Portrait painting

Portrait painting

:"See Portrait for more about the general topic of portraits."Portrait painting is a genre in painting, where the intent is to depict the visual appearance of the subject. Beside human beings, animals, pets and even inanimate objects can be chosen as the subject for a portrait. In addition to portrait painting, portraits can also be made in other media such as marble, bronze, ivory, wood, ceramic, etching, lithography, photography, even video and digital media.

The term 'portrait painting' can also describe the actual painted portrait. Portraitists create their work by commission, for public and private persons, or are inspired by admiration or affection for the subject. Portraits are often important state and family records, as well as remembrances. If an artist portrays him- or herself, the result is called a self-portrait.

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, the portrait painting is still commissioned by governments, corporations, groups, clubs, and individuals.

Technique and practice

A well-executed portrait is expected to show the inner essence of the subject (from the artist's point of view) not just a physical likeness. As Aristotle stated, “The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality.” [Gordon C. Aymar, "The Art of Portrait Painting", Chilton Book Co., Philadelphia, 1967, p. 119] Artists may strive for photographic realism or an impressionistic similarity in depicting their subject, but this differs from a caricature which attempts to reveal character through exaggeration of physical features. The artist generally attempts a representative portrayal, as Edward Burne-Jones stated, “The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything temporary, fleeting, or accidental.” [Aymar, p. 94]

In most cases, this results in a serious, closed lip stare, with anything beyond a slight smile being rather rare historically. Or as Charles Dickens put it, “there are only two styles of portrait painting: the serious and the smirk.” [Aymar, p. 129] Even given these limitations, a full range of subtle emotions is possible from quiet menace to gentle contentment. However, with the mouth relatively neutral, much of the facial expression needs to be created through the eyes and eyebrows. As author and artist Gordon C. Aymar states, “the eyes are the place one looks for the most complete, reliable, and pertinent information” about the subject. And the eyebrows can register, “almost single-handedly, wonder, pity, fright, pain, cynicism, concentration, wistfulness, displeasure, and expectation, in infinite variations and combinations.” [Aymar, p. 93]

Portrait painting can depict the subject 'full body', 'half length' , 'head and shoulders' or ‘head’, as well as in profile, half-turn, three-quarter, or full face, with varying directions of light and shadow. Occasionally, artists have created portraits with multiple views, as with Sir Anthony van Dyck’s “Triple Portrait of Charles I”. [Aymar, p. 283] There are even a few portraits where the front of the subject is not visible at all. Andrew Wyeth’s "Christina’s World" (1948) is a famous example, where the pose of the crippled girl with her back turned to the viewer integrates with the setting in which she is placed to convey the artist’s interpretation. [Aymar, p. 235]

Among the other possible variables, the subject can be clothed or nude; indoors or out; standing, seated, reclining; even horse-mounted. Portrait paintings can be of individuals, couples, parents and children, families, or collegial groups. They can be created in various media including oils, watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, pastel, and mixed media. Artists may employ a wide-ranging palette of colors, as with Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s "On The Terrace" (1881) or restrict themselves to mostly white or black, as with Gilbert Stuart’s "Portrait of George Washington" (1796).

Sometimes, the overall size of the portrait is an important consideration. Chuck Close’s enormous portraits created for museum display differ greatly from most portraits designed to fit in the home or to travel easily with the client. Frequently, an artist takes into account where the final portrait will hang and the colors and style of the surrounding décor. [Aymar, p. 280]

Creating a portrait can take considerable time, usually requiring several sittings. Cezanne, on one extreme, insisted on over 100 sittings from his subject. [Aymar, p. 51] Goya on the other hand, preferred one long day’s sitting. [Aymar, p. 72] The average is about four. [Robin Simon, "The Portrait in Britain and America", G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1987, p. 131, ISBN 0-8161-8795-9] Portraitists sometimes present their sitters with a portfolio of drawings or photos from which a sitter would select a preferred pose, as did Sir Joshua Reynolds. Some, such as Hans Holbein the Younger make a drawing of the face, then complete the rest of the painting without the sitter. [Simon, p. 129] In the 18th century, it would typically take about one year to deliver a completed portrait to a client. [Simon, p. 131]

