Five iconic portraits to see in London

We celebrate the seminal portraits that London’s galleries have to offer.


Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

  • The Courtauld Gallery
  • Free with National Art Pass

Van Gogh created this piece shortly after returning home from hospital. Painting a self-portrait suggests that this was an important moment for the artist. Living in Arles, Van Gogh hoped to create a community of like-minded artists. He invited fellow artist Gauguin to join him and paint in his ‘studio of the south’. However, following a quarrel over artistic techniques, Van Gogh famously mutilated his ear. The disagreement marked the end of Van Gogh’s dream. Some interpret the self-portrait, especially the presence of the blank canvas, as Van Gogh’s fear of facing a creativity drought. Others read it as a signal of the imaginative works that Van Gogh was inspired to produce.


Mr and Mrs Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750

  • National Gallery
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

It is suggested that this not a double portrait, but a triple portrait of Mr Andrews, Mrs Andrews and their estate. Gainsborough painted it shortly after the sitters’ marriage. Both from landowning families, it is believed that their matrimony was engineered by their fathers to consolidate their lands. One may notice that a part of Mrs Andrews’s lap was left unpainted as if something was to be painted there later; it is possible that the space had been left for an anticipated child – their eldest son was born the following year.

The portrait was acquired by the National Gallery in 1960 with help from the Art Fund.


Study of Mme Gautreau, John Singer Sargent, c.1884

  • Tate Britain
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Sargent's finished portrait of Parisian socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, Madame X, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but you can see the full-size sketch at Tate Britain. When the portrait was exhibited at the 1884 Salon in Paris, the public was scandalised by Gautreau's provocative pose and dress – to the extent that her mother requested the painting to be withdrawn from the exhibition. The public outcry damaged Sargent’s reputation so much that he permanently relocated to Britain; over 100 years on, his portrait of Mme Gutreau is still his most iconic work.

The portrait was acquired by Tate in 1925 with help from the Art Fund.


Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol, 1962

  • Tate Modern
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

In the months following Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death in 1962, Andy Warhol made more than 20 silkscreen paintings of her based on a publicity photograph from the film Niagara (1953). In her, Warhol found the union of two of his consistent themes: death and the cult of celebrity. By repeating the image, Warhol evokes Monroe’s ubiquitous media presence. The fading in the right panel, on the other hand, hints at her mortality. According to a survey in 2004, the Guardian claimed that Marilyn Diptych was the third most influential piece of modern art.


Self, Marc Quinn, 2006

  • National Portrait Gallery
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Made from eight pints of the artist’s frozen blood, Self is a life-size cast of Marc Quinn’s head. He makes a new version every five years, with each edition documenting his physical transformation and deterioration. The first version of Self (made in 1991) was a defining work for Quinn – it catapulted his career and became an iconic image of the YBA movement. Maintained in the gallery in a refrigerator unit, the work will live on beyond his death – which raises questions about the fragility of existence and nature of portraiture.

The work was acquired by National Portrait Gallery in 2009 with help from the Art Fund.

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