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Prehistoric Era

Paleolithic-Neolithic

A study of prehistoric art reveals very few examples of the kind of human representation that characterize the field of painting now referred to as portraiture. Portraiture, for its modern incarnation, required a specific history and cultural environment to evolve in the way that it has, and as we are about to see, manifested itself throughout history in many different ways and for very different purposes.

Among the first incidences of representative art in human history (or prehistory) is the cave paintings found on the walls of the Lascaux caves and grottoes. As humans are not central to the content of these paintings, prehistoric times are not considered to be the birthplace of portrait artistry (in the modern sense). Before recorded history, the notion of leaving behind a visual record of one’s own life for the purposes of posterity was quite remote (even homes were temporary dwellings for nomads of Paleolithic times).

Because the earliest cave paintings frequently represent animals (usually fierce animals such as mammoths), some historians suggest that these prehistoric works of art were part of a ritual, before a great hunt, in which many participants were not expected to survive. Painting a scene in which hunters are victorious over the beast would act as an omen of good fortune, and build confidence for the clan. Robert Graves suggests in his analysis of ancient religion, Man and his Myths, that the first feelings of religiosity and sanctity came about through these early musings about the transient nature of life, and the objectification of life into art and myth. Other historians suggest that man’s tendency toward storytelling preceded his artistic and religious development, and that these prehistoric cave paintings were used to illustrate stories in quite a different kind of ritual; that of social interaction and storytelling grandiosity.


Venus von Willendorf Portraiture, however, is borne from a different lineage. The first humans to be represented in art as the central subject of a work are pregnant women, or fertility Goddesses; most notably, the Venus of Willendorf. Discovered in Austria outside the town of Willendorf, The Venus of Willendorf is one of the oldest sculptural works ever discovered, dating from about 22,000 BC (even earlier than the Lascaux paintings). It is believed that Paleolithic tribes worshipped images of fertile women to encourage pregnancy in the women of their tribe. So, although these fetishes were the first examples of human-centered art, their purpose was quite different from that of the modern portrait.

The painting and carvings of the Neolithic period introduce themes into art that are still present in many cultures. Animals and humans still constituted a majority of the subjects that were represented, but they were often shown juxtaposed in such a way as to suggest that they coexisted in the same entity, either as a new, hybrid form, or as a kind of spiritual guardian. Totems, or animal Gods, exist today in the religions of some native cultures, and are a recurrent theme in art everywhere.

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Ancient Civilizations

Unification of Egypt-Fall of the Roman Empire

In the Ancient world, monarchs who controlled vast regions of land changed the face of art for millennia to come. In most ancient cultures, the only human figures depicted in art were heavenly bodies, entities to be worshipped and revered. It was in Egypt, where living Pharaohs were given God-like status, that historic portraiture began (or ‘art as a visual record of the past’). Images of Deities and Pharaohs were painted and carved in places of spiritual importance, such as temples, tombs, and palaces, and were not disseminated to the general public.

egyptian portraitFrontalism, the technique utilized by Egyptian painters who rendered human subjects, stressed the importance of the Pharaoh’s profile (another great leader of the ancient world who recognized the importance of the heroic profile was Julius Ceasar, who branded his own jutting chin and roman nose on all the currency of Imperial Rome). In frontalism, the subject’s body faces forward, but his head is turned to the side, with the eye on the viewer’s side being fully visible. This lack of concern for perspective and proportion in Ancient Egyptian art highlights another important aspect of pre-classical portraiture, that the subject is more important than the style. In portraying a Pharaoh, for example, an artist could not paint anything in front of the Pharaoh where it would obscure view of him. In the below example, we can see how this was achieved at the expense of stylistic realism (the Pharaoh seems to be firing the bow from behind his back in an impossible position).
Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Arkhenaton and converted all of Egypt into an early model of monotheism for a handful of years, was the first Pharaoh to wish to be represented realistically. Although frontalism was still used in portraying Arkhenaton, his posture and figure clearly show an embarkation from traditional Egyptian portraiture. Shown here sniffing flowers with Nefertiti, Arkhenaton is often portrayed in feminine occupations, in some cases even possessing a female body.

In pre-Hellenistic Greece, only a limited range of subjects was permissible by their society’s standards. Only the known pantheon of Gods was portrayed in sculpture, and of them it was most acceptable to choose a middle-aged male as a subject. At certain times in Ancient Greek history, it was considered a revolutionary act to sculpt fetishes of the younger male God, Hermes.
The ’Venus de Melos’ (Venus of Milo) at the left, dates from the second century BC, during the Hellenistic era. By the Hellenistic era, most of the mores on artistic subjects were abolished, although it was still expected that any great work of art would be of a Deity. The Venus discovered at the island of Melos attests to the fact that Hellenistic artists could portray nude female subjects, and had some measure of artistic liberty concerning the portrayal of divine beings (Venus is never portrayed exactly the same way twice).

