8 Iconic Artists and the Inspiration Behind Their Favorite Subjects

Famous Artists Paintings Subject Matter in Art

Throughout art history, most prolific painters have employed different kinds of iconography in order to demonstrate the diversity of their interests, skills, and approach. No matter how many different themes they explore, however, most of these figures still have an apparent favorite subject.

From Rembrandt's pensive face to Yayoi Kusama's playful polka dots, these tried-and-true subjects offer a revealing look into the inner-workings of these creative minds. Here, we explore the favored muses of 8 famous artists in order to learn more about what inspired and influenced each important figure.

Rembrandt – Himself

レンブラント Rembrandt

Rembrandt's Self-Portraits at the Louvre

In the 17th century, acclaimed artist Rembrandt was at the forefront of the Dutch Golden Age. During this prosperous period, the Old Master produced paintings, prints, and drawings of various subjects, including landscapes, narratives, and—most famously—himself.

Rembrandt produced a collection of approximately 100 self-portraits over a span of 40 years. As he used a mirror to complete each piece, his painted self-portraits are rendered in reverse, offering the viewer a literal reflection of the artist. Furthermore, when capturing his likeness, he paid particular attention to his changing face and the expressiveness of his distinctive features. “Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older,” he famously explained, “showing our violence, excesses, or kindnesses.”


Gustav Klimt – Women

Famous Artists Paintings Subject Matter in Art

‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I' (1907) (Photo: Neue Galerie via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

While The Kiss is arguably Austrian artist Gustav Klimt's most famous painting, his oeuvre reveals a preference for portraits of women.  This interest is primarily due to Klimt's fascination with the female form and the free, forward-thinking mindset of the “new Viennese woman.”

Additionally, as a popular artist and public figure in Vienna, Klimt was often commissioned to paint portraits of wealthy women, culminating in a collection of art that features his female contemporaries as subjects. Like The Kiss, many of these pieces are accented by gold leaf and convey his interest in decorative patterns and stylized motifs.


Edgar Degas – French Dancers

Famous Artists Paintings Subject Matter in Art

‘The Dance Class' (1874) (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Like other Impressionist artists, French painter, sculptor, and draughtsman Edgar Degas found inspiration in everyday life—especially ballet dancers. Throughout his career, Degas painted, sketched, and sculpted 1,500 portrayals of young ballerinas, whom he would regularly observe at the Palais Garnier—an opera house in Paris—and invite to his studio.

What drew Degas to dancers? As he famously explained to Paris-based art dealer Ambroise Vollard, employing ballerinas as his models allowed him to pursue two of his primary artistic interests: “rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.”


Henri Toulouse-Lautrec- Parisian Nightlife

Famous Artists Paintings Subject Matter in Art

‘At the Moulin Rouge' (1892-1895) (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is celebrated for his depictions of Parisian nightlife during La Belle Époque. In his colorful body of work, the artist captured the high-spirited spectacles that transformed the capital city after dark.

As a young adult, Toulouse-Lautrec spent much of his time in Montmartre, an artistic arrondissement of Paris. Here, he exhibited his work with other avant-garde artists and frequented its cafes and cabarets, which popped up in his paintings, pastels, and posters advertising café-concerts like the Moulin Rouge.

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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