Royal Portrait History

Portraiture is the best way to gain insights into an era's social, cultural, and political state. From impressing foreign dignitaries to symbolizing prestige, royal portraits have contributed to art for ages. Famous royal paintings are the perfect way of gaining insights into the monarchy.

So, if the grandeur and majesty of royal dynasties interest you, read this article. It will help you understand royal families and their love for portraiture.

We will also discuss the history of royal portraits, their purpose, and some famous ancient paintings.
Continue reading to explore further and get a sneak peek into royal portraiture.

Meaning of Royal Portraits

Royal portraits are an exquisite representation of kings, queens, and their regal families. It reflects the lifestyle of the British monarchs and ruling authorities. These portraits symbolize monarchies' power, stature, and prestige.

Many royal dynasties shaped the grand history of Britain. The majestic kings of these families hired artists to paint portraits to preserve their legacies and heritage. The nobles used the power of the royal image to gain familiarity among the general public.

Royal Portrait Painting came about as an art form that survived time. These classic illustrations narrated and embodied the events and stories of the ancient era. The artists flattered their masters by painting according to their preferences.

Royal portraiture has evolved from sculptures and ceramics paintings to prints and photography. Though the form of portrayal has changed, the purpose of image building remains the same.


Credit: Tatler


Credit: BBC

Historical Significance of Royal Portraits

Royal Portraits have a rich and vast history extending over hundreds of years. Symbolic of nobility, these paintings gained popularity in England during the mid-15th century.

Portraits were the only means of communication between people before photography. People dedicated their artwork to the supreme powers and paid tribute to them. Now, let's discover the historical significance of royal portraits.

Ancient Period

Art historians credit Egyptian civilization as the era that nurtured and promoted portraiture. Egyptian artists painted their Gods, pharaohs, and rulers on wooden panels and tombs. The famous Fayum Mummy portraits are the finest and oldest examples of royal portraiture. These paintings depicted the influential and upper-class mummies of the Egyptian era.

Ancient Period

Credit: Pinterest

Fayum Mummy portraits

Credit: iStock

As the Greek and Roman era began, people saw the development of realistic portraiture. These artworks emphasized the royalty of imperial dynasties and legitimized their authority. Over time, the art evolved, but the depiction of royal portraits remained constant.

Royal Ontario Museum

Credit: Royal Ontario Museum

Ancient Maps

Credit: Ancient Maps

The Tudor Dynasty

Royal portraits in England gained popularity with the flourishing of the Tudor dynasty. In the 16th century, the demand for painted pictures increased among noble families. Royal paintings were a visual record of regal family members, monarchs, and patrons.

In Tudor era art, the painting of King Henry VII is among the earliest known portrait. In 1505, Herman Rinck ordered a Netherlandish artist to make a portrait of Henry VII. Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth of York, in 1503, Henry VII commissioned his portrayal in the hope of a successful second marriage.

The painting depicted King Henry VII wearing a black tunic and a red brocade robe. The rich clothing and gold chains around his neck reflect his wealth, giving him a regal look. These royal paintings reflected the king's social status, helping arrange marriages.

National Portrait Gallery

Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Another fine example of the regal portrait during the Tudor dynasty was the portrait of Henry VIII, the heir of Henry VII. Henry VII promoted portraiture and brought German and Netherlandish artists to England.

In 1536, King Henry VIII employed Hans Holbein the Younger as his court painter. Over the years, Hans Holbein portrayed the legitimacy and nobility of King Henry VIII in many artworks. He even painted the Tudor monarch family portraits with his wives Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard. But only two of the many portraits of King Henry VIII exist today.

The National Portrait Gallery in London houses these royal collections of paintings for visitors.

King Henry VIII

Credit: Wikipedia

Royal Collection Trust

Credit: Royal Collection Trust

The Windsor Dynasty

Over time, many British empires came and reigned over England. Spreading over eight generations, The Windsor era is one of the longest-reigning empires, ruling even today. The Windsor reign came after the highs and lows of the Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians, and Victorians.

