Portrait painting is a genre in painting, where the intent is to depict a human subject. The term ‘portrait painting’ can also describe the actual painted portrait. Portraitists may create their work by commission, for public and private persons, or they may be inspired by admiration or affection for the subject. Portraits are often important state and family records, as well as remembrances. A well-executed portrait is expected to show the inner essence of the subject.
Roman-Egyptian portraiture’s roots are likely found in prehistoric times, although few of these works survive today. In the art of the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, especially in Egypt, depictions of rulers and gods abound. However, most of these were done in a highly stylized fashion, and most in profile, usually on stone, metal, clay, plaster, or crystal. Egyptian portraiture placed relatively little emphasis on likeness.
From literary evidence we know that ancient Greek painting included portraiture, often highly accurate if the praises of writers are to be believed, but no painted examples remain. Most early medieval portraits were donor portraits, initially mostly of popes in Roman mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts.
The Renaissance marked a turning point in the history of portraiture. Partly out of interest in the natural world and partly out of interest in the classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, portraits—both painted and sculpted—were given an important role in Renaissance society and valued as objects, and as depictions of earthly success and status. Painting in general reached a new level of balance, harmony, and insight. The Northern Europeans abandoned the profile, and started producing portraits of realistic volume and perspective.
One of best-known portraits in the Western world is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting titled Mona Lisa, named for Lisa del Giocondo,a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The famous “Mona Lisa smile” is an excellent example of applying subtle asymmetry to a face.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, neoclassical artists continued the tradition of depicting subjects in the latest fashions. The realist artists of the 19th century, created objective portraits depicting lower and middle-class people.In addition to recording appearances, portraits served a variety of social and practical functions in Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Miniatures were given as gifts of intimate remembrance, while portraits of rulers asserted their majesty in places from which they were absent. In courtly settings, portraits often had diplomatic significance.
The development of photography in the 19th century had a significant effect on portraiture, supplanting the earlier camera obscura which had also been previously used as an aid in painting. Many modernists flocked to the photography studios to have their portraits made.
Historically, portrait paintings have primarily memorialized the rich and powerful. Over time, however, it became more common for middle-class patrons to commission portraits of their families and colleagues. Today, portrait paintings are still commissioned by governments, corporations, groups, clubs, and individuals. In addition to painting, portraits can also be made in other media such as etching, lithography, photography, video and digital media.
Editorial courtesy Henry Taylor Gallery.