Managing the sitter’s expectations and mood is a serious concern for the portrait artist. As to the faithfulness of the portrait to the sitter’s appearance, portraitists are generally consistent in their approach. Clients who sought out Sir Joshua Reynolds knew that they would receive a flattering result, while sitters of Thomas Eakins knew to expect a realistic, unsparing portrait. Some subjects voice strong preferences, others let the artist decide entirely. Oliver Cromwell famously demanded that his portrait show “all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.” [Aymar, p. 262]

After putting the sitter at ease and encouraging a natural pose, the artist studies his subject, looking for the one facial expression, out of many possibilities, that satisfies his concept of the sitter’s essence. The posture of the subject is also carefully considered to reveal the emotional and physical state of the sitter, as is the costume. To keep the sitter engaged and motivated, the skillful artist will often maintain a pleasant demeanor and conversation. Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun advised fellow artists to flatter women and compliment their appearance to gain their cooperation at the sitting. [Aymar, p. 262]

Central to the successful execution of the portrait is a mastery of human anatomy. Human faces are asymmetrical and skillful portrait artists reproduce this with subtle left-right differences. Artists need to be knowledgeable about the underlying bone and tissue structure to make a convincing portrait.

For complex compositions, the artist may first do a complete pencil, ink, charcoal, or oil sketch which is particularly useful if the sitter’s available time is limited. Otherwise, the general form then a rough likeness is sketched out on the canvas in pencil, charcoal, or thin oil. In many cases, the face is completed first, and the rest afterwards. In the studios of many of the great portrait artists, the master would do only the head and hands, while the clothing and background would be completed by the principal apprentices. There were even outside specialists who handled specific items such as drapery and clothing, such as Joseph van Aken [Simon, p. 98] Some artists in past times used lay-figures or dolls to help establish and execute the pose and the clothing. [Simon, p. 107] The use of symbolic elements placed around the sitter (including signs, household objects, animals, and plants) was often used to encode the painting with the moral or religious character of the subject, or with symbols representing the sitter’s occupation, interests, or social status. The background can be totally black and without content or a full scene which places the sitter in their social or recreational milieu.

Self-portraits are usually produced with the help of a mirror, and the finished result is a mirror-image portrait, a reversal of what occurs in a normal portrait when sitter and artist are opposite each other. In a self-portrait, a righted handed artist would appear to be holding a brush in the left hand, unless the artist deliberately corrects the image or uses a second reversing mirror while painting.

Occasionally, the client or the client’s family is unhappy with the resulting portrait and the artist is obliged to re-touch it or do it over or withdraw from the commission without being paid, suffering the humiliation of failure. Jacques-Louis David celebrated portrait of Madame Récamier, wildly popular in exhibitions, was rejected by the sitter, as was John Singer Sargent’s notorious "Portrait of Madame X". John Trumbull’s portrait “General George Washington” was rejected by the committee that commissioned it. [Aymar, p. 268, 271, 278] The famously prickly Gilbert Stuart once replied to a client’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s portrait by retorting, “You brought me a potato, and you expect a peach!” [Aymar, p. 264]

A successful portrait, however, can gain the life-long gratitude of a client. Count Balthazar was so pleased with the portrait Raphael had created of his wife that he told the artist, “Your image…alone can lighten my cares. That image is my delight; I direct my smiles to it, it is my joy.” [Aymar, p. 265]


Early portraits

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. Portrait painting of notables in China probably goes back to over 1000 B.C., though none survive from that age. Existing Chinese portraits go back to about 1000 A.D. [Aymar, p. 5]

