Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Artists, Art, People, Education, History, Journalism, Press, Sociology

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/18

Definition of Portraiture

Portraiture in painting refers to an art wherein the artist makes people the subject of his or her painting. Furthermore, portraiture is a means of representing a real individual or parts of the human body, and reproducing an image of the individual that reflects his or her personality, characteristics, and traits that are difficult to put into words (Brilliant, p. 35). Essentially, portraiture is a depiction of an individual as the artist’s subject as a means to capture his or her character and quintessence. Hence, portraits may be viewed as art that defines the character and personality of their subjects. For this reason, many regard portraiture as a medium that facilitates “the formation, naturalization and empowerment of social categories of identity, including that of individuality itself” (Woodall, p. 19). Portraiture is also considered a means to truthfully depict subjects. It is a way of representing a genuine and realistic image of subjects that reflected how artists connected with and understood other people (Soussloff, p. 1).

The Role and Function of Portraiture over Time

The value or importance and function of portraiture change over time. In the past, portraiture was one of the factors that sustained the social hierarchy. Some artists painted portraits of the elite or the bourgeoisie, which established the notion that people with stately portraits belonged to wealthy or powerful families. Hence, portraits used to be symbols of status among the elite. “Numerous literary works confirm the importance of portraiture as a quintessential courtly genre – a material and social practice employed as a distinguishing marker of urban life and elite status” (Bass, p. 13). Artists made a living during the 17th Century painting portraits of wealthy and influential people including monarchs in Europe. Wealthy families including those from political and royal families commissioned artists to paint portraits of themselves (Andersson, p. 199). “Portraits of family members and the royalty were prominently displayed in the homes of the well-to-do in indication of filial bonds and political loyalty” (Bass, p. 13).
During the eighteenth century, artists were able to establish portraiture as a “dominant [mode] of cultural expression” (Conway, p. 178). Portraiture ceased to merely be a means of immortalizing an image of the subject who is wealthy or influential since artists made portraits to express their vision and creativity. Artists focused on making portraits of anyone they found interesting. Some artists still allowed the commissioning of portraits but others focused on the artistic value of painting portraits by painting ordinary people who represented the majority. In this way, artists found a way to be truthful in their craft.
Portraits also play an important role in history. Portraits may be part of a collective. In some instances, artists create a series of portraits as contribution to different fields such as history. Apparently, portraits also help artists trace history. Similarly, portraits created for this purpose also captures culture and political or social concerns that emerged in the past. Portraits of various subjects represent aspects of culture particularly in the way they dress, in the accessories they wear, and the way they carry themselves in images (Sharp, p. 23).

Portraiture as an Art

Portraiture as an art has evolved over time. In history, portraiture played a role in allowing artists to capture the way of life. Tetrarchic portraiture, for instance, was a way for sculptors to capture the way of life of kings and emperors as well as their men (Kleiner, 224). Sculptors produced sculptures of the king or the emperor as well as soldiers to depict events in history as well as immortalize leaders of civilizations (Kleiner, 224). For this reason, portraiture was once considered as a social need – that is a way to preserve the status quo by making portraits of prominent people as well as illustrating way of life in communities (Richardson, 2). Over time, however, portraiture also evolve into something that allows artists to explore other people, even ordinary human beings. Some artists were fascinated with anonymous people and saw in them intrigue, which could be captured in paintings. Painting of portraits elicit response from the viewer. Mona Lisa is an example of how portraits create intrigue and interest among the audience (Richardson, 2).
Portraiture has come a long way. The National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition that showcased different types of portraits. The exhibition called Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction, featured portraits created by contemporary artists. The artists who contributed to the exhibition sought to revive portraiture as an art and to introduce innovations in the practice. The artists challenged the boundaries of portrait traditions by applying new-fangled styles and techniques. Influenced by abstract expressionism, the artists created unconventional portraits, most of which are abstract portraits of their subjects. “Influenced by the theories and ambitions of the Abstract Expressionists and keenly attuned to the themes of their own turbulent times, they reinterpreted human portrayal, reinventing portraiture for the next generation” (National Portrait Gallery, 2015).
Artists use different types of mediums in creating portraits. Aside from paintings, artists also captured portraits in pots and other earthenware, sculptures, coins or bank notes, tapestries and mosaics, among others. The use of different mediums also bring to light different reasons behind portraiture for artists. Portraits in coins or bank notes, for instance, is a way for people to remember prominent people in the history of their nation. Sculptures also show respect or reverence to people in history. On the other hand, earthenware or pottery, and tapestries that represent portraits could be personal to the artist such that they personally know their subject or the artist could have intended to commemorate way of life in the past by showing how people lived (Sider, 84).

