History's Rulers as Modern People
What would it be like to pass an Egyptian Pharaoh from thousands of years ago on the sidewalk today if he was on his way to a business meeting downtown?
Artist Becca Saladin has an answer for you. He looks pretty much like the guy who just got on the bus behind you.
A Texas-based graphic designer, Saladin offers a modern take on dozens of history’s most powerful people in her portrait series, “Royalty Now.”
The following portraits imagine some of history's royalty in modern guise. Can you still spot their power?
“Royalty Now” is an ongoing art project that reimagines queens, kings, emperors, statesmen, nobles, and a few famous musicians, scientists and artists, as contemporary people.
“I'm most drawn to the pieces of history that make us feel the closest to it,” Saladin said.
Of her entry on Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, she noted on her Instagram page: "I personally don’t see any modern doppelganger — I think he was a really unique looking person."
Agrippina the Younger
“I think people have the tendency to view history as a series of stories or like a movie rather than real events," Saladin said. "It was made up of people just like us who had real feelings and real challenges."
Of this portrait of Agrippina the Younger, Saladin added on Instagram, it's "one of my faves — the ruthless sister of Caligula and the mother of Nero."
Saladin said: “I've always really loved the colorized statue images and other recreations of past portraits, so I just decided to try it myself, but I wanted to create them as modern people to make them more relatable.”
Here is her portrait of Akhenaten, the Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from around 1353 to 1336 BCE, modeled on an ancient sculpture. Akhenaten, with his wife Nefertiti, sparked a religious revolution centered around the sun god, Aten. He reigned over one of the high points of Ancient Egypt's power, known now as the Amarna period.
Saladin added: "The art of the Amarna period deviated drastically from the previous art style — it was much less formal and full of curvier, more realistic portrayals of the rulers, which is why we have such beautiful portraits of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti."
Alexander The Great
”There's also something very interesting about putting a royal person in a t-shirt," Saladin said. "I usually put them in dignified outfits just because I like to give the figures a lot of respect. However, it's fun to play with outfits they might wear based on what we know of their personalities.”
About this portrait of Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, who succeeded to the throne in 336 BCE at age 20, Saladin commented on her Instagram notes:
"Alexander had a condition called heterochromia, which is where the eyes are a patchwork of colors or each eye is a different color. Descriptions of him give him golden curly hair (which is why I made his skin tone a bit lighter as well)."
Saladin said she guesses that some powerful figures from ancient history probably wouldn't want to be buttoned-up and stuffy if they were alive today. Think of Mark Zuckerberg’s penchant for hoodies despite his immense wealth and power.
"I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Alexander Hamilton before starting this one," Saladin said of the founding father and creator of the US banking system. "I haven’t had the opportunity to see the namesake musical that has put him back into the forefront of the American consciousness in the last few years."
Of this portrait, Saladin added on her Instagram page: "Anne Boleyn is my absolute favorite historical figure — she was my very first subject."
"I found this amazing stock photo and wanted to make the seductress version of Anne. She has so many 'sides' to her, as told by history. To some, she was a witch who seduced the king, and to others, she was this charming, witty and intelligent woman. I leaned into the temptress trope with this version on slide one. I always add some extra substance to the lips on the Tudor portraits, because they are always painted so unreasonably tiny."
Anne of Cleves
Saladin added on her Instagram page a commentary on this portrait:
"Another of Henry VIII's wives (arguably the luckiest of the six), this portrait really shows the beauty of Anne of Cleves. The reputation she earned after being rejected by the King was completely unearned in my opinion."
Saladin started the project in early 2019 and it has grown to include more than 50 portraits, pairing a modern version next to an often iconic one that is centuries, if not millennium old.
“There are so many wonderful figures from history that I would love to create, but that simply don't have any portraits created of them,” she said.
Saladin said of her portrait of Aristotle, the great philosophers who lived in Greece from 384 to 322 BC: "We don’t have any contemporary descriptions of his coloring, but luckily we have several surviving busts of his looks. Of course, this means estimating the hair and eye color, which is unknown. This work is in the Uffizi Gallery and is a Roman copy of the Greek original."
Here, the composer Ludwig van Beethoven is shown here at age 49 in an 1820 portrait. Saladin's modern version is tie-less but just as intense.
For Saladin, her project is less about “updating” history than to make the past more approachable.
“I try to dress each figure according to their historic personality,” she said. “I would also love to create images of everyday humans, but unfortunately their images don't survive. It's all about making history relatable, and creating 'regular' people would definitely be more relatable.”