Some of the earliest portraits of people who were not kings or emperors are the funeral paintings that survived in the dry climate of Egypt's Fayum district (see illustration, below), dating from the second century A.D. These are the only paintings of the Roman period that have survived, aside from frescos, though it is known from the writings of Pliny the Elder that portrait painting was well established in Greek times, and practiced by both men and women artists. [Cheney, Faxon, and Russo, "Self-Portraits by Women Painters", Ashgate Publishing, Hants (England), 2000, p. 7, ISBN 1-85928-424-8] In his times, Pliny complained of the declining state of Roman portrait art, “The painting of portraits which used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out…Indolence has destroyed the arts.” [John Hope-Hennessy, "The Portrait in the Renaissance", Bollingen Foundation, New York, 1966, pp. 71-72] These full-face portraits from Roman Egypt are fortunate exceptions. They present a somewhat realistic sense of proportion and individual detail (though the eyes are generally over-sized and the artistic skill varies considerably from artist to artist). The Fayum portraits were painted on wood or ivory in wax and resin colors (encaustic) or with tempera, and inserted into the mummy wrapping, to remain with the body through eternity. While free-standing portrait painting diminished in Rome, the art of the portrait flourished in Roman sculptures, where sitters demanded realism, even if unflattering. During the 4th century, the sculpted portrait dominated, with a retreat in favor of an idealized symbol of what that person looked like. (Compare the portraits of Roman Emperors Constantine I and Theodosius I)

The earliest portraits of the Middle Ages appear in funerary stone and as part of illuminated manuscripts, an example being a self-portrait by the writer, mystic, scientist, illuminator, and musician Hildegard of Bingen (1152). [Cheney, Faxon, and Russo, p. 20] By 1300, portrait paintings of allegorical and biblical figures by masters such as Giotto came into prominence on alter panels and church walls, particularly in northern Italy. Between 1350-1400, secular figures began to reappear in frescoes, such as in Master Theodoric’s "Charles IV receiving fealty". [David Piper, "The Illustrated Library of Art", Portland House, New York, 1986, p. 297, ISBN0-517-62336-6] However, the perspective remained rather flat until Masaccio’s "The Trinity" (c. 1425) which was among the first to create a three-dimensional view and include secular figures in the painting. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 258] Around the same time, the first oil portraits of contemporary individuals, painted on wood panels, emerged in Burgundy and France, first as profiles, then in other views. Among these were portraits by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden, of mainly religious figures but later of the nobility, painted in the first half of the 15th century. [Aymar, p. 63]


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, and the greatest artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael) were considered “geniuses”, rising far above the tradesman status to valued servants of the court and the church. [Piper, p. 337] Many innovations in the various forms of portraiture evolved during this fertile period. The tradition of the portrait miniature began, which remained popular until the age of photography, developing out of the skills of painters of the miniatures in illuminated manuscripts. Profile portraits, inspired by ancient medallions, were particularly popular in Italy between 1450 and 1500. Medals, with their two–sided images, also inspired a short-lived vogue for two-sided paintings early in the Renaissance. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 209] Classical sculpture, such as the "Apollo Belvedere", also influenced the choice of poses utilized by Renaissance portraitists, poses that have continued in usage through the centuries. [Simon, p. 80]

Northern European artists led the way in realistic portraits of secular subjects. The greater realism and detail of the Northern artists during the 15th century was due in part to the finer brush strokes and effects possible with oil colors, while the Italian and Spanish painters were still using tempera. Among the earliest painters to develop oil technique was Jan van Eyck. Oil colors can produce more texture and grades of thickness, and can be layered more effectively, with the addition of increasingly thick layers one over another (known by painters as ‘fat over lean’). Also, oil colors dry more slowly, allowing the artist to make changes readily, such as altering facial details. Antonello da Messina was one of the first Italians to take advantage of oil. Trained in Belgium, he settled in Venice around 1475, and was a major influence on Giovanni Bellini and the Northern Italian school. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 54, 63] During the 16th century, oil as a medium spread in popularity throughout Europe, allowing for more sumptuous renderings of clothing and jewelry. Also affecting the quality of the images, was the switch from wood to canvas, starting in Italy in the early part of the 16th century and spreading to Northern Europe over the next century. Canvas resists cracking better than wood, holds pigments better, and needs less preparation―but it was initially much scarcer than wood.

