Who Are The Most Well Known Figurative Artists Of All Time?

"Human perception of the body is so acute and knowledgeable that the smallest hint of a body can trigger recognition" — Jenny Saville

In light of our latest exhibition 'Elysium' by Mark Demsteader, today we're discussing and celebrating some of the most well known figurative artists and photographers of all time. 

John Singer Sargent
Born in Florence, to an American surgeon and an amateur artist, John Singer Sargent travelled Europe during his childhood and landed in Paris in 1874. He stayed there for 10 years working towards a successful career. After the Madame Pierre Gautreau portrait scandal, he relocated to London with a tarnished reputation. Having painted a sitter with such a daring appearance, the English withheld commissions. With a great deal of spare time, he frequently visited Monet in Giverny, where he developed his practice.

Sargent eventually had the success he had been dreaming of, painting many distinguished personalities of his day such as Roosevelt and Rockefeller. However, the scandalous piece of art was kept in hiding and Sargent even re-painted the slipping shoulder strap. Until 30 years later, The Met purchased the painting with one condition, to keep the sitter’s name disguised.

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (Andrew Warhola) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928. After graduation, he moved to New York to become a commercial illustrator. During the 1940-50s, Warhol worked primarily with a basic form of printmaking, known as ‘blotted-line’ technique. Some of his earliest line drawings, depicting the male figure, illustrate Warhol’s exploration of his homosexual identity.

His success came not long after his move to the big city, when the art editor of Glamour magazine, Tina Fredericks, bought one of his drawings and commissioned a series of shoe illustrations. With clients including the New York Times, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, he was in high demand. He went on to create images of stars such as Elvis and Marilyn, whilst exploring the relationship between art expression and celebrity culture. Now known as an American Culture icon and one of the pioneers of Pop Art, the value of his work has been on an endless upward trajectory since his death in 1987.

Lucian Freud
Grandson of the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, Lucian was born in Berlin in 1922. At the age of 10, he moved to England with his family to escape Nazism. Freud went on to study at Goldsmiths College in London and served at sea during WW2.

At the height of minimal art, his work was shown in an exhibition titled ‘The Human Clay’, curated by painter R.B. Kitaj. The show was controversial to an art world dominated by abstraction. The group of artists in the show were named ‘School of London’ (including Kitaj himself, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney). The artists knew each other, some intimately, and were working in London at the same time in the figurative style. Over a 60-year career, Freud painted mostly friends and family, as he was a very private and guarded man. Using thick impasto with a sombre tone, he became one of the foremost 20th century portraitists.

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, 1909 and during the outbreak of the war in 1914 his father had relocated the family to London. His father was very authoritarian and threw him out as he was repelled by Francis’ homosexuality. With little schooling and a £3 weekly allowance from his mother, Bacon arrived in London in 1926. The following year he visited a Picasso exhibition at Chez Paul Rosenberg gallery in Paris, which is said to have triggered his wish to become a painter. 

Soon after the execution of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944, Picasso’s direct influence on Bacon’s work rapidly waned. Bacon developed a more painterly approach and in 1949 he began to focus on the human figure. Startling in colour and bold in gesture, Self-Portrait 1975 is a body of work that is considered one of the artist’s greatest achievements, sitting him among the ranks of art history’s celebrated masters of the discipline: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and his biggest inspiration Picasso.

Cindy Sherman

Born in New Jersey, in 1954, Cindy Sherman graduated from the State University of New York in 1976. Not long after, she rose to fame with her series of 69 black-and-white photographs “Untitled Film Stills” (1977–80), sparking conversations about feminism, postmodernism and representation. To this day they are still regarded as her best work.

For over four decades, Sherman has worked as her own model, transforming herself into different characters displaying diversity of human types and stereotypes in her images. She is famed for advancing the concept of narrative photography through her early work and for experimenting with identity.

Although she began her career using black-and-white photography, Sherman transitioned to colour film in the early 1980s. And from the 2000s to now, she has utilised digital technology to further manipulate her roster of characters.

Jenny Saville
Since childhood, Jenny Saville has been captivated with ‘imperfections’ of the flesh. She was born in Cambridge, England in 1970 and later attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1992. Over the years she has studied the work of plastic surgeons, explored medical pathologies and examined animals and meat. Although finding inspiration from Titian, Tintoretto and Renaissance sculpture, Saville also takes note of everyday observations. Both classical figuration and modern abstraction are found in her work, with heavy layers, smears and scraps of paint.


Mark Demsteader has returned to Hancock Gallery with his first exhibition of 2023 - the third exclusive to the gallery. 'Elysium' includes new and original work that is simultaneously show stopping and compelling in equal measure. The works include his signature head and shoulder studies, both in his well known oil paintings and his more rare charcoal drawings, with starting prices of £3,000.00. Discover the exhibition. 

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