Founded in 1917, there are five British monarchs of the Windsor House. These sovereigns are George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II, and Charles III. The Windsors understood the importance of royal image, after which they captured their family members in every event.

Queen Elizabeth II was the first matriarchal monarch to experience and adapt photography. Besides the hand-painted portraits, Windsors often used cameras to preserve their special occasions. The royal paintings often had monarchs and their families dressed in rich, elegant gowns and treasured jewelry.

The longstanding tradition of royal portraiture continues in the British royal house till modern day. Some examples of these royal portraits are:

There is an official portrait of the royal family celebrating George VI’s coronation. Hay Wrightson captured this photograph in Buckingham Palace.

Harpers Bazaar

Credit: Harpers Bazaar

Young Elizabeth II poses for a portrait with her mother, Queen Elizabeth, and sister Margaret.

Young Elizabeth

Credit: Getty Images

The official photograph of the coronation day of Queen Elizabeth II. She ascended the throne after her father, King George VI's death. The picture features Elizabeth II with her mother, sister, and brother, all dressed in regal clothing.

Queen Elizabeth

Credit: Getting Images

In the early 2000s, Andrew Festing painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The painting reflected the queen’s regality, as she was dressed in an elegant white robe. The diamond-studded crown and expensive jewelry added to her persona.

This portrait got mixed reviews from the viewers. While many liked the soft and calm portrayal of the queen, others disliked some aspects of the painting.

The Daily Art Magazine

Credit: The Daily Art Magazine

Another example is John Wonnacott’s The Royal Family portrait. The illustration commemorated the 100th birthday of Queen Elizabeth. It showcased the opulence and grandeur of the Buckingham Palace. It also featured Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II, and other royal princes.

National Portrait Gallery

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

A recent example of modern-day royal portraiture is King Charles III's coronation day. The royal family conducted the king’s coronation ceremonies in Westminster Abbey. After the ceremony, the photographer captured the royal pictures in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace. It features King Charles III, Majesty Queen, and other dukes and duchesses.

Royal UK

British royal families

Credit: Royal UK

Besides these, the British royal families have a splendor history and a rich collection of portraits of royalty.

Purpose of Royal Portraiture

Portraiture has been a predominant source of disseminating information among the masses. The artists painted regal paintings for several reasons and to celebrate auspicious ceremonies. Read on to know the purpose of the creation of royal portraiture.

1) A Testimony of Authority

The British royal families enjoyed their power and supremacy over the common public. They ruled over people and often reminded them of the dominant authority. The kings and queens embodied Royal stories and events in art pieces. They even signified wealth, prestige, and precious belongings through portraits.

Some emperors even minted coins with their pictures to boast monarchial honor. The royal portraits were evidence of their control and governance over the people. The walls of palaces and civic buildings had royal portraits of the aristocracy.

Some of these paintings' sole purpose was to publicize the longevity of an empire’s legacy. Thus, royal portrait painting were testimonies of authority.

2) To Exchange Gifts Among Royalties

The royalties even used portraits to exchange diplomatic gifts among family members. Leaders developed close relationships with foreign dignitaries by flattering them and offering presents.

Royal empires even used portraits for sending marriage proposals. These works of art showed people how respectable and well-known a family was. An unflattering picture could even break a marriage contract.

Royal portraits were also a symbol of loyalty, fecundity, and trust. Noble persons built their confidence among other notable royal families through these paintings. They even gifted portraits on occasions like state anniversaries, coronations, etc.

3) To Build an Image Among the Common Masses

For centuries, royalties are following the age-old tradition of image-building using royal portraits. Artists painted new portraits to hide the bad and negative judgments of the audience. These paintings often pictured family members and children.

Artists even used portraits to depict the pure and pristine aura of the kings and queens. For example, the coronation portrait of Elizabeth I in a bejeweled white gown symbolizes purity and innocence.