Early on, the Northern Europeans abandoned the profile, and started producing portraits of realistic volume and perspective. In the Netherlands, Jan van Eyck was a leading portraitist. The Arnolfini Marriage (1434, National Gallery, London) is a landmark of Western art, an early example of a full-length couple portrait, superbly painted in rich colors and exquisite detail. But equally important, it showcases the newly developed technique of oil painting pioneered by van Eyck, which revolutionized art, and spread throughout Europe. [Piper, p. 301]

Leading German portrait artists including Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger who all mastered oil painting technique. Cranach was one of the first artists to paint life-sized full-length commissions, a tradition popular from then on. [Piper, p. 363] At that time, England had no portrait painters of the first rank, and artists like Holbein were in demand by English patrons. [Aymar, p. 29] His painting of Sir Thomas More (1527), his first important patron in England, has nearly the realism of a photograph. [Piper, p. 365] Holbein made his great success painting the royal family, including Henry VIII. Dürer was an outstanding draftsman and one of the first major artists to make a sequence of self-portraits, including a full-face painting. He also placed his self-portrait figure (as an onlooker) in several of his religious paintings. [Bonafoux, p. 35] Dürer began making self-portraits at the age of thirteen. [John Hope-Hennessy, pp. 124-126] Later, Rembrandt would amplify that tradition.

In Italy, Masaccio led the way in modernizing the fresco by adopting more realistic perspective. Filippo Lippi paved the way in developing sharper contours and sinuous lines [Piper, p. 318] and his pupil Raphael extended realism in Italy to a much higher level in the following decades with his monumental wall paintings. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 20] During this time, the betrothal portrait became popular, a particular specialty of Lorenzo Lotto. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 227] During the early Renaissance, portrait paintings were generally small and sometimes covered with protective lids, hinged or sliding. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 212]

During the Renaissance, the Florentine and Milanese nobility, in particular, wanted more realistic representations of themselves. The challenge of creating convincing full and three-quarter views stimulated experimentation and innovation. Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, and Leonardo da Vinci and other artists expanded their technique accordingly, adding portraiture to traditional religious and classical subjects. Leonardo and Pisanello were among the first Italian artists to add allegorical symbols to their secular portraits. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 20]

Mona Lisa" or "La Gioconda ", by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1503–1505/1507]

One of best-known portraits in the Western world is Leonardo da Vinci's painting titled "Mona Lisa", named for Lisa del Giocondo,cite web|title=Mona Lisa – Heidelberger Fund klärt Identität (English: Mona Lisa – Heidelberger find clarifies identity)|language= German|url=http://www.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/news/monalisa.html|publisher=University of Heidelberg|accessdate=2008-08-29] [cite news|title=German experts crack the ID of ‘Mona Lisa’|url=http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22652514/?GT1=10755|publisher=MSN|date=2008-01-14|accessdate=2008-08-29] [cite news|title=Researchers Identify Model for Mona Lisa|url=http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/arts/AP-Art-Mona-Who.html|work=The New York Times|accessdate=2008-08-29] 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 his notebooks, Leonardo advises on the qualities of light in portrait painting:

“A very high degree of grace in the light and shadow is added to the faces of those who sit in the doorways of rooms that are dark, where the eyes of the observer see the shadowed part of the face obscured by the shadows of the room, and see the lighted part of the face with the greater brilliance which the air gives it. Through this increase in the shadows and the lights, the face is given greater relief.” [John Hope-Hennessy, pp. 103-4]

Leonardo was a student of Verrocchio. After becoming a member of the Guild of Painters, he began to accept independent commissions. Owing to his wide-ranging interests and in accordance with his scientific mind, his output of drawings and preliminary studies is immense though his finished artistic output is relatively small. His other memorable portraits included those of noblewomen "Ginevra de’ Benci" and "Cecilia Gallerani". [Piper, p. 338]

Raphael’s surviving commission portraits are far more numerous than those of Leonardo, and they display a greater variety of poses, lighting, and technique. Rather than producing revolutionary innovations, Raphael great accomplishment was strengthening and refining the evolving currents of Renaissance art. [Piper, p. 345] He was particularly expert in the group portrait. His masterpiece "the School of Athens" is one of the foremost group frescoes, containing likenesses of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael himself, in the guise of ancient philosophers. [Pascal Bonafoux, "Portraits of the Artist: The Self-Portrait in Painting", Skira/Rizzoli, New York, 1985, p. 31, ISBN 0-8478-0586-7] It was not the first group portrait of artists. Decades earlier, Paolo Uccello had painted a group portrait including Giotto, Donatello, Antonio Manetti, and Brunelleschi. [Bonafoux, p. 35] As he rose in prominence, Raphael became a favorite portraitist of the popes. While many Renaissance artists eagerly accepted portrait commissions, a few artists refused them, most notably Raphael’s rival Michelangelo, who instead undertook the huge commissions of the Sistine Chapel. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 20]

