What Are Cindy Sherman’s Wicked History Portraits?

Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits offer a new take on the Old Masters. Disguised as different characters, the artist imitated works by Caravaggio and Raphael.

Mar 24, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

cindy sherman wicked history portraits


In her History Portraits, a series of photographs for which the artist posed herself, Cindy Sherman conjures up paintings by the Old Masters. With the help of fake breasts, heavy makeup, and elaborate costumes, the artist distorts the imagery of famous artists like Caravaggio and Raphael. This results in bizarre and artificial-looking figures with an eerie and sometimes even repellent effect. The art critic Hal Foster called them depictions of butt-ugly aristocrats. While many pieces from the History Portraits series serve as an amalgamation of several images and depictions by different artists, some are based on specific paintings. Here are five of Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits and the works her portraits are based on.


1. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #183: Madame de Pompadour

Untitled #183 by Cindy Sherman, 1988, via Art Institute Chicago


Cindy Sherman’s work Untitled #183 marks the beginning of her History Portraits series. Sherman was invited to collaborate with a company that encouraged artists to create functional works of art. She ended up visiting the porcelain factory in Limoges, France. It was there that Sherman saw objects Madame de Pompadour designed during her involvement with King Louis XV.


The artist used a tureen made for the Marquise de Pompadour and shot photos inspired by the famous mistress of Louis XV. Sherman did not want to copy paintings of the Marquise de Pompadour. Instead, she tried to create someone who looked like her. A year after she made the work Untitled #183, Sherman made more works inspired by this period and the French Revolution.


Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1759, via the Wallace Collection, London


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Even though Cindy Sherman did not copy a specific image of the Marquise de Pompadour, her image in the photo is similar to depictions by François Boucher. The Rococo painter François Boucher was one of Marquise de Pompadour’s favorite artists and he created several portraits of her, like the one from 1759 which is part of the Wallace Collection.


Due to the usage of heavy makeup, wigs, and opulent attire predominant at the time, images of Madame de Pompadour seem like an ideal choice for Sherman’s exaggerated fictional characters. But while the depiction of the Marquise de Pompadour appears natural and soft with pale skin, rosy cheeks, and delicate curves, Sherman’s character seems harsh and artificial in comparison. Her breasts protrude from the dress like two hard, flesh-colored balls and her makeup shows clear unblended, dark lines. Sherman’s version of the Marquise de Pompadour does not only emphasize the artificiality of the original paintings, but it questions the prestigious status of fine art.


2. Untitled 205 and Raphael’s La Fornarina

Untitled 205 by Cindy Sherman, 1989, via Christie’s


At the time of the History Portraits’ creation, Cindy Sherman was living in Rome. Since she did not take many costumes and props with her to Italy, Sherman went to flea markets to find many things that she could use in her photos. With a scarf wrapped around her head and what looks like an old curtain draped over her body, the artist imitated Raphael’s work. Her arm is decorated with a ruffled elastic band. This improvised approach is characteristic of the History Portraits. The usage of whatever was at hand and cheap-looking materials stand in stark contrast to the elegant and impeccable clothing portrayed in many art historical images. The fake breasts and pregnant-looking belly add to the work’s parodic nature.


Untitled 205 is based on Raphael’s La Fornarina, also called Portrait of a Young Woman. Even though the artist was living in Rome at the time, she never visited the churches or museums there to see the original artworks. She worked with reproductions from books, which emphasizes the artist’s appreciation for the reproducibility of photography.


La Fornarina by Raphael, c. 1520, via Barberini Gallerie Corsini Nazionali, Rome


There are several interpretations of who the person portrayed in Raphael’s work La Fornarina is. One of them identifies Margarita Luti as the depicted woman, who was Raphael’s lover and muse. Her father was a baker, and she was therefore called La Fornarina, or the baker’s daughter. Other interpretations describe the work as a more general depiction rather than the portrait of a specific person.


Joanna Woods-Marsden, for example, argues that the image could be an example of the belle donne theme, therefore being the artist’s representation of beauty. The woman in the painting was also speculated to be a depiction of a sex worker and a witch. The uncertainty regarding the woman’s identity makes Raphael’s work a perfect model for Sherman’s deconstruction of female identity by masquerading as different characters.