Catherine de Medici
Pictured here, Catherine, who lived from 1519 to 1589, was an Italian noblewoman from the powerful Medici family. She was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, alongside King Henry II until his death in 1559. Catherine and Henry had three sons — Francis, Charles, and Henry — who all became King in succession to one another.
Saladin added, "She is known for doing anything for her family and for the Valois line to remain on the throne. This is demonstrated by the amusing tidbit that Catherine had a group of elite female spies called the 'Flying Squadron; who did her bidding. Without Catherine, it is unlikely that her sons would have remained in power. According to Mark Strage, one of her biographers, Catherine was the most powerful woman in 16th-century Europe."
"I have to say I really love this one — there is something so elegant and intellectual about her face."
Catherine the Great
Saladin said of her work on Catherine the Great: "One thing I wasn’t expecting was how difficult researching her hair color would be. Sources and portraits show Catherine with beautiful blue eyes, but they differ sometimes on her hair. In the show and in one or two sources she is depicted as a blonde, but many more sources and portraits show her with rich dark hair — so that’s what I went with here."
Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, she was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796 — the country's longest-ruling female leader. Under her rule, Russia thrived, becoming one of the main powers of Eurasia. Catherine was a supporter of the arts, humanities, and a supporter of the Enlightenment
Catherine Parr was Queen of England from 1543–47 and the last of King Henry VIII six wives, a favorite subject of Saladin's.
Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Egypt's Ptolemaic Kingdom, lived from 69 to 30 BC.
Saladin added: "Cleo was part of the Ptolemaic dynastic, a Hellenistic dynasty ruling Egypt — so her skin would be lighter than the typical Egyptian."
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus II of Persia was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, which at its height encompassed the areas of modern-day Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. During a reign lasting 30 years, Cyrus grew his empire by conquering surrounding territories.
Saladin noted, "Cyrus the Great is probably one of my most requested works, but I’ve held off because we have no contemporary portraits of him. This portrait I’ve used on the left is an artistic illustration of Cyrus, so my interpretation is purely artistic by default, but still fun to see nonetheless."
Dido Elizabeth Belle
Born into slavery in the West Indies in 1761 to a woman named Maria Belle, Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer.
Saladin said: "Lindsay returned to England with Dido after the war in 1765. Lindsay took Dido to be raised by his Aunt and Uncle, William & Elizabeth Murray, the count and countess of Mansfield. The Murray family raised Belle as an educated woman along with their niece and Dido's cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray."
"I wanted to do a portrait of an older Elizabeth since she was a long-reigning queen — she was 42 at the time she sat for this portrait. Honestly, this is one of my favorite creations I’ve made. I love how elegant she looks as a chic, modern-day Englishwoman," Saladin noted.
"I lowered the plucked hairline (popular for her era), gave her some blush and a more natural skin tone (she is wearing lead makeup in this portrait), and added some well-earned wrinkles that I’m sure she would have in modern-day."
"There are no confirmed portraits of Elizabeth," Saladin noted, "but this portrait has a good chance of being of her, so I used it for the purposes of the recreation because it’s the best one available for artistic purposes."
Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian noblewoman who lived from 1560 to 1614.
"She has been labeled as the most prolific female serial killer in history (documented, at least)," she continued. "She was accused at trial of torturing and murdering hundreds of young girls & women between 1590 and 1610. The stories of her sadistic murders were verified by the testimony of more than 300 witnesses and survivors, as well as many bodies. Eyewitnesses reported seeing her carrying out severe beatings, mutilation, burning, freezing, and starving girls to death. Because of her family’s status, she was not executed but rather imprisoned for the remainder of her life in Cachtice Castle."
A very recognizable figure, George Washington, who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797, becomes slightly less so in Saladin's modern rendition.
Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC. She ruled longer than any other female pharaoh and is regarded as being one of the most successful pharaohs in Egyptian history.
Saladin noted: "This was obviously a very stylized statue to work from, but it was really fun to guess what she would look like nonetheless. What’s interesting about the depictions of Hatshepsut is that they are very stylized in terms of the large eyes and small head, yet they are incredibly consistent across time and location. Every single portrait I’ve found of her has these large, kind eyes, the same shape nose, and a bit of a smile. None of the portraits of her show any age differences, so I’ve depicted her here as a young woman to match the smooth look of the statue."
Henry VIII, was king of England from 1509 until his death in 1547, a tumultuous period. He famously had six wives, favorite subjects of Saladin for this series.
Hurrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana, was the chief consort and legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Saladin noted: "Born in what is now modern-day Ukraine, Hurrem was originally a captive from a slave raid in her home country of Ruthenia."
"The pair fell in love, and breaking with Ottoman tradition, Suleiman made Hurrem his legal wife and the first imperial consort to receive the title of Haseki Sultan. The pair had six children. Hurrem is famous for not only being beautiful and the wife of the great Sultan, but also for being smart and active in the affairs and direction of the empire. She acted as Suleiman’s chief advisor and corresponded with politicians on matters of state both foreign and domestic."
Saladin: "Although it’s not known who this sculpture is a depiction of, this famous Bronze Head from Ife, also known as the Ife Head, is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal center of the Yoruba people. Believed to represent a Yoruba Ruler, It was probably made in the thirteenth-fourteenth century AD before any European contact had taken place with the local population."
"The realism of the sculptures is amazing and some of the only photorealistic depictions created in African art. The Ife Head was likely made under the patronage of King Obalufon II, whose bronze likeness shares stylistic features with this work."
Jane Seymour was Queen of England from 1536 to 1537. She was the third wife of Henry VIII and the mother of the future king, Edward VI.
Saladin notes of her portrait of the Roman leader: "He is one of the most famous historical names in history. Up there with the likes of Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ramesses the Great and of course Cleopatra."
"This reconstruction is based off of one of his famous busts. The artist has taken care to portray Caesar as you might expect a respected successful business executive to look. The eyes and ears are duplicated excellently. His expression shows a man who is used to dealing with complex situations — mirroring his steadfast bust perfectly."
Katherine Howard was Queen of England for 16 months as the fifth wife of Henry VIII. He was 49 and she was 16 or 17. Katherine was accused of adultery and executed by the King in 1542.
Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was Queen of England from 1509 to 1533.
Saladin said, "This portrait is disputed to be her (it may in fact be Mary Rose Tudor). I really love this portrait and it has such beautiful light and shadow I thought it would be a shame not to use it again for my Catherine revision, even if the subject is disputed."
Lady Jane Grey
"Jane Grey is a subject I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while, but there weren’t contemporary depictions of her to work from," Saladin noted. "I landed on using this 18th-century engraving of her, which is said to be a copy of a lost contemporary work."
She recounts the ghastly fate that befell Grey:
"Jane was only 17-years-old when she was executed in 1554. She is known commonly as “The Nine Days' Queen” — ruling England and Ireland between the 10th and 19th of July, 1553. Edward VI nominated the Protestant Jane and her descendants to be his heirs, leaving his Catholic half-sister Mary out of the succession."
"Viewing Jane as a usurper, Mary quickly raised an army and marched on London as Jane was awaiting coronation. After Mary I was installed as queen on July 19th, Jane was deemed too dangerous to the crown to live. Both Jane and her husband Lord Guildford Dudley were executed on Feb. 12, 1554."
Louis XIV, known also as the Sun King, ruled France from 1643 until 1715, which is the longest reign in French history. France was a leading power during the reign of Louis, but it was a time period marked by near-constant warfare.
Saladin: "The Sun King was notoriously excessive, and he cared very much about his image and legacy. He commissioned over 300 portraits of himself during his lifetime (the portrait I’ve chosen here is Louis as a young man of 23). He saw maintaining the royal image as a political duty during the age of absolute monarchies in Europe."
Saladin noted: "Louis XV is lesser known than his predecessor, the Sun King, Louis XVI, but he was the second-longest reigning monarch in French history. I have always known him by his famous mistresses, Madame De Pompadour."
Lucrezia Borgia was a Spanish-Italian noblewoman of the House of Borgia who was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.
Saladin: "Lucrezia was an incredibly smart and charming noblewoman — she reigned as the Governor of Spoleto, a position usually held by cardinals, in her own right. Her beauty and grace were renowned throughout Italy. There are many portraits that might be her, but the one I’ve worked from here is the only one that was confirmed to be her. She was also said to have blonde hair but this portrait shows her with a more strawberry blonde tone, which I’ve replicated."
Madame de Pompadour
Saladin has worked on portraits of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress and confidante of Louis XV, before but "for some reason, this portrait of her by François Boucher was so intriguing to me. Her shy smile and eyes that aren’t quite a specific color were very enchanting, as I’m sure they were during her life."
Madame de Pompadour, whose given name was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, was a member of the French court in the mid 18th century. She was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1751, and remained influential as court favorite until her death.