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Medieval Civilizations

Feudal Europe and Asia

madonna portraitThe Medieval period in the Western World was a time of religious fervor and provincial lordship. The church had more centralized power than some nations, and certainly had a greater influence on the art of the time. Of portraiture, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were preferred subjects, alongside saints, church leaders, and angels. Part of the reason for this is that an artist’s patronage generally comes from the wealthiest benefactor of the time, which, in the case of medieval Europe, would undeniably have been the church. Because the artist’s source of income shifted to the church, the subject of art and the mediums of art shifted to the church as well. Stained glass became an important medium for portraying religious scenes within the walls of cathedrals, and stone sculpture gave a dimensional form to otherwise invisible spirits (angels and devils), carved on the outside of cathedral walls.
While not a predecessor of the modern portrait, gothic sculpture represents a trend, evident in Medieval art, towards caricature. Many ’portraits’ today are not portraits at all, but caricatures that intentionally extenuate the subject, and their history is traceable back at least until the Medieval period, where human faces were distorted into monstrous demons, or beautified into angelic visages. (The first obvious and purposeful caricatures were created later, by the Italian visionary, Leonardo Da Vinci, during the Florentine Renaissance).

Art in Eastern Medieval Civilizations also utilized caricature and portraiture to recreate the likeness of Deities and spirits. Images of Buddha were of the most widely produced sculptures during this period in China and India, along with guardian spirits (erected at temple entrances to keep vigilant watch over the worshippers). For the most part, however, art in feudal Asia did not emphasis the human, but the natural, a development that Northern Renaissance painters would imitate centuries later.

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The Renaissance

Northern & Southern European Renaissance and Baroque

In Medieval Europe, portrait painting was done with egg tempera, an early medium of painting made by mixing egg and powdered pigment, the effect of which were colorful works of art, with contrasts of light and depth which had not been possible in classical painting. Centuries later, a Dutchman named Jan Van Eyck demonstrated a new medium that allowed an even more versatile palette of color and even greater contrasts of light and depth: oils. In the French and Italian Renaissance, oil-based paints yielded a wider range of environments and an even more devotional reverence for the human subject than religious medieval art.

mona lisaAlthough oils granted renaissance artists a medium with which color and light could be expressed, the development of form and perspective were borne from classical study. The Florentine Renaissance housed the most famous artists and artistic works in all human history; Leonardo Da Vinci’s ’ Mona Lisa’ and Michealangelo Buonarroti’s statue of ’David’ are both credited to the rebirth of classical thinking (Mona Lisa’s Archaic smile and David’s Greek-Godliness are well-noted in the field of art history). Furthermore, artists’ patronage came more from the local aristocracy than the church, permitting a wider range of subjects and moods.
The driving mood of the French and Italian renaissance was that of ’humanism’, a new emphasis on the perfection of the human form (in contrast to emphasizing the perfection of divinity). As such, southern Europe became a fruitful environment for portraiture, and its style became the basis for portraiture in the following two and a half centuries. In the northern European school of thought, notably the Netherlands and Austria, artistic feeling was inspired by what can be best described as ’naturalism’, where the importance of nature and organic textures were valued higher than the subtleties of light and depth that characterize humanistic paintings. Dutch painters, such as Albrecht Duhrer, would paint delicate scenes using thick brush strokes, and carve intricate lines into wood to create prints, after the fashion of Japanese Art.

Northern Renaissance painters rendered human subjects as well, but their representation was more impersonal and natural than those of the Southern Renaissance (as if they were a part of the scenery). It was in the Netherlands that the Western world first saw its artists roaming the countryside with paintbrush and canvas in handbaroque portrait, away from their dusty studios and aristocratic patrons, while their Italian counterparts spent long hours in their studios laboring over the perfection of the human form (sometimes interring the bodies of the newly dead to advance their study), frequently at the behest of a lord or lady.
By the Baroque period, portraiture was an established art, and practiced throughout much of the Western world. However, many artists became bored with the lack of innovation demanded by the field of portraiture, and began painting more active, almost narrative, scenes, sometimes returning to religious imagery, and at other times illustrating folklore or original stories. Michealangelo Carravagio, a famous Italian Baroque artist, refrained from traditional portraiture almost entirely, content with the use of narrative style.
Contrasts in light flourished in Baroque art, and shadows became nearly as important to the paintings as the subjects themselves. Tenebrism, or the technique of applying extremes of light and dark in order to draw out the subject and guide the composition of a painting, was an essential part of the Baroque model of art, and carried into the practice of portraiture in that time, specifically affecting American Colonial Portraiture.