The differences between Sherman’s Untitled 205 and Raphael’s La Fornarina would probably have shocked Raphael’s contemporaries. An honorable depiction was ensured through the display of wealth and expensive clothing. In Sherman’s case, the ornate head brooch made with valuable materials is missing, and the exquisite gold headdress has been replaced with what Joanna Woods-Marsden called a worn, disheveled dishrag. The pregnant depiction of an unmarried woman would have also been unusual at the time.


3. Untitled #216 and Jean Fouquet’s Melun Diptych

Untitled #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989, via MoMA


Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #216 was inspired by the right panel of Jean Fouquet’s Melun Diptych. The French painter’s work was made around 1452 and depicts the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ as a child. The most prominent aspect of both Cindy Sherman’s and Jean Fouquet’s work is probably the spherical breast that looks like it was stuck on the body. The artificiality of the prosthetic breast in Sherman’s photo is very similar to the anatomy of Jean Fouquet’s Virgin.


The child in Cindy Sherman’s image is fake as well. The artist openly expressed her lack of appreciation for the Old Masters. She compared the breast in Untitled #216 to a grapefruit and talked about how neither the breasts nor the babies in paintings by the Old Masters look realistic. She criticized the idealization of these paintings and challenged the notion that everyone is supposed to admire them.


The Virgin and Child with Angels by Jean Fouquet, c. 1452, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


Sherman said that she developed a disdain for the sacred and religious treatment of art. In her History Portraits, she disrupted this sacredness by exaggerating the absurd artificiality. Therefore, the crown in Untitled #216 does not look regal but rather like it is made out of plastic. Her hair, her eyebrows, lips, and even the skin on her forehead look fake, resulting in a bizarre version of the idealized Virgin. The artist said she made works like these so that people without an art historical background could enjoy them. While they reference the culture and history of European painting, they also make fun of the serious atmosphere surrounding it.


4. Untitled #224 and Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus

Untitled #224 by Cindy Sherman, 1990, via MoMA, New York


The History Portraits series includes some of the first images of Cindy Sherman disguised as a man. Her previous examples in black-and-white photography did not turn out the way the artist intended. When she made the History Portraits, she noticed that she could easily take on the appearance of male characters with the use of costumes, wigs, and makeup. She also found it easier to do characters that don’t display a lot of emotion, which was the case for many figures of the History Portraits.


For Untitled #224, Sherman turned herself into Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus. Before creating the photos, she would rip out the pages of books with art historical images and stick them to the wall to absorb them. To look like the character of the original, Sherman put on a crown of leaves, held grapes in her hand and put some on the table, put on a white, toga-like garment, and made up her face accordingly.


Young Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio, c. 1593, via Galleria Borghese, Rome


Sherman’s face matches the pale and sickly-looking color of Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Sherman also used makeup to make her arm and back look more muscular. She even placed the sash on the table like in Caravaggio’s painting, which makes Untitled #224 the most obvious copy of her History Portraits. Caravaggio’s original is a self-portrait of the artist as the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. This adds to Cindy Sherman’s theme of disguise and identity. Her work shows a female artist trying to look like Caravaggio, who is trying to look like Bacchus.


5. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #228: Judith and Holofernes 

Untitled #228 by Cindy Sherman, 1990, via MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #228 was inspired by the story of Judith beheading Holofernes, a popular subject throughout art history. The biblical story is about how Judith, a beautiful widow, saved Israel by decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes. She was invited into his tent and after the drunk Holofernes fell asleep, she cut off his head. Sherman based her depiction on several Renaissance and Baroque paintings, but the red dress and blue cloth she wears in the photo look very similar to Sandro Botticelli’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes.



Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1497 – c. 1500, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Instead of using expensive materials and a realistic-looking head, Sherman used cheap garments from secondhand stores and what looks like a mask made for Halloween. The artist even said that she would like to dress up every day as if it were Halloween and go out into the world as some eccentric character. It seems that Sherman used prostheses in Untitled #228 to enlarge her feet and belly, therefore exaggerating and criticizing the often highly idealized and artificial depictions of the Old Masters.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.