In Venice around 1500, Gentile Bellini and Giovanni Bellini dominated portrait painting. They received the highest commissions from the leading officials of the state. Bellini’s portrait of Doge Loredan is considered to be one of the finest portraits of the Renaissance and ably demonstrates the artist’s mastery of the newly arrived techniques of oil painting. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 52] Bellini is also one of the first artists in Europe to sign their work, though he rarely dated them. [Piper, p. 330] Later in the 16th century, Titian assumed much the same role, particularly by expanding the variety of poses and sittings of his royal subjects. Titian was perhaps the first great child portraitist. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 279] After Titian succumbed to the plague, Tintoretto and Veronese became leading Venetian artists, helping the transition to Italian Mannerism. The Mannerists contributed many exceptional portraits that emphasized material richness and elegantly complex poses, as in the works of Agnolo Bronzino and Jacopo da Pontormo. Bronzino made his fame portraying the Medici family. His daring portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, shows the austere ruler in armor with a wary eye gazed to his extreme right, in sharp contrast to most royal paintings which show their sitters as benign sovereigns. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 182] El Greco, who trained in Venice for twelve years, went in a more extreme direction after his arrival in Spain, emphasizing his “inner vision” of the sitter to the point of diminishing the reality of physical appearance. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 154] One of the best portraitists of 16th-century Italy was Sofonisba Anguissola from Cremona, who infused her individual and group portraits with new levels of complexity. Court portraiture in France began when Flemish artist Jean Clouet painted his opulent likeness of Francis I of France around 1525. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 187] King Francis was a great patron of artists and an avaricious art collector who invited Leonardo da Vinci to live in France during his later years. The "Mona Lisa" stayed in France after Leonardo died there. [John Hope-Hennessy, p. 187]

Baroque and Rococo

During the Baroque and Rococo periods (17th century and 18th century, respectively), portraits became even more important records of status and position. In a society dominated increasingly by secular leaders in powerful courts, images of opulently attired figures were a means to affirm the authority of important individuals. Flemish painters Sir Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens excelled at this type of portraiture, while Jan Vermeer produced portraits mostly of the middle class, at work and play indoors. Rubens’ portrait of himself and his first wife (1609) in their wedding attire is a virtuoso example of the couple portrait. [Bonafoux, p. 40] Rubens fame extended beyond his art—he was a courtier, diplomat, art collector, and successful businessman. His studio was one of the most extensive of that time, employing specialists in still-life, landscape, animal and genre scenes, in addition to portraiture. Van Dyck trained there for two years. [Piper, pp. 408-410] Charles I of England first employed Rubens, then imported van Dyck as his court painter, knighting him and bestowing on him courtly status. Van Dyck not only adapted Rubens’ production methods and business skills, but also his elegant manners and appearance. As was recorded, “He always went magnificently dress’d, had a numerous and gallant equipage, and kept so noble a table in his apartment, that few princes were not more visited, or better serv’d.” [Simon, p. 109] In France, Hyacinthe Rigaud dominated in much the same way, as a remarkable chronicler of royalty, painting the portraits of five French kings. [Aymar, p. 162]

One of the innovations of Renaissance art was the improved rendering of facial expressions to accompany different emotions. In particular, Dutch painter Rembrandt explored the many expressions of the human face, especially as one of the premier self-portraitists (of which he painted over 60 in his lifetime). [Aymar, p. 161] This interest in the human face also fostered the creation of the first caricatures, credited to the Carracci Academy, run by painters of the Carracci family in the late 16th century in Bologna, Italy (see Annibale Carracci).

