In an essay first published in the New York Review of Books, Hilton Als writes that ‘Michael Jackson was most himself when he was someone other than himself.’ The National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, 'Michael Jackson: On The Wall', displays a myriad of these complex facades and in doing so, seeks to unpick how the ‘King of Pop’ influenced contemporary art as much as popular culture.

As evidenced in the work of the 48 artists on show, Jackson remains an unreachable figure verging on the fantastical and divine. His relentless dedication to entertaining was closely matched by his unwavering commitment to keeping his private life closely guarded. Rather than exhibit objects, such as costumes and handwritten lyrics, relating to Jackson’s career, this is a display solely of artworks depicting Jackson from childhood fame in The Jackson 5 to the ridicule he faced in later life. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition focuses on Jackson’s global impact, particularly in Nigerian and Ghanaian communities where he was regarded as one of their own.

Michael Jackson (1958–2009)

Michael Jackson (1958–2009)

T. Arts (Dr) (active 20th C)

Horniman Museum and Gardens

A portrait of Jackson by Nigerian artist Dr T. Arts can also be found at the Horniman Museum. It depicts Jackson as he was in the video for ‘Billie Jean’, black suit and red bow tie, in a profile view reminiscent of ancient coins and Renaissance portraiture. While the earthy colour palette evokes the West African landscape, the profile view places it firmly in the western tradition.

Portraiture has always functioned as propaganda for promoting the image of those in power. When large sections of society were still illiterate, paintings of rulers could easily convey certain qualities. Here we take a look at some of the singers through history who have been immortalised in portraits – some commissioned, some very much not!

Farinelli (Carlo Broschi, 1705–1782)

Farinelli (Carlo Broschi, 1705–1782) 1734

Bartolomeo Nazari (1699–1758)

Royal College of Music

A painting of the acclaimed opera singer Farinelli is one of the earliest examples of a portrait depicting a famous singer in public collections. Completed in 1734 by Bartolomeo Nazari, the painting demonstrates Farinelli as a wealthy and accomplished figure having found success across Europe. With one arm propped on his hip and the other atop a harpsichord, he stands proudly in a lavish blue velvet coat and stares out directly to the viewer – as if he could burst out into an aria at any moment. Although Farinelli’s legacy doesn’t quite overshadow that of contemporary composers like Handel, the level of fame he experienced is not unlike Michael Jackson’s.

Adelina Patti (1843–1919)

Adelina Patti (1843–1919) c.1873–1875

Karóly Markó Junior (1822–1891)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

A century later, Adelina Patti would also wow opera audiences worldwide with her voice. Born in Madrid to Italian parents, Patti grew up in the Bronx following her family’s emigration to New York City. Her operatic debut was at the age of 16, as the eponymous heroine in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Academy of Music, New York. At the height of her career she was the world's highest-paid soprano. She even sang for Abraham Lincoln and his wife during the Civil War, reportedly moving them to tears. Although painted a few years before her permanent move to Wales, the portrait of Patti by Karóly Markó Junior shows the prima donna swaddled in furs and carrying ice skates. There is nothing to suggest that she is a singer, but you can certainly tell that she is a woman of great beauty and wealth. By painting Patti offstage, the viewer is invited to see the singer as a Victorian woman enjoying her leisure time, rather than a world-class soprano.

The Beatles 1962

The Beatles 1962 1963–1968

Peter Blake (b.1932)

Pallant House Gallery

There was a seismic shift in mainstream music and its audiences halfway through the twentieth century, thanks to the emergence of jazz and rock and roll. In art too, movements such as Pop Art responded to emerging popular culture and imagery. Sir Peter Blake may be most associated with having worked on the album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (along with his then-wife Jann Haworth) but this earlier portrait of the Liverpudlian band is a record of their incarnation before hitting the big time. His style alludes to the collage techniques used in fanzines as well as the process of colour printing. All of the Fab Four are staring out straight on, with a mixture of determination and bewilderment, but George Harrison’s eyes are the most striking for being slightly smudged and harder to read – rather appropriate for the ‘quiet Beatle’.

Mick Jagger (b.1943)

Mick Jagger (b.1943) 1968

Pamela Mitchell

Gallery Oldham

Pop Star, '73

Pop Star, '73 1973

John Judkins (b.1951)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

From the 1960s onwards, bands accumulated large fanbases. Lead singers like Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones or Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin are known for their charisma and this command over an audience translates well into paintings.

The rise of MTV in the 1980s gave a visual medium to the sound of the Top 40 and transformed our consumption of entertainment. An unusual four-panelled piece by Paul Wright for a fairground ride features paintings of Elvis Presley, Madonna, Tina Turner and George Michael. Now part of the collection at The Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in Devon, these portraits are graphic and virtually fluorescent in style, echoing the exciting dynamism of a fairground, but also recalling the spectacle of stage performance.

Do portraits let us get a little bit closer to our favourite pop stars? Do they help us to understand another, more personal side to them? The works on display in 'Michael Jackson: On The Wall' do not necessarily answer these questions, but they do explore the ways in which paintings can help mythologise a singer who has reached such unfathomable superstardom. Though we may never quite know where the performance stops and the authentic self begins, particularly with a figure like Michael Jackson, we continue to look in awe.

Victoria Rodrigues O'Donnell, Museum Assistant at the Fashion and Textile Museum and freelance writer