Research point: Portraits with a distinctive mood and atmosphere

Go on the Internet and find some portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere rather than simply a physical likeness…

I’ve been adding to this Pinterest board over several weeks  and may have got a little carried away. But these boards are a really useful way to seek inspiration quickly and easily and I can see them becoming a resource that I will refer to in the long term. To this end I’ve started to reorganise and rename them so that there is a bit more structure and logic… I just wish I’d started out with some!


As a kid I didn’t have pictures of pop stars on my bedroom wall I had a posters of Picasso’s Old Guitarist and other works hung up by my dear departed Dad. (I may be doing this course because of him!)  Picasso’s blue period works are much more popular now than when he painted them (1901 to 1904). He was severely depressed, withdrawn and anguished during this period and the colour palette suited both his mood and the subject matter, which focused on poverty and hardship:  beggars, prostitutes, drunks… society’s outcasts.  The work wasn’t popular in the artistic circles of the time… people didn’t want to hang pictures of poverty and hardship on their walls.

Also see Poor by the Sea – this painting really conveys the cold, desolation and sadness of these poverty stricken folk.


Van Gogh’s first major painting, The Potato Eaters of 1885, reflects his ambition to be “a painter of peasant life.” He was living in the small village of Nuenen in southern Holland, and found inspiration in the harsh lives of the workmen and labourers, with whom he identified. Van Gogh has thrown aside sentimentality and depicted the peasants as people who made their living from the earth and this is reflected in what would have been considered coarse brush strokes at the time and also the muddy brown and black colour palette.

In his words:  “What I have tried to do is convey the idea that those people, eating their potatoes by lamplight, have dug the earth with the very hands they put into their bowls.”

Also see (from Van Gogh’s peasant character studies) : Peasant woman by the hearth and Fisherman’s wife on the beach


There are so many to choose from that it is overwhelming but I vividly remembering seeing two that were on loan to the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts for the Reality Exhibition – Portrait of an Old Woman (1654) and Portrait of an Old Man. The internet does nothing for these wonderful works of art… when you see them in the flesh so to speak, it feels as though you are looking at real, living people. The colour palette is severely limited but Rembrandt exploits light and shade and the techniques of chiaroscuro to give great impact to these portraits. The brush strokes considered rough and unfinished at the time, speak of character and personality and the ravages of time on face and hands.


Fauvism was an avant-garde movement that flourished in France in the early twentieth century. The Fauve painters moved on from Impressionism and looked at people and places in a new way. They expressed what they saw in bold brushstrokes and vibrant colours. The painters included Henri Matisse, André Derain, Charles Camoin, Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy and Modigliani. The critic Louis Vauxcelles called them them fauves (wild beasts) in his review for Gil Blas magazine.

Their work is uplifting and joyous – what’s not to like?

See Matisse’s Woman with a Hat | Portrait of Matisse by Andrew Derain | Portrait of Derain by Vlaminck | Jeanne dans les fleurs by Raoul Dufy

Also see my Fauve portraits Pinboard here


German expressionism was an early twentieth century  art movement that focused on the artist’s inner feelings or ideas rather than reproducing  reality. It was characterised by simplified shapes, bright colours and gestural marks or brushstrokes. There were two main groups of German expressionist artists: Die Brücke (the bridge) led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

There were many more German expressionists including Emile Nolde, Hubert Roestenburg, August Macke and Oskar Kokoshka.

Their paintings are  much more hard-hitting than than the Fauves. The brush strokes are often harsh, the colours starkly vivid. These paintings express character and emotions (good and bad)… they are not necessarily pretty portraits. They are often quite unsettling.

See Hubert Roestenburg – Nude with prayer chair | Phantasie (Drei Köpfe) by Emil Nolde | Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Woman in a Green Blouse


Also see my earlier pinboard Emile Nolde and other German expressionist painters


National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art







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