Group portraits were produced in great numbers during the Baroque period, particularly in the Netherlands. Unlike in the rest of Europe, Dutch artists received no commissions from the Calvinist Church which had forbidden such images or from the aristocracy which was virtually non-existent. Instead, commissions came from civic and businesses associations. Dutch painter Frans Hals used fluid brush strokes of vivid color to enliven his group portraits, including those of the civil guards to which he belonged. Rembrandt benefitted greatly from such commissions and from the general appreciation of art by bourgeois clients, who supported portraiture as well as still-life and landscapes painting. In addition, the first significant art and dealer markets flourished in Holland at that time. [Piper, p. 421]

With plenty of demand, Rembrandt was able to experiment with unconventional composition and technique, such as chiaroscuro. He demonstrated these innovations, pioneered by Italian masters such as Caravaggio, most notably in his famous Night Watch (1642). [Aymar, p. 218] "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" (1632) is another fine example of Rembrandt’s mastery of the group painting, in which he bathes the corpse in bright light to draw attention to the center of the painting while the clothing and background merge into black, making the faces of the surgeon and the students standout. It is also the first painting that Rembrandt signed with his full name. [Piper, p. 424] In Spain, Diego Velazquez painted "Las Meninas" (1656), one of the most famous and enigmatic group portraits of all time. It memorializes the artist and the children of the Spanish royal family, and apparently the sitters are the royal couple who are seen only as reflections in a mirror. [Bonafoux, p. 62] Starting out as primarily a genre painter, Velazquez quickly rose to prominence as the court painter of Philip IV, excelling in the art of portraiture, particularly in extending the complexity of group portraits. [Piper, p. 418]

Rococo artists, who were particularly interested in rich and intricate ornamentation, were masters of the refined portrait. Their attention to the details of dress and texture increased the efficacy of portraits as testaments to worldly wealth, as evidenced by François Boucher’s famous portraits of Madame de Pompadour attired in billowing silk gowns.

The first major native portrait painters of the British school were English painters Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who also specialized in clothing their subjects in an eye-catching manner. Gainsborough’s "Blue Boy" is one of the most famous and recognized portraits of all time, painted with very long brushes and thin oil color to achieve the shimmering effect of the blue costume. [Piper, p. 460] Gainsborough was also noted for his elaborate background settings for his subjects.

The two British artists had opposite opinions on using assistants. Reynolds employing them regularly (sometimes doing only 20 percent of the painting himself) while Gainsborough rarely did. [Simon, p. 13, 97] Sometimes a client would extract a pledge from the artist, as did Sir Richard Newdegate from portraitist Peter Lely (van Dyck’s successor in England), who promised that the portrait would be “from the Beginning to ye end drawne with my owne hands.” [Simon, p. 97] Unlike the exactitude employed by the Flemish masters, Reynolds summed up his approach to portraiture by stating that, “the grace, and, we may add, the likeness, consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature.” [Aymar, p. 62] Also prominent in England was William Hogarth, who dared to buck conventional methods by introducing touches of humor in his portraits. His “Self-portrait with Pug” is clearly more a humorous take on his pet than an self-indulgent painting. [Simon, p. 92]

In the 18th century, female painters gained new importance, particularly in the field of portraiture. Notable female artists include French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Italian pastel artist Rosalba Carriera, and Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann. Also during that century, before the invention of photography, miniature portraits―painted with incredible precision and often encased in gold or enameled lockets―were highly-valued.

In the United States, John Singleton Copley, schooled in the refined British manner, became the leading painter of full-size and miniature portraits, with his hyper-realistic pictures of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere especially well-regarded. Copley is also notable for his efforts to merge portraiture with the academically more revered art of history painting, which he attempted with his group portraits of famous military men. [Simon, p. 19] Equally famous was Gilbert Stuart who painted over 1,000 portraits and was especially known for his presidential portraiture. Stuart painted over 100 replicas of George Washington alone. [Aymar, p. 204] Stuart worked quickly and employed softer, less detailed brush strokes than Copley to capture the essence of his subjects. Sometimes he would make several versions for a client, allowing the sitter to pick their favorite. [Aymar, p. 263] Noted for his rosy cheek tones, Stuart wrote, “flesh is like no other substance under heaven. It has all the gaiety of the silk-mercer’s shop without its gaudiness of gloss, and all the softness of old mahogany, without its sadness.” [Aymar, p. 149] Other prominent American portraitists of the colonial era were John Smibert,Thomas Sully, Ralph Earl, John Trumbull, Benjamin West, Robert Feke, James Peale, Charles Willson Peale, and Rembrandt Peale.

