Portraits as a ‘likeness’ of an individual captured through painting, drawing and/or photography have been a part of human culture since prehistoric times. However portraits can have many different purposes that affect the way in which the concept of ‘likeness’ is interpreted, the form of ‘capturing’. Portraits vary widely in for example:
- what is portrayed? is this a portrait of the face only (eg frontal, side or three quarters view)? is it just head and shoulders (what attitude?) is it the full body (what posture)? or part of the body only (eg hands? eyes? feet?) ? or is the main focus on context (some portraits contain objects and environment of the sitter without the sitter themselves)
- external or internal ‘reality’? is the aim mainly a figurative likeness of external appearance? or more a ‘capturing of inner soul’ that permits abstraction and exaggeration of shapes, colours etc? or does it try to do both?
This is often affected by:
- the relationship between the person portrayed and the person doing the portrayal: who commissioned it? who is paying? who is in control of the decisions?
- was the portrait commissioned by the subject? why and for whom? how do they wish themselves to be represented?
- was the portrait instigated by the artist? using a paid model? or a friend/lover etc? why and for whom? do they have a specific artistic style?
- the context in which the portrait is to be viewed:
- is it a private, personal painting to be seen by a few close friends and family members who know the person well?
- does the intended audience have particular views about what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ portrait? or are they more interested in innovative approaches?
These factors have varied significantly over time.
Prehistoric cave paintings, pottery and statuettes depicted people in abstracted form. Some of these may have represented particular people eg chiefs, or deities where particular characteristics have been exaggerated eg fertility or facial features/hairstyles/clothing showing ethnic identity.
Egypt: portraits of rulers and gods were highly stylised, and most in profile, usually on stone, metal, clay, plaster, or crystal. Egyptian portraiture placed relatively little emphasis on likeness, at least until the period ofAkhenaten in the 14th century BC.portrait bust of Queen Nefertiti sculpted in c.1360 bc
China: Portrait painting of notables in China probably goes back to over 1000 BC, though none survive from that age. Existing Chinese portraits go back to about 1000 AD
Ancient Greek and Roman portraiture was often highly accurate and subjects were depicted with relatively little flattery. Sculpted heads of rulers and famous personalities like Socrates show why he had a reputation for being ugly.
Most early medieval portraits were commissioned by , initially mostly of popes in Roman mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts, an example being a self-portrait by the writer, mystic, scientist, illuminator, and musician Hildegard of Bingen.
Many innovations in the various forms of portraiture evolved because of economic and social changes in the role of the artist, and technological innovations eg use of oil paints that enabled finer brush strokes.
Northern European: Durer, Jan van Eyck, Holbein
Italy: the Florentine and Milanese nobility wanted more realistic representations of themselves that stimulated experimentation and innovation particularly in creating convincing full and three-quarter views. Artists like Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, and Leonardo da Vinci and other artists added portraiture to traditional religious and classical subjects, often in very similar style. Leonardo and Pisanello were among the first Italian artists to add allegorical symbols to their secular portraits.
Baroque and Rococo
In the 16th Century artists increasingly experimented with printmaking techniques to produce figurative portraits as for example:
Rembrandt van Rijn who painted powerful portraits of himself ‘warts and all’ as he grew older. In addition to paintings he also made etchings.
Benedetto Castiglione who, influenced by Rembrandt, experimented with monoprint from 1640 to produce very detailed portraits.
19th and early 20th century
Saw further development of figurative portraits by artists like Ingres, Watteau. But also the evolution of:
- Impressionism focusing on effects of light and colour like Degas
- Fauvists and expressionists whose woodcut portraits and paintings used exaggerated forms of distortion and use of colour to express emotion and tried to capture ‘inner essence’ and/or the feelings of the artist towards the subject.
Artists continued to abstract further:
Other artists focus much more on inner emotions, particularly in self-portraits, in some cases focusing more on symbolic objects than representation of the subject themselves:
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