In Europe, kings and queens had their court painters, charged with painting the royal family and their various associated servants and attendants, as well as “history paintings” depicting historical events and figures such as important generals or leaders from bygone eras.
Wealthy non-royals might also be able to afford portraits of themselves and their families, and the church regularly commissioned paintings of religious figures to adorn cathedrals.
The Renaissance became the rise of portraiture and marked a turning point in its history. Portraits were given an important role in Renaissance society and valued as objects, and as depictions of earthly success and status. Painting, in general, reached a new level of balance, harmony, and insight, and the greatest artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael) were considered "geniuses", rising far above the tradesman status to valued servants of the court and the church.
One of the best-known portraits in the Western world is Leonardo da Vinci's painting titled Mona Lisa, named for Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
Portraitists may create their work by commission, for public and private persons, or they may be inspired by admiration or affection for the subject. Portraits are often important state and family records, as well as remembrances.
Historically, portrait paintings have primarily memorialized the rich and powerful. Over time, however, it became more common for middle-class patrons to commission portraits of their families and colleagues.
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