The National News

Credit: The National News

Another example is the arranged palace portrait of Queen Victoria with her husband, Albert, and their children. In 1846, Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted this Royal family portrait. Now, the royal collection of Buckingham Palace stores these masterpieces.

Royal Collection Trust

Credit: Royal Collection Trust

Five Famous Royal Portraits and Their Artists

Royal portraits are an integral part of art history. Whether to commemorate a special occasion or honor a monarchy, royal portraits have been prevalent in royal empires for ages. These portraits blend history, biography, and royalty, depicting the power of nobilities.

Let’s explore this list of 5 exquisite and famous royal portraits from around the globe.

1) Marie Antoinette with a Rose By Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was an exceptional and well-known French portraitist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Le Brun combined the elements of the Late Baroque period and Neoclassical style in her art.

Art historians recognize Vignee Le Brun as among France's few notable women painters. The French queen Marie Antoinette offered Le Brun patronage and support as her career prospered. Thus, this made the public perceive Le Brun as the queen’s official portrait artist.

Vigee Le Brun created over 30 stunning portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette and her family. In 1783, Le Brun painted ‘Marie Antoinette with a Rose’ for an official art exhibition in Paris. She pictured the queen in a simple white muslin garment, giving rise to scandals and controversies.

The general public disliked the informal outfit of the queen and criticized both the queen and painter for such a casual portrayal. They judged that the attire looked like a chemise, a women’s clothing worn under the main dress. Soon after the incident, the officials removed the painting from the exhibition.

Marie Antoinette in Chemise

Marie Antoinette in Chemise

Marie Antoinette with a Rose

Marie Antoinette with a Rose

Credit: Wikipedia

Le Brun immediately repainted the queen’s portrait before the event ended. This time she represented the queen in the same pose but changed her attire completely. Le Brun chose a formal, classic blue-grey silk gown with rich pearl jewelry as the queen’s garment.

Later, in 1787 to rebuild Queen Marie’s image, Le Brun painted a family portrait of the queen with her children. The creation of ‘Marie Antoinette with Her Children’ was an attempt to suppress and counter negative comments.

Marie Antoinette with Her Children

Credit: Wikipedia

Today, The Palace of Versailles in Paris, France, exhibits ‘Marie Antoinette with a Rose’ and ‘Marie Antoinette with Her Children.’

2) Queen Victoria by Thomas Sully

Thomas Sully was one of the most celebrated and notable American portrait painters. Thomas was born in Great Britain and spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, United States. Art enthusiasts often praised him for his exceptional and remarkable painting style.

Thomas painted many notable American leaders and revolutionary heroes throughout his art career. He made portraits of American presidents like T. Jefferson, A. Jackson, and J. Adams. Besides this, he also painted landscapes and historical sceneries.

In 1837, after the accession of the throne by Queen Victoria, Thomas decided to visit London. The St. George Society commissioned him to create a portrait of the newly ascended young queen. The Society of the Sons of St. George was a charitable institution in Philadelphia.

In 1838, Thomas sat with Queen Victoria two-three months before the coronation day. During these sittings, he made some of her preliminary sketches. He observed the young queen's facial expressions, postures, characteristics, and attire.

After returning to the U.S., Thomas Sully painted a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria using reference images. He finished the painting in January 1839 and pictured the Queen’s royalty in it. The diamond coronet, necklace, and earrings showcase the young queen’s prestige.

Royal Collection Trust

Credit: Royal Collection Trust

Wallace Collection

Credit: Wallace Collection

Apart from Thomas Sully, many other artists also painted portraits of Queen Victoria. One of them was the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, who produced official paintings for the British royal house.

In 1843, Winterhalter depicted the young Queen Victoria in the initial years of her reign. For Albert's 24th birthday, Queen Victoria commissioned Winterhalter to paint this portrait. The artwork was an expression of love and affection towards her partner.

The portrait had the queen in a white ruffled dress and her head on a red cushion. Simple earrings, a heart-shaped locket, and hair flowing across the neck are other features of this beautiful portrait. Today, this portrait is part of the private collection of the British royal family.