"An interesting fact I learned during my research was that she was actually groomed from a young age to become the mistress of a king," Saladin notes. "Supposedly her mother took her to a fortune teller that predicted she would one day reign over the heart of a King. She received a private education and was very quick-witted, learning all the skills she would one day need to thrive at Versailles. As the king’s mistress, she became a noblewoman and was considered a valuable aide and advisor."
Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, was the last queen of France before the French Revolution. She was convicted of high treason and executed by guillotine in October 1793.
Queen Mary I
Mary Tudor was the queen of England from July 1553 until her death in 1558. She was the daughter of Henry VIII.
Saladin noted, "Mary I, one of the first of these I ever created. If you look through my other Tudor portraits, it’s easy to see some resemblance between the members of this family!"
Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), lived from 83 to 30 BC. He was an influential Roman military leader and politician during the pivotal time in Roman history when the empire was transitioning from a Republic to an autocratic Empire.
Saladin: "After Julius Caesar’s assassination, Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Lepidus joined forces to defeat Caesar’s assassins, eventually becoming a three-man dictatorship. A notorious partier, Mark Antony began his infamous love affair with Egyptian queen Cleopatra."
"This one gave me a run for my money. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a challenge but it was a fun one which left me poring over every detail. The only description I could find for his looks was that he had medium brown hair and hazel eyes, so that’s what I went with here."
Mary Queen of Scots
Saladin noted, "This portrait was painted when Mary was between 16 and 18 years old, painted around the time of her wedding to Francis, the Dauphin of France. Honestly, she’s hard to pin down because I’ve seen so many portraits of her and they all look very different. I wouldn’t call Mary beautiful exactly, but she was tall, charming, and vivacious according to descriptions."
Saladin notes, "As many of you Tudor-history lovers know, it was so exciting when we finally got confirmation on a portrait of Mary Boleyn."
Mary Boleyn, who lived from 1500 to 1543, was the sister of Queen Anne, the second wife of Henry VIII.
"Mary Boleyn was known as the beauty of the Boleyn family," Saladin continues. "She previously had an affair with Henry VIII before her younger sister Anne married him. There was surprisingly little available about her hair color — I always thought she was blonde. (I’m sure from the popular Scarlett Johansson portrayal in 'The Other Boleyn Girl.') However, the only source describing her hair color was that it was “lighter than her sister's”, which was said to be a deep shade of auburn. I also had some fun adding a few beauty marks/freckles, which I think adds to some realism in the modern day. As always, I 'balanced' the proportions of the face, correcting for some of the known stylizations in portraiture from this era, like the tiny lips."
This painting is one of the most famous portraits of the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo Da Vinci, painted in the first years of the 16th century. The subject's identity is a matter of fierce speculation and debate. It is said by some to be the likeness of an Italian noblewoman, but there are many detractors to that theory. The painting hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Saladin: "Not exactly royalty but certainly one of the most well-known faces in the world: the Mona Lisa.
Mumtaz Mahal was the Empress consort of the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1631 as the chief wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The Taj Mahal was built as her tomb. She was born to a Persian noble family in 1593, and became betrothed to Shah Jahan at the age of 19. The couple went on to have 14 children — the last of which caused Mumtaz’s death.
Saladin added: "Unfortunately, there are no known contemporary portraits of Mumtaz, so I am working from a 17th-18th century likeness. Mumtaz lived an unprecedented lavish and luxurious lifestyle. She had a massive allowance for clothing and travel. However, she was more than a vapid character of history — she was Shah Jahan’s trusted advisor and confidante. On her advice, he would forgive enemies and even commute death sentences. She intervened on behalf of the poor and destitute and was a patron of arts and culture throughout the empire."
Saladin commented on the reported small statue of the 18th-19th century French military leader and emperor: "Did you know that Napoleon was most likely 5 foot, 7 inches? That's taller than King Louis XIV. Some say his perceived smaller stature was due to him looking small in comparison to his huge accomplishments. Others say it there was an error when translating his true height from French to English."
Nefertiti, an Egyptian queen and the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, lived from approximately 1370 to 1330 BC.
Saladin said: "This bust of Nefertiti is famous for its grace and beauty. I've been wanting to complete this comparison of Nefertiti for some time, as I've always been drawn to the beauty of this bust, which is believed to have been sculpted during her lifetime. This one was difficult and took some time, mostly because it's 50 percent digital reconstruction, considering the bust doesn't have eyes and has some pieces flaking off or missing."
