Written By: Ben Cosgrove

It can be eye-opening to see the men and women behind famous works of art. And yet, while Picasso, Dali, Matisse and perhaps a handful of other “art superstars” are recognized around the world, countless other painters and sculptors, including some of the finest, most influential artists of the past century are, in a sense, invisible. Their works endure; but their look—their faces and the way they held themselves—is often little known 

Here, LIFE.com presents a series of portraits of artists who re-imagined and redefined the way we see the world. Pollock is here, and Picasso, along with Georgia O’Keeffe and even Renoir. But can art aficionados identify a photograph of, Claes Oldenburg? Jasper Johns? Barbara Hepworth? Giorgio de Chirico?

What’s wonderful about the pictures here, including those (like the deeply shadowed silhouettes of Hopper and O’Keeffe) in which we perceive a powerful sense of the full figure, rather than discrete details, is that each photo reveals something uniquely essential about the artist. One would be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar portraits than those of Arshile Gorky and Robert Rauschenberg; but each captures an aspect of the artist’s personality and sensibility (Gorky’s moody intensity; Rauschenberg’s exuberance) that helps us see something, even if only a glimpse, of the human being behind the art.


Jasper Johns 1958

Jasper Johns, 1958.

Peter Stackpole/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Thomas Hart Benton, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Louise Bourgeois 1983

Louise Bourgeois. 1983.

Ted Thai/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Georgia O'Keeffe photographed on the roof of her Ghost Ranch home in New Mexico, 1967.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed on the roof of her Ghost Ranch home in New Mexico, 1967.

John Loengard The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Marcel Duchamp 1952

Marcel Duchamp, 1952.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Georges Braque 1946

Georges Braque, 1946.

David E. Scherman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Pablo Picasso 1949

Pablo Picasso, 1949.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Elaine de Kooning 1964

Elaine de Kooning, 1964.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Alexander Calder 1952

Alexander Calder, 1952.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jackson Pollock 1949

Jackson Pollock, 1949.

Martha Holmes/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Marc Chagall 1960

Marc Chagall, 1960.

Loomis Dean/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Henri Matisse sculpts a nude in clay, Nice, France, 1951.

Henri Matisse sculpts a nude in clay, Nice, France, 1951.

Dmitri Kessel The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Roy Lichtenstein 1963

Roy Lichtenstein, 1963.

John Loengard/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Herman Cherry 1946

Herman Cherry, 1946.

Eliot Elisofon/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Christo 1968

Christo, 1968.

Carlo Bavagnoli/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Salvador Dali 1950

Salvador Dali, 1950.

Mark Kauffman/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Giorgio de Chirico 1949

Giorgio de Chirico, 1949.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Willem de Kooning 1945

Willem de Kooning, 1945.

Gordon Coster/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Guy du Bois 1949

Guy du Bois, 1949

Herbert Gehr/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Marisol Escobar 1957

Marisol Escobar, 1957.

Walter Sanders/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Lyonel Feininger 1951

Lyonel Feininger, 1951.

Andreas Feininger/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Alberto Giacometti 1951

Alberto Giacometti, 1951.

Gordon Parks/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Robert Rauschenberg 1951

Robert Rauschenberg, 1951.

Wallace Kirklan/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Arshile Gorky 1945

Arshile Gorky, 1945.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Barbara Hepworth 1964

Barbara Hepworth, 1964.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Eva Hesse 1969

Eva Hesse, 1969.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Edward Hopper 1967

Edward Hopper, 1967.

John Loengard/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Edward Kienholz 1965

Edward Kienholz, 1965.

Ralph Crane/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Franz Kline 1954

Franz Kline, 1954.

Fritz Goro/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Fernand Leger 1949

Fernand Leger, 1949.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Peter Max 1967

Peter Max, 1967.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Henry Moore 1946

Henry Moore, 1946.

Eliot Elisofon/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Isamu Noguchi 1946

Isamu Noguchi, 1946.

Eliot Elisofon/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Claes Oldenburg 1960

Claes Oldenburg, 1960.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Man Ray 1947

Man Ray, 1947.

Yale Joel/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ad Reinhardt 1966

Ad Reinhardt, 1966.

John Loengard/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Auguste Renoir, 1919

Auguste Renoir, 1919.

Pictures Inc./Life Pictures/Getty Images

Georges Rouault 1949

Georges Rouault, 1949.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Richard Serra 1969

Richard Serra, 1969.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ben Shahn 1954

Ben Shahn, 1954.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jacques Villon 1949

Jacques Villon, 1949.

Gjon Mili/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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