Contemporary Artists Inspired by Art History

Contemporary art is said to be a reflection of our time, yet our time feeds on the past and starting from scratch artistically is hardly possible.

Behind every contemporary artist hide the -more or less direct- inspiration of an old master. However some artists push the dialogue between modernism and classicism further than others. Whether they represent classical subject matters in an extremely contemporary way, or reversely, contemporary themes with classical techniques, the seven artists we have chosen for you see classicism with a contemporary eye and draw a unique bridge to history.



Recently exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo, Patrick Neu is known for using unusal and very fragile material such as bee wax, soot, or insect wings.

With his series on carbonized glass and wardrobes, Patrick Neu pay a breathtaking tribute to masterpieces of the past. He burns wine glasses and wardrobe window with candle and then reproduces with the utmost realism classical scene taken from art history: Young ladies on the banks of the Seine by Courbet, The Intervention of the Sabine Women by David, or Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Douanier Rousseau.

Patrick Neu draws on classical imagery with ephemeral and fragile media. The surface of the wine glass and the wardrobe window look smoked and dirty at first, but when one look at them closely, their complexity and delicacy reveal itself. A world of minute details appears and disappears depending on the angle the work is looked at from.


Gary Miller

Gary Miller, 2011

Mat Collishaw is a British artist of the « Freeze » generation launched by Damien Hirst in 1988. The artist uses a wide variety of media, from photography, to painting, installation and videos. Matt Collishaw’s work questions our relation to images: often aesthetically appealing, his works represent an ambiguous and dramatic reality.

For his series Last meal on Death Row, Matt Collishaw draws on the ancient genre of still life to represent the last meal of prisoners on death row. The artist chose a list of quirky prisoner last menus and display them in 17th century classical fashion. Visually attractive, the reality behind those compositions is the imminence of death and, between the lines, the portrait of prisoners who committed atrocities.


Down, 2008

Kehinde Wiley is an American artist from Nigeria who turns Afro-Americans from the street into subject of 18th century style paintings that would not be out of place in Versailles. With a complete mastery of classical painting, Kehinde Wiley reinterprets classical portraits through the angle of hip hop culture: his models take royal postures yet wearing baggies and Nikes

The strength of his approach is to have two areas and cultures coexist within his work and to introduce ghetto people into the genre of historical portrait.



Conor Harrington is an Irish artist who combines classical realism with street art. Inspired by Renaissance painters, Conor Harrington likes contrasts: he represents historical subjects with the utmost contemporary street art style. The artist exhibits the battles of the past on the walls of our modern town. For Conor Harrington, the past tells us something about the present and we are always caught back by history.

For his gigantic murals, the artists takes pictures of his model in historical attires or draws inspiration from historical re-enactments.



Sans titre, 2007

Guillaume Bresson made a very much noticed entrance into the art world a couple of years ago thanks’ to his anachronistic pictorial approach. Guillaume Bresson’s paintings are very distinctive: he represents ultra-modern scenes with a perfectly mastered classical technique. The composition and gestures of his paintings also recalls the ones of Titian or Caravaggio. However there is no delicate dish or precious fabrics here but fast foods and Adidas tracksuits.

Guillaume Bresson does not only paint like the old masters, he also ties subtle links between his work and masterpieces of the past: his Mc Donald scene recalls the pilgrims of Emmaüs for instance.

Often imbued with a solemn atmosphere, Guillaume Bresson’s work contribute to creating a urban mythology of contemporary life.



This young Irish artist also associates traditional portraits and street art style. His work stages modern protagonists and scenes in classical golden frameworks that we are used to seeing in museums.

His contemporary subjects literally jump out of their frame and the voluntary unfinished style of his work also contributes to blurring the codes of his art.




Florence d’Elle is a self-taught Belgian artist who almost exclusively takes pictures of women. Whether they are amateur models, hung up or self-asserted, these women are a facet of what Florence D’Elle calls the “Universal woman”. This woman is mysterious and captivating at the same time, she has fantasy and is not afraid of talking about them.

For her series entitled “Re Birth”, the artist took pictures of all kinds of women in classical tones and staging. By showing indistinctively fit bodies next to imperfect ones, Florence D’Elle questions the notion of beauty and our relation to bodies.

Additionally, the well-rounded women she photographs seems like perfect embodiment of the ones of Rubens and Titian.