19th century

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, neoclassical artists continued the tradition of depicting subjects in the latest fashions, which for women by then, meant diaphanous gowns derived from ancient Greek and Roman clothing styles. The artists used directed light to define texture and the simple roundness of faces and limbs. French painters Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres demonstrated virtuosity in this draftsman-like technique as well as a keen eye for character. Ingres, a student of David, is notable for his portraits in which a mirror is painted behind the subject to simulate a rear view of the subject. [Bonafoux, p. 99] His portrait of Napoleon on his imperial throne is a tour de force of regal portraiture. (see Gallery below)

Romantic artists who worked during the first half of the 19th century painted portraits of inspiring leaders, beautiful women, and agitated subjects, using lively brush strokes and dramatic, sometimes moody, lighting. French artists Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault painted particularly fine portraits of this type, especially dashing horsemen. [Piper, p. 542] Also noteworthy is Géricault's series of portraits of mental patients (1822-1824). Spanish painter Francisco de Goya painted some of the most searching and provocative images of the period, including "La maja desnuda "(c. 1797-1800), as well as famous court portraits of Charles IV. The realist artists of the 19th century, such as Gustave Courbet, created objective portraits depicting lower and middle class people. Demonstrating his romanticism, Courbet painted several self-portraits showing himself in varying moods and expressions. [Bonafoux, p. 111] Other French realists include Honoré Daumier who produced many caricatures of his contemporaries. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec chronicled some of the famous performers of the theater, including Jane Avril, capturing them in motion. [Piper, p. 585] French painter Édouard Manet, was an important transitional artist whose work hovers between realism and impressionism. He was a portraitist of outstanding insight and technique, with his painting of Stéphane Mallarmé being a good example of his transitional style. His contemporary Edgar Degas was primarily a realist and his painting "Portrait of the Bellelli Family" is an insightful rendering of an unhappy family and one of his finest portraits. [Piper, p. 568]

In America, Thomas Eakins reigned as the premier portrait painter, taking realism to a new level of frankness, especially with his two portraits of surgeons at work, as well as those of athletes and musicians in action. In many portraits, such as “Portrait of Mrs. Edith Mahon”, Eakins boldly conveys the unflattering emotions of sorrow and melancholy. [Aymar, p. 88] The Realists mostly gave way to the Impressionists by the 1870’s. Partly due to their meager incomes, many of the Impressionists relied on family and friends to model for them, and they painted intimate groups and single figures in either outdoors or in light-filled interiors. Noted for their shimmering surfaces and rich dabs of paint, Impressionist portraits are often disarmingly intimate and appealing. French painters Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir created some of the most popular images of individual sitters and groups. American artist Mary Cassatt, who trained and worked in France, is popular even today for her engaging paintings of mothers and children, as is Renoir. [Piper, p. 589] Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, both Post-Impressionists, painted revealing portraits of people they knew, swirling in color but not necessarily flattering. They are equally, if not more so, celebrated for their powerful self-portraits.

John Singer Sargent also spanned the change of century, but he rejected overt Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. He was the most successful portrait painter of his era and the most talented, using a mostly realistic technique often effused with the brilliant use of color. He was equally apt at individual and group portraits, particularly of upper-class families. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. He studied in Italy and Germany, and in Paris. Sargent is considered to be the last major exponent of the British portrait tradition beginning with van Dyck. [Piper, p. 589] Another prominent American portraitist who trained abroad was William Merritt Chase. American society painter Cecilia Beaux, called the “female Sargent”, was born of a French father, studied abroad and gained success back home, sticking with traditional methods. Another portraitist compared to Sargent for his lush technique was Italian-born Parisian artist Giovanni Boldini, a friend of Degas and Whistler.