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The New World

American Colonial Portraiture and Middle Class Art

By the second half of the Eighteenth Century, sculptors and portraitists did not bother to sign their work, because theirs was like any other trade, not requiring any artistic innovation or personal involvement. In Europe, portraits were the staple of the aristocracy, and as such, were not readily available to the new, burgeoning middle classes. In Colonial America, therefore, portraiture became associated with luxury and monarchism, something to be feared and distrusted by a democratic society. After the revolution, however, it was clear that some record of America’s leaders and founders was necessary for historic and patriotic purposes. Early American portrait artists clearly made an effort to convey feelings of republicanism and modesty in their rendering of America’s leaders, a critical break from traditional European portraiture, which emphasized nobility and superiority.
Ironically, with all of the proliferation of American subjects in the field of portraiture, much of the portrait-painting (and portrait purchasing) took place in Europe, where Art Academies and systems for portrait commissions were more established. Many Early American artists (among them, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, John Copley, and Mather Brown) moved to Europe for a number of years or, in the cases of a few, for the rest of their life, but continued to paint American subjects and American leaders. One artist who stayed behind, Charles Wilson Peale, compiled portraits of "Revolutionary Patriots and Other Distinguished Characters" for his Philadelphia Museum, which still stands today as one of the greatest contributions to Portrait History in the world.
However revolutionary were the changes that took place in the portraiture of the well-to-do upper-classes, they little affected the lives of the new nation’s greater constituency.

silhouetteWith the spirit of democracy came the desire of ordinary folk to obtain those pleasures long kept exclusively in the hands of the rich, and, in this, portraiture was no exception. Soon, art found two ways to supply the rising demand for cheap portraits: the first was the use of miniature portraits, and the second was the popularity of profile pictures, such as those developed by Etienne de Silhouette, who painted or cut out profiles from the shadow cast by a lamp or through a camera obscura. Gilded with gold, or ornamented with chalk to provide detail and depth, silhouettes became very popular among the new American middle class and, for the first time ever, annulled the elitist tradition of portraiture as a privilege of the wealthy. Following soon after, the invention of the camera spurred an outright revolution in the way that portraiture, and art as a whole, was conceived by the world.

An entire study could be made of portraiture in photography alone, but for the sake of brevity, I will only summarize here what uses early photography had in the field of portraiture. Photography’s earliest incarnation, the Daguerreotype (named for Louis Daguerre, its inventor), required an exposure time of about thirty seconds, so it was not practical for portraying activity. Therefore, people were photogaphed in only two environments, in a Daguerreotypist’s studio, or in a casket. Mostly, photographic portraiture was taken of middle-class adults, standing unnaturally erect and with a grey background; such was the nature of the medium. While many middle-class patrons did not seek out photographs of their living children, photographs were frequently taken of post-mortem children for whom no other visual record was available.


Photojournalism, or any kind of candid photography for that matter, had to wait until around the time of the American Civil War before its eventual realization. By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, photographs were mass producible, a camera’s shutter speed was a fraction of a second, and the weight of an ordinary camera was less than half what it had been in the 1840’s. Although the camera had not yet become the middle-class commodity it is today, and the world had yet to experience public photography as it does with motion pictures, the technology that facilitated exact reproductions, and democratized portrait art, no longer sustained the interest of the art world. However, the development of photography is essential to understanding the developments of the modern era, which both learned from, and reacted against, the ultra-realism and neutrality of the camera.

