam, 2007
Galerie Perrotin
Take care of yourself. Nathalie Dessay, 2007
Galerie Perrotin

“I received an email telling me it was over . . . It ended with the words, Take care of yourself. I followed this advice to the letter,” writes the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle in her introduction to the installation Take Care of Yourself. Calle then asked 107 women—as well as two hand puppets and a parrot—to interpret the letter. With her characteristic dark humor, Calle paints a purposefully hollow and conflicting portrait of an ex-lover through others’ interpretations of his email. As a result, the ex and his words disappear, and his memory becomes subsumed in the opinions of people external to the relationship—a healing process for Calle.

—Madeleine Boucher

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