What is a portrait? A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture or any other representation of a person in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person.
The first Portraits
Portraits have been around since the beginning of time as a means to describe, not only the physical features but more importantly power and status. You can see this in the ancient egyptian wall paintings of gods and pharaohs as well as the ancient greek sculptures representing both gods, heroes and nobility. And although it was a way to record the appearance of someone, most portraits, sculptures or paintings almost always have been flattering, showing beauty, wealth, power and virtue.
Moving through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, portraits were mostly of royals, nobles and infamous religious leaders, and more often than not commissioned. Europe saw kings and queens commissioning their own court painters, employed to paint the entire royal family as well as their servants and attendants. Very often, they would also paint historical portraits showing off a figure of power, such as a leader from many years before.
From likeness to psyche
It was in the Baroque period where painters started to show interest in portraits of the common man. This was still commissioned and remained a skilled trade, not for everyone to practice as a hobby. It was only in the 19thcentury that things began to change where mass production meant oil paint and canvas was available to the masses. Artists became more experimental in technique as well as approach, focussing on the inner psyche of the sitter rather than the likeness of the portrait.
With the invention of the photograph, the impact was huge; the correlation between reality and likeness of the photograph is undeniable. Portraits were one of the main reasons of the development of photography and were the biggest commercial drive. Again it was a skilled trade where you had to go to a photographic studio to get your portrait taken, typically reserved for the wealthy and done to show power, status and nobility.
Popularity of the print
This started as a very lengthy process as the materials used were not yet as sensitive to light and long exposures were needed to create suitable images. Smart men made smart moves though and soon images were created quicker and in multiples. Images were given away to loved ones and collected in special albums. Even Napoleon III had his own likeness issued to his troops in 1859 and at the end of the 19thcentury photographs of Queen Victoria were sold to the public.
Soon smaller box camera became widely available and allowed photographers to leave the studio to be able to create more natural and informal images. Portraiture started to develop away from the confines of a studio and became images that were thoughtfully posed or playfully and artfully directed. Again as in art, portraiture started moving away from just being a representation of what the person looks like to rather communicating who they are.
There and back again…
As photography became available to the masses and through digital photography became instant, portraiture started taking on many different forms and different functions. Photo manipulation started bringing back the flattery of centuries ago and the rise of selfies explores the psyche but in some ways strips us from the truth. Through this whole rollercoaster the portrait in a way still remains to serve the same function: to record a person’s likeness so he or she can be seen now and be remembered in the future.