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The Great Divide

Romanticism and Neoclassicism

The early nineteenth century in Europe saw a break in the stylistic unanimity of its Renaissance days. Naturalism and Humanism had existed as distinct philosophies of art since long before the 1800’s, but never had their differences been so clear as in the early years of that century. Furthermore, their separateness had always been defined regionally, as schools of thought that were developed discretely, by virtue of their geography (as in the Northern and Southern European Renaissance). But for Age of Enlightenment thinkers, Classicism remained the predominant artistic goal, and most of Europe was held in the sway of its rationalism and humanism, until the Romantic romantic portraitEra of the nineteenth century. Naturalism enjoyed renewed popularity in the poems and literature of the Romantics, which expressed a reverence for nature and an appreciation of her many gifts. Its poets were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Spencer, and among its philosophers were Rousseau, Hegel and Schopenhauer, themselves greatly influenced by the writing of Immanuel Kant. The contributions that Romanticism offered to the practice of portraiture were manifold. Of these, two of its more extraordinary themes are notable; the complex of the Romantic Hero, a concept that embraced the bold individual who achieved greatness and challenged the values of his time (a character whose qualities were to reach epic proportions in the real-life figure of Napolean Bonaparte). Secondly, the ideal of Romantic love, an all-consuming passion for spiritual union with one’s soul mate, which influenced the art of human portrayal subtly, but surely.
Neoclassicists, whose tradition traced back to Greek art and architecture, considered their goal to be the perfection of humanity, and the consequential subduing of nature. The paintings of the Neoclassicists bear the mark of careful study in perspective and form, and reflect a world-view that is well-ordered and anthropocentric (human-centered). In landscape, man and the creations of man enjoy the most conspicuous placement, especially those ofneoclassic portrait Greco-Roman architecture or design. In portraiture, its subjects wear the most formal dress and neutral expressions, not seeking to provoke emotion but to present a clear, rational picture of a person or event. Compare the painting of Napolean by Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David (to the right), with that of his student and successor, Romantic Antoine-Jean Gros (above), and note the differences in mood and context, as well as the differences in formal qualities.
Other differences between Romantic and Neoclassical styles are in their uses of light and shadow. The colors used by Romantic artists are usually more vivid and evocative, suggesting greater contrasts in light and shadow, whereas the tones of color in Neoclassical paintings are more muted and moderately lit. Ironically, although humanism seems a more appropriate artistic philosophy for portraitists to assume, modern portraiture takes more after the dramatic/Naturalistic light and shading of the Romantics. But, as we will discover in the next section, the Modern Era of art will bring further divisions, and many branches within those divisions, to ensure that the multiformity of artistic manifestation is universally accepted.

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Modern Era

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Art

In the modern era, portraiture continued to exist in both traditional European and traditional American styles. Alongside these established practices, however, experimentation in formal technique thrived in the arts, galvanized by new technology that rendered realism all but obsolete. But in consideration of the artists’ intentions, who participated in such revolutionary movements, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that modernism brought forth a new kind of realism. In contrast with the realism of the photograph, modernism introduced the realism of the eye, complete with all of its deceptions and mental impositions.

If the artists of the Baroque emphasized the importance of light, the French impressionists went a step further in painting only the effects of light. The features of human forms and the topography of landscapes were only secondary to the vivid colors and impressions of light created by the style of painting utilized by the Impressionists. As a consequence, Impressionists rarely, if ever, painted portraits of individual subjects. Degas, a photographer and Impressionist painter, rendered human subjects (mostly ballerinas), but like the Baroque painters, usually portrayed his subjects in active poses rather than in static poses. Renoir, too, painted women subjects, frequently nude and often in still poses, but the artists who composed the core of the Impressionist movement, such as Monet and Manet, were less inclined to portraiture.
Mary Cassatt, an American, portrayed comforting familial scenes (often Mother and Daughter relations), and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, her French analogue, painted scenes of seamy and disreputable society (such as brothels and bars).

Post-Impressionists Paul Gaugin and Gustave Klimt often painted single subjects, and Van Gogh is often credited with popularizing the art of self-portraiture. Van Gogh selfportraitPointillist Georges Seurat and Cubist Paul Cezanne were more concerned with formal elements of style than with subject, so even where individual subjects appear, they are not in the idiom of portraiture.
So how can one possibly synthesize a theory as to what direction portraiture was taking in the nineteenth century? With all of these varied styles and approaches, it may seem as though the only aspect of art to which all of these artists subscribed was the desire to broaden their boundaries and explore new meanings of visual art. But there are certain common strains between these cubists, fauvists, futurists, impressionist and post-impressionists, pointillists, art nouveau-ists, and primitivists that underscore their apparent differences, which is to be found in the artists’ exercise of priority and prerogative. In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art, a painting’s style and distinctness were valued higher than the choice of a worthy subject or an exact rendering (which were the preferred qualities of pre-modern painting), so a shift in priority is evident in the development of modern art. Also, a new appreciation for artistic license, or the artist’s power of choice regarding style and subject (in contrast to the power of the patron, or the power of a medium to decide what and how a painting is rendered) emerged, allowing artists to exercise their own prerogative concerning the meaning and direction of art.