American-born Internationalist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was well-connected with European artists and also painted some exceptional portraits, most famously his “Arrangement in Grey and Black, The Artist’s Mother” (1871), also known as "Whistler’s Mother". [Piper, p. 561] Even with his portraits, as with his tonal landscapes, Whistler wanted his viewers to focus on the harmonic arrangement of form and color in his paintings. Whistler used a subdued palette to create his intended effects, stressing color balance and soft tones. As he stated, “as music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with the harmony of sound or of color.” [Aymar, p. 299] Form and color were also central to Cezanne’s portraits, while even more extreme color and brush stroke technique dominate the portraits by André Derain, and Henri Matisse. [Piper, p. 576]

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, including Baudelaire who, though he proclaimed photography an “enemy of art”, found himself attracted to photography’s frankness and power. [Piper, p. 552] By providing a cheap alternative, photography supplanted much of the lowest level of portrait painting. Some realist artists, such as Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas, were enthusiastic about camera photography and found it to be a useful aid to composition. From the Impressionists forward, portrait painters found a myriad number of ways to reinterpret the portrait to compete effectively with photography. [Simon, p. 49] Sargent and Whistler were among those stimulated to expand their technique to create effects that the camera could not capture.

20th century

Other early 20th-century artists also expanded the repertoire of portraiture in new directions. Fauvist artist Henri Matisse produced powerful portraits using non-naturalistic, even garish, colors for skin tones. Cezanne’s relied on highly simplified forms in his portraits, avoiding detail while emphasizing color juxtapositions. [Piper, p. 582] Austrian Gustav Klimt’s unique style applied byzantine motifs and gold paint to his memorable portraits. His pupil Oskar Kokoschka was an important portraitist of the Viennese upper class. Prolific Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painted many portraits, including several cubist renderings of his mistresses, in which the likeness of the subject is grossly distorted to achieve an emotional statement well beyond the bounds of normal caricature. [Aymar, p. 54]

Expressionist painters provided some of the most haunting and compelling psychological studies ever produced. German artists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann produced notable examples of expressionist portraiture. Beckmann was a prolific self-portraitist, producing at least twenty-seven. [Aymar, p. 188] Amedeo Modigliani painted many portraits in his elongated style which depreciated the “inner person” in favor of strict studies of form and color. To help achieve this, he de-emphasized the normally expressive eyes and eyebrows to the point of blackened slits and simple arches. [Piper, p. 646]

British art was represented by the Vorticists, who painted some notable portraits in the early part of the 20th century. The Dada painter Francis Picabia executed numerous portraits in his unique fashion. Additionally, Tamara de Lempicka’s portraits successfully captured the Art Deco era with her streamlined curves, rich colors and sharp angles. In America, Robert Henri and George Bellows were fine portraitists of the 1920’s and 1930’s of the American realist school. Max Ernst produced an example of a modern collegial portrait with his 1922 painting “All Friends Together”. [Bonafoux, p. 45]

Portrait production in Europe and the Americas generally declined in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a result of the increasing interest in abstraction and nonfigurative art. One exception, however, was Andrew Wyeth who developed into the leading American realist portrait painter. With Wyeth, realism, though overt, is secondary to the tonal qualities and mood of his paintings. This is aptly demonstrated with his landmark series of paintings known as the “Helga” pictures, the largest group of portraits of a single person by any major artist (comprised of 247 studies of his neighbor Helga Testorf, clothed and nude, in varying surroundings, painted during the period 1971–1985). [’’An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art, Boston, 1987, Little Brown & Company, p. 123, ISBN 0-8212-1652-X]

By the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a revival of portraiture. English artists such as Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud) and Francis Bacon have produced powerful paintings. Bacon’s portraits are notable for their nightmarish quality. In May 2008, Freud’s 1995 portrait "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" was sold by auction by Christie's in New York City for $33.6 million, setting a world record for sale value of a painting by a living artist. [cite news | title = Freud work sets new world record | date = 14 May 2008 | url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7398949.stm | publisher = BBC News Online | accessdate = 2008-08-29] Many contemporary American artists, such as Andy Warhol, Alex Katz and Chuck Close, have made the human face a focal point of their work. Warhol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe is an iconic example. Close’s specialty was huge, hyper-realistic wall-sized “head” portraits based on photographic images. Jamie Wyeth continues in the realist tradition of his father Andrew, producing famous portraits whose subjects range from Presidents to pigs.


ee also

* Portrait
* Hierarchy of genres
* The Portrait Now
* Self-portrait


* "The New Age" “Art Notes” column of 28 February 1918 is a closely reasoned analysis of the rationale and aesthetic of portraiture by B.H. Dias (pseudonym of Ezra Pound), an insightful frame of reference for viewing any portrait, ancient or modern.


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