Portraiture and Movements in Art

Impressionism has largely influenced portraiture. Since impressionism sought to represent reality in art, it has largely influenced the goals or objectives of artists (Melot, 206). Many artists used portraiture to capture and represent reality. Impressionists revolutionized style and technique in painting. Light and shadows is important in impressionism. This style or technique influenced how artists made portraits by capturing lighting to illustrate images of the subjects realistically (Platzman & Cezanne, 76). Impressionism also introduced the importance of incorporation feeling and experiences in art. This has also influenced portraiture by inspiring artists to create portraits to depict the subject’s feeling or human emotions as well as individual experiences in the past.
The integration of Abstract Expressionism in portraiture is also interesting considering that abstract art was one of the reasons behind the decline of painted portraits (Halle, p. 88). Abstract art allowed artists to explore art as a means of self-expression instead of as a structured art that merely represented portraits of subjects. Nevertheless, contemporary artists found a way to apply abstract art and expressionism in modern portraits in order to revive portraiture. Contemporary artists also encourage other artists to adopt different styles and techniques to make portraiture more flexible and unpretentious. In this way, artists could break free from the traditional conventions and limitations of portraiture that either focused on known subjects or sough to represent or trace culture, history, politics, and social issues.


I believe that portraiture may be carried out in different ways. Portraits may be a representation of the subject from the artist’s perspective. The artist’s vision of the subject or interpretation of the latter’s characteristics or personality Nonetheless, portraiture may also be a collaboration between the artist and the subject. In this way, the subject may influence the artist’s vision and the way through which the artist chooses to represent the subject. I believe that flexibility is important in portraiture because the representation of a subject’s images or the images of the subject’s body necessitates uninhibited expression that either stems from the artist’s vision or the subject’s own perspective and intended message.
More than the cultural and social implications of portraiture, I strongly agree with the view of this art as a means to establish one’s identity and individuality. Portraiture focuses on the subject. The artist attempts to capture the image of the subject through art. On the other hand, the subject aims to control the message or influence the portrait by communicating with the artist. For a portrait to hold meaning or significance, it must bear the artist’s vision or the subject’s message. Respecting the artist’s vision or the subject’s message also means openness to contemporary styles and techniques in portraiture including abstract art.


Andersson, A. E. 2006, The Economics of Experiences, the Arts and Entertainment. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
Bass, L. R. 2008, The Drama of the Portrait: Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain. Pennsylvania State Press.
Conway, A. M. 2001, Private Interests: Women, Portraiture, and the Visual Culture of the English Novel, 1709-1791. University of Toronto Press.
Halle, D. 1996, Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home. University of Chicago Press.
Kleiner, Fred. 2015, Gardner’s art through the ages. Florence, KY: Cengage Learning.
Melot, Michel. Pissarro in 1880.
National Portrait Gallery. 2015, Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction. Retrieved from: http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/exhfacevalue.html
Platzman, Steven & Cezanne, Paul. 2001, Cezanne: The self-portraits. University of California Press.
Richardson, Carol M. 2007, Locating renaissance art. Yale University Press.
Sharp, S. A. 2013, A Contemporary History of Art in Egypt as Told by Artists through Portraiture. SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2237023.
Sider, Sandra. 2007, Handbook of life in renaissance Europe. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press.
Soussloff, C. M. 2006, The Subject in Art: Portraiture and the Birth of the Modern. Duke University Press.
Sweeny, R. W. 2009, There’s no I in YouTube: Social Media, Networked Identity and Art Education. International Journal of Education, 2-3, pp. 201-212.
Woodall, J. 1997, Portraiture: Facing the Subject. Manchester University Press.

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