Throughout history, art has frequently been used to portray the human experience. From political statements to reflections on the soul, it is a powerful medium through which to magnify the marvels of life. Artists have the power to not only witness the world but call attention to the injustices and beauty of it. These three famous artists produced powerful and unique reflections of life, politics, society, and the self… and transformed the art world as we know it.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is arguably the most notorious name in art history. However, da Vinci was more than a mere prodigy or a prolific painter. Rather, he served many artistic and scientific roles during his lifetime. da Vinci was a lover of natural sciences from birth, making him keen towards invention alongside art. He also adored scholarly writing, drafting inventions, and studying natural sciences. In the art world, he served as both a contributor to other artworks and an inspiration to his fellow artists.
His artistic skills were first honed at the age of 14 when da Vinci became an apprentice to Verrocchio. As he studied beneath him, he picked up a knack for a number of physical disciplines, including painting, sculpting, and other artistic skills. By 20, he worked out of his own studio, serving the public and producing personal artwork. However, he didn’t receive much recognition for his pieces until he was nearly 22 years old.
With the Italian Renaissance in full motion, da Vinci received his first serious commission in 1482: a gesture of peace for the Duke of Monaco. After producing a successful and gorgeous painting, da Vinci’s work rose to popularity. During the rest of the 15th century, his career thrived on a public scale. He produced his famed The Last Supper, a depiction of Jesus’ Passover supper with his disciples. It took three years to complete.
In the early 16th century, da Vinci began to produce and commission more private works. He created what is arguably the most famous piece of art in the world: The Mona Lisa. In the 21st century, the piece is considered priceless; it is stored behind bulletproof glass in the Louvre. da Vinci also began to produce more three-dimensional works, such as sculptures and inventive pieces, drafting blueprints for helicopter-like machines. Near the end of his life, da Vinci seemed to dedicate himself solely to his scientific studies. Yet, his artwork has only continued to grow in value, importance, and prestige across the years.
The legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe is massive and long-lasting in the art world. O’Keeffe is the arguably most successful female artist in American history. She had incredible sales and worldwide critical acclaim throughout her career. She is formally recognized for ushering in the wave of American Modernism in art. Best recognized for her depictions of New York skyscrapers, New Mexico landscapes, and portraits of flowers, O’Keeffe’s work proved itself to be massively influential for generations of artists (and females) to come.
From 1905-1908, O’Keeffe studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Yet, she didn’t have confidence in her early creations. Some of her insecurities may have stemmed from society’s gender barriers for female artists. She settled on becoming an art professor in both Texas and South Carolina instead of pursuing a full career in art. Throughout her brief educational career, she continued to produce fabulous abstract pieces inspired by her surroundings. Eventually, her work ended up in the lap of Alfred Stieglitz—her future husband—who showcased her paintings in a gallery in 1916.
By 1920, O’Keeffe had gained critical acclaim for her substantial progress in the art world. During this time, she was producing heavily Modernist works. Her paintings featured spectacular settings of New York’s skyscrapers and portraits of flowers. She was one of the first artists to explore pure abstraction and experiment with other forms of art which would become widely recognized and practiced over time.
When she relocated to New Mexico in 1929, the rich culture and beautiful scenery inspired a new wave of stunning pieces from O’Keeffe. She painted the desert landscape with precision and poignancy. When she began to travel across the globe in the 1950s, she captured even more breathtaking settings, such as Mount Fuji in Japan. Unfortunately, her eyesight began to fail her, and she produced her last artwork without assistance in 1972. Still, her role as a skilled female in a male-dominated art world inspired other female artists worldwide…and made her trailblazer for incredible new styles, fashions, and forms of art.
Frida Kahlo was far more than an artist: she was an icon. Kahlo produced artwork that confronted the realities of gender, class, race and other social subjects within Mexico. She was a proud feminist who challenged the strict gender limitations which women were expected to abide by in Mexican society. Kahlo’s artwork consisted of self-portraits, featuring her famous unibrow, and other pieces portraying the beauty of authentic Mexican culture.
During her childhood, Kahlo witnessed a number of major political events. Born in 1907, Kahlo grew up just outside of Mexico City. When she was sent to a premier school in 1922, she was one in a handful of girls who were receiving an education. During her schooling years, she joined a gang, became politically active, and witnessed the Mexican Revolution in full swing. She also was involved in a serious bus crash which left her severely injured. Much of the stark, painful reality surrounding her influenced her art.
As she recovered from her bus accident, she began to paint. Her first piece was a self-portrait—a premonition of the bulk of her work ahead. She painted numerous more vibrant self-portraits during her months of recovery and dedicated herself to a full-time painting career once she was healed. Her dreamy, somewhat abstract pieces reflected her world, including personal and societal pain. The richness of Mexican culture was also present in the majority of her works, from vibrant colors to dramatic symbolism.
Early in her career, a fellow artist named Deigo Rivera recognized her talent and fell in love with her work. Rivera soon fell in love with Kahlo, too. Kahlo and Rivera married, though frequently experienced conflict and infidelity within their relationship. Despite a tumultuous marriage, they remained politically and artistically active together. They even housed Leon Trotsky, an exiled Soviet Communist, during a rocky period in their relationship. Beyond her personal struggles, Kahlo remained constantly committed to her art and her political views.
Throughout her life, Kahlo’s work served as a symbol of Mexican culture worldwide. Her passion to express their tradition opened the world’s eyes to the authentic beauty of Mexico’s roots. In 1939, Paris’ the Louvre bought her painting, The Frame, which featured colorful facets of Mexican culture. It was the first work the museum ever purchased from a 20th-century Mexican artist. Her death in July of 1954 was a tragic day for people in Mexico and across the world. Yet, her legacy as an artist, feminist, and cultural icon lives on today.