Portrait paintings, when skillfully executed, have the amazing ability to convey not only the exterior likenesses of the sitters, but their interior qualities as well. This can be achieved through the artist’s judicious choice of pose, setting, dress, props (often symbolic), and/or color, among many other elements.
Portraiture is an artistic style that has interested artists throughout human history. One of the oldest known portraits in the world comes from Czech Republic, and is roughly 26,000 years old. It depicts a woman’s face, and was made from mammoth ivory.
Some of the earliest surviving painted portraits of people who were not kings or emperors come from the ancient Egyptians; they often painted funeral portraits of their dead. They were also known for depicting their dead on sarcophagi.
Portraiture can also be traced back to ancient Greco-Roman art, where artists sought to capture the likeness of famous leaders and gods in the form of wall-paintings, sculpture, and even coins. During the Renaissance period, artists became fascinated with both the natural world and