Queen Victoria commissioned

Credit: Wikipedia

3) Maria Of Yugoslavia by Paja Jovanovic

A premier Serbian portraitist, Paja Jovanovic was well-known for his realism-inspired paintings. Jovanovic has a record of more than 1100 paintings in his long lifetime. He created portraits of industrialists, barons, monopolists, scientists, and royalty.

The Serbian history and everyday life of people inspired Paja Jovanovic. He created artwork influencing the nation's culture, education, and patriotism. He introduced the world to Serbian culture and history. His paintings were so famous that many museums and art galleries kept his art.

In 1925, Jovanovic created a royal portrait painting of Maria of Yugoslavia. After marrying Alexander I, Maria of Yugoslavia became the queen of Yugoslavia. Maria was also related to the Windsors, the British royal family, in her early years.

The portrait depicted Maria of Yugoslavia dressed in royal silk attire with a stole around her arms. She is also seen wearing a diamond-studded crown and a long pearl neckpiece. The Maryhill Museum of Art houses this significant Paja Jovanovic's artwork today.

Google Arts

Credit: Google Arts

4) Portrait of Louis XIV By Hyacinthe Rigaud

Hyacinthe Rigaud, a celebrated baroque painter, was a native of France. Rigaud’s portraits were famous for depicting the supremacy of King Louis XIV and other French royalty. His impressive presentation made him one of the important portrait painters during the reign of Louis XIV.

Riguad’s clientele included ambassadors, patrons, barons, and financiers of the French empire. His perfection in work and magnificent display of individuals suited the regal personages. Today, most art galleries and museums worldwide host many works of Hyacinthe Rigaud.

In 1701, Rigaud painted Portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Robes. Louis XIV commissioned his portrait as a gift to his grandson Philip V of Spain but kept it to himself instead.

The French king Louis XIV considered himself the supreme power in his empire. All the constitutional power resided with the king, and he believed himself to be at the center of the universe. He claimed God had given him the divine right to rule the kingdom.

King Louis XIV and his courtiers worked on creating large-scale projects. They hired artisans and architects to affirm their authority among the common masses. For this purpose, they made Hyacinthe Rigaud their principal painter.

When Rigaud made the royal portrait of Louis XIV, he reflected the king's majesty. He executed his oil painting on a large canvas with a magnificent figure and background. The painter portrays the subject’s entire body shifted three-quarters to the left.

King Louis XIV occupies the frame’s center with an upright body posture. The heavy-draped curtains and marble pillars in the backdrop give a rich impression. The king dresses in his coronation robe, brocades, cuffs, and red-heeled, diamond-buckled shoes. The robe has fleur de lys imprinted, symbolizing monarchial power and strength.

This exemplary detailed artwork of Riguad made him gain popularity among the masses. The Louvre Museum of France houses this royal portrait painting.

Royal Portrait Painting

Credit: Wikipedia

5) Catherine II The Great By Fyodor Rokotov

Fyodor Rokotov was a famous Russian painter and realistic artist. His approach toward art was different from other artists of that age. He tried capturing the real personality of the sitter instead of the over-adornments.

Fyodor Rokotov portrayed the royal image of Queen Catherine II The Great in 1763. He made this portrait to honor Queen Catherine II after her coronation ceremony.

After dethroning of Peter III, his wife, Queen Catherine II, ascended the throne. She was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. Queen Catherine II contributed a lot to the Russian cultural awakening.

In her coronation portrait, the queen dresses in a heavy silver-white gown with an ermine robe. Pearls decorate her hair, and she holds a sword symbolic of power in his hand. The glorious red throne reflects her energy and hunger for authority.

The Collector

Credit: The Collector


Royal portraits have been an influential part of art history. Royal kingdoms used portraits to maintain their legacy for future generations. Even today, royal portraiture is prevalent in the British royal family.

Royal portraits have always been a source of inspiration for budding artists. Thus, this regal art form will remain a glorious part of the cultural and artistic heritage.

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