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A Brief History of Portraiture

Updated on November 11, 2013

Portraiture in the Medieval ages

The art of portraiture dates back to ancient Greece and Rome when portrait sculptures of prominent figures were a valued form of Classical art. In Roman Egypt, portraits of deceased individuals which were painted on wood using heated wax and a water-based medium, known as the Fayum portraits, marked the beginning of panel painting.

During the Medieval ages, painters were commissioned by monarchs and nobles to produce a commemorative panel portrait which would depict their aristocratic status and religious devotion. The duty of these painters was to emphasise the objects that denote the sitter’s hierarchical status, such as clothing and heraldic badges, rather than to depict physical likeness. It was only in the late Medieval times that the panel portraits started to gain ground among different social groups. In a time when religious devotion was at the core of European cultures, donors would have requested the artist to paint a portrait of them kneeling before their patron saint. The presence of religious icons in portraits signified the subject’s “‘personalized’ devotional religion at its most individualistic” (Holmes, 2001, p.317). While the subject’s spiritual values were the hallmark of late Medieval portraits, this aspect of portraiture was bound to change with the advent of philosophical concepts on the human individual.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

Portraiture during the Renaissance

Renaissance thought opened up new aesthetic views on art, including the notion of individual identity in portraiture. Whereas in previous centuries portraiture served political and religious purposes, the function of Renaissance portraiture entailed the artist’s creative ability to “pay more attention to psychology, showing sitters’ inner states and more attitudes” (Freeland, 2007, p. 97). The rise of Humanism in the early Renaissance marked a shift from the portrayal of religious icons towards a sense of individualism and personhood, sparking a “mimetic interest” (Berger, 1994, p. 94) in the portrayal of human forms, particularly amongst Italian painters like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). This visual approach towards realistic poses and facial expressions in portraits mirrored the early Renaissance “attitudes towards individuality, originality, and creativity” (Johnson, 2005, p.70). Another common practice amongst great painters of fifteenth century Europe, such as Raphael and Dürer, was the self-portrait. In a period marked by an overwhelming self-consciousness about identity, artists used themselves as subjects to explore psychological change and varying moods (West, 2004, p.164).

The emphasis on expressive postures and facial expressions continued to be explored until the late Renaissance. By the seventeenth century, Dutch portrait painters had become influenced by the Italian humanist approach to art, and consequently Dutch artists like Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) started “infusing portrait subjects with increasing naturalism, humanity, emotion, and sometimes drama” by expanding “technique, subject, and pose” (Brenner, Riddell et al, 2007, p. 97).

Writing about the functions and artistic aspects of the late Renaissance and early Modern portrait, Berger (1994) asserts that:

The sociopolitical factor is the growing demand not only for accurate resemblances to store in the family archive but also, and more importantly, for exemplary images; images that commemorate the individual as the model, the embodiment, of the status, values, norms, and authority of a particular class, lineage, institution, or profession. (p. 94)

Berger goes on to say that these portraits present an ego ideal as they “serve to inscribe an ideal soul or personality in the appearance” (p. 94).

The aesthetic functions of portraiture that flourished during the Renaissance continued to predominate over the political and moral functions of art throughout the Victorian era. Members of the Aesthetic Movement (1860-1900) valued the importance of aesthetic qualities over morality, their dictum being ‘art for art’s sake.’

Portraiture of the Victorian era

The Victorian era marks a turning point in the history of portraiture with the birth of the first photographic image, the ‘heliograph’(1826), recorded by Niepce (1765-1833) using a camera obscura. At the early stage of its experimentation, the main functions of portrait photography were to produce likeness and document existence. Due to the long exposure time of the photographic process, sitters had to maintain a neutral position and stand stiffly until the picture was taken.

The early portraits usually exhibited a bourgeois setting that showed subjects standing near columns, armchairs and curtains. These were known as cartes-de-visite and were mostly popular amongst politicians, actors and other high-class figures. Although in 1839 Fox Talbot (1800-1877) introduced the positive/negative system, photography only became popular amongst the masses in the 1880s, when George Eastman’s (1854-1932) invention of the roll film made photography more affordable (Andrews & Cope, 2007).

As the practice of photography started spreading, experimental techniques with this medium also emerged. The photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) criticized the cartes-de-visite which at that time that dominated the market. She was greatly influenced by the allegorical representation of women that feature in the works of Romantic poets, and this is reflected in her portrait photographs of women.

Study of Beatrice Cenci by Julia Margaret Cameron
Study of Beatrice Cenci by Julia Margaret Cameron

Portraiture of the 20th century

The early twentieth century was characterised by further industrial progress. Photographers felt the need to abandon the objectivity of photography and instead produce subjective portraits that communicated the new roles of individuals in a society that was undergoing radical transformations (West, 2004). For instance, the German photographer August Sanders (1876-1964) took photos of ordinary people to portray different class backgrounds, genders and vocations in a modern society. This subjective trend in photography coincided with the Expressionists’ ambition towards the inner life of the individual, which they conveyed through “the power of facial expression” (West, 2004, p.34). Other avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, like the Impressionists, the Cubists and Surrealists, aimed at portraying “more expressive indicators of internal life to convey the psychological characteristics and emotional qualities of their living subjects” (Freeland, 2010, p.3). For example, the Cubist portraits by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) do not bear any likeness to the subject’s appearance, yet the portraits still emit aspects of the sitter’s internal life.

Another 20th century avant-garde artist whose portrait works are still revered in contemporary pop culture is Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Warhol’s glamorous portraits of celebrities and politicians paved the way for the commercialization of portrait photography. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, amongst others, were “treated as advertisements for a culture, way of belief, or ‘life-style’” (Freeland, 2010, p. 250).

Throughout the history of art, the different portrait techniques have always been a product of cultural values and social attitudes. The changing notions of identity in different periods have also recorded changes in the perception of portraiture. Thus, portraits function as “works of art that engage with ideas of identity as they are perceived, represented and understood in different times and places” (West, 2004, p. 11). This artistic examination of the individual’s psychology is still prevalent in contemporary portraiture.

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol

Contemporary Portraiture

The notion of identity in portraiture became more widespread in the years after WW2 when artists started to explore new aspects of social identity, including sexuality and ethnicity. Diane Arbus’s (1923-1971) black and white portraits of abnormal and eccentric individuals challenged mainstream and conventional concepts of sexual identity. Most significantly, her portraits of transvestites and homosexuals “captured the fears, taboos and fragmentation of 20th century life” (Goldman, 1974, p. 32).

In an analysis of identity in Postmodern and Contemporary portrait photography, Shearer West (2004) points out two main genres that have been prevalent since WW2, which are self-portraiture and social role-playing. The photographer Cindy Sherman (1954- ) harnesses both of these themes in her portraits by photographing herself in fictional identities. In her photographic project ‘Untitled film stills,’ Sherman represents the stereotypical roles of women as they are portrayed in Hollywood’s film noir. Looking at portraiture from this perspective, it can be argued that role-playing is therefore used “as a means of undermining the idea that identity can be encapsulated in representation” (West, 2004, p. 206).

The dynamic functions of contemporary portraiture have propelled different theorists into examining the interrelated components that constitute a contemporary portrait.


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