Nzinga was the Queen of the Kingdom of Ndongo and the Kingdom of Matamba in the 17th century, in the area of modern-day Angola. Born into the ruling family in 1583, her father trained her in military and political tactics from a young age, and she assumed power over the kingdoms after her brother died.
Saladin: "Nzinga was an astute and super-intelligent leader and often bent the allegiances of the Europeans to her advantage," Saladin said. "Forging an alliance with the Dutch, she was able to defeat the Portuguese and drive them out. She also made her kingdom a safe haven for runaway slaves. Her reign lasted 37 years — she is considered a legendary figure in Angola to this day."
Pocahontas, who lived from around 1596 to 1617, was a Native American woman notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, and travels to England. She was the daughter of the chief Powhatan, chief of a network of tribes in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia.
Saladin added: "The representation I’ve worked from here is a painted copy of an original engraving — the only portrait made of Pocahontas during her lifetime. Working from the engraving probably would have been more accurate, but generally, I need a painting to work from. The portrait was made by an English artist, hence why she looks so Anglicized."
Queen Mother Idia
Idia was the mother of Esigie, who ruled as the Oba of Benin from 1504-1540 in what is now the modern-day Edo State in Nigeria. She was described as a great warrior who was integral in the rise and reign of her son.
Saladin noted: "I’ve been wanting to do an African royal for a while, but it wasn’t until I saw this Ivory Mask of Idia online that I thought it was one I could actually accomplish. So many traditional African portraits are very stylized as that was the preferred method of depicting rulers (there are only small figurines of her son Esigie, who was the king), which makes them incredibly difficult to work from in terms of creating a realistic likeness. I had some wonderful followers of the Benin/Edo culture help me out on the styling with this one."
Richard III was the last Plantagenet monarch of England, reigning for just two years until his death in 1485.
Saladin commented: "Famously, he has both staunch defenders and detractors in the historical community. Before the Richard III Society began defending his historical legacy, Richard was known as a cruel cripple who probably killed the two children who were the greatest threat to his throne. His body was famously recovered from underneath a parking lot in 2012, proving that he did have scoliosis (which was depicted in this portrait of him, and why I raised his right shoulder in my recreation image) and that he died of battlefield wounds."
Saladin: "I wanted to try something I’ve never tried before on this version of Shah Jahan — instead of creating this portrait purely from the profile view, I tried to kind of extrapolate his features onto a more revealing angle. This was tough — I was guessing what a slightly upward and side angle would look like for him, but I think it turned out pretty well!"
Shah Jahan was the fifth Mughal emperor.
"Taking over the throne in 1628, Shah Jahan is considered to be one of the most successful Mughal emperors — reigning for 30 years. The empire thrived under his long rule. He is most famously known for constructing the Taj Mahal for his late wife Mumtaz Mahal and being a great constructor of monuments."
Saladin noted, "I’ve been resisting it because this statue is the only good depiction I found to work from, but wasn’t sculpted from life — it’s actually located in Camden Market in the UK. There are drawings and depictions of him (none contemporary that I know of), that depict him in this same way, so I feel it does have elements of accuracy."
Shaka Zulu was a powerful South African King, ruling over the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828.
"He was a master of social and propagandistic political methods, as well as a great warrior when he decided to engage. He is often depicted holding the distinctive spear and shield of the Zulu warriors."
Saladin noted, "Simón Bolívar has been one of my most requested works."
"Bolívar was amazing, known also as El Libertador, he was a Venezuelan leader who led what are currently the states of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama to independence from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s."
Suleiman The Magnificent
"This is my first portrait from a profile view which I actually enjoyed a lot," Saladin commented. "The best portraits of many Ottoman sultans use this style instead of the typical three-quarters portrait we see in Europe."
Suleiman I, known as Suleiman the Magnificent, was the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 until his death in 1566.
"Suleiman and his military were a force to be reckoned with — shortly after ascending the throne, he began campaigns against Christian powers of Europe and the Mediterranean. Changes made by Suleiman to the Empire included major overhauls of society, education, taxes, and law."
Toussaint L’Ouverture, born a slave, was a Haitian general and leader of the Haitian Revolution.
Saladin notes: "Beginning in 1789, free people of color of Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then called) were inspired by the French Revolution to seek more rights and equality. L’Ouverture joined the rebellion and quickly worked into the position of General. Allied with the French, he gradually established control over the island of Saint-Domingue."
L’Ouverture put forth a constitution for the colony in 1801. In 1802, he was arrested and died in a French jail cell in 1803.