Picasso portraitThe empowerment of the artist as an interpreter and a conduit to an abstract genius, a dramatic displacement from his role as an artisan with a marketable skill (a mere peon for church, aristocracy, or middle-class patrons), paved the road for surrealists and dadaists, cubists and abstract expressionists, to achieve levels of popularity and fame unprecedented in modern history, who then reintroduced the patronage system to art. Pablo Picasso, the Spanish Cubist, is perhaps the most influential and well-known artist of the twentieth century, and any work of art with his name on it is said to be worth more than its weight in gold. Salvador Dali, another Spanish artist, began as a surrealist (achieving great fame by it) and became a pop artist (see post-modernism), employing a team of artists to create his work for him. American artist Jackson Pollack is considered by some to be the apex of artistic realization, and by others to be a telling example of the art world of the mid-twentieth century at its most jaded.
But no matter what opinion we hold of their works themselves, there is one thing that is certain about art in the mid-twentieth century; it had incredible monetary value, and its finest patron, corporate America, had the money to buy it with.

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Postmodernism

Pop Art and Portraiture Today

In the post-modern world, it is often suggested that all innovation in formal technique and conceptual approach are exhausted, and that art, in its archaic sense, is dead. But despite the cynical contentions of a critical minority, most practicing artists are keenly aware of the living presence of art in the contemporary world. Pop art, public art, conceptual art, 3-D and computer art deserve mention as only a handful of developments in a sea of burgeoning new art forms. Pop art was an art movement that was first recognized during the 1960’s, with the popularity of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and others, whose choice of subject was taken from the popular images disseminated through television and other media. By turning visual input, the frequency of which was such that the mind became immune to and unmoved by them, into the subject of art, pop artists were attempting to stimulate the perceiver to recognize those images that their eyes took for granted, and appreciate them on an artistic level. In other cases, pop artists simply wanted to show the art-going public how, when you put a frame around an image (no matter what its style or import), it somehow becomes art. Few of us would deny that another reason for the mass production and ready-made subjects of the pop art movement was for the sake of profit. Certainly, the distinction between art and advertising became blurred due to the pop artists’ uses of commercial images without any alteration or corruption, and the pop artists themselves made a good deal of money from the accessibility and ease of their work.
Warhol portraitA key aspect of Pop art is self-reference, drawing upon the media commons to construct a simulacrum of our collective imagination, using a composite of images that we see everyday. This self- reference, or separation from historical or cultural context, is the essence of postmodernism, and has come to define the contemporary American perspective of art. The 1970’s-1980’s vogue of conceptual painting affirmed the postmodern model of art in America, with its emphasis on newness and progress, on invention and interpretation, rather than coherence or representation. It should be noted however that realism, despite its new subversive status in the art scene, was still in practice by many (esp. portrait artists) commensurate with the pop art and conceptual art movements.
Chuck Close, who began as a photo-realist in the 1960’s and 1970’s (when photo-realism was quite unfashionable) and developed his own artistic technique in the 80's (after becoming paraplegic) of what is sometimes inaccurately called ’neo-pointillism’, is often credited with the re-popularizing the self-portrait. Recently, portraitists have re-established their practice as both a vital art form and a viable trade, championing various styles and aspects of art, from its most novel (there is still a thriving community of silhouette artists) to its most grand (even in our postmodern age, there are ambitious sculptors and painters who seek out the worthiest subjects). The diversity of the art world today allows us the freedom to choose our own themes and subjects, provided that we can connect our own fields of interest with a potential market. In this, the Internet is indispensable, and remains the uncharted ground of art exposition.
It has been said that portrait painting is humanity’s eternal effort to capture the essence of itself. The same has been said about art in general. In this way, portrait painting is the art of art, and the portrait painter is the artist of artists. Striving to accomplish in representation what many artists strive for in abstraction, the portraitist embodies the struggle of all art to define the meaning of self. If you have had the opportunity to scrutinize any representation of your self, other than in a photograph, whether it be a child's scribbled likeness, a professional portrait, or a sketch of yourself in the mirror, you may know the unique appeal of portrait art and the insight and beauty that it can bring to the occupation of self-exploration.

Chuck Close selfportraitThrough the History of Portraiture, we have seen humans portrayed as omens and sacred fetishes, divine beings and historical personages, a part of nature and conquerors of nature, passionate individuals and part of a mass consciousness, subjects of experimentation and icons of self. But we have never sufficiently defined portraiture. I have avoided this subject precisely because it is a source of endless interpretation, and in history one must take care not to impose their own standards on the works in question. But in lieu of a clear definition of what constitutes portraiture, I will offer my personal interpretation. Portraiture is the art that immortalizes. Portraiture is the art that remembers a person at their most manifest moment, and relates their story to the world. If this definition seems unlikely to you, consider the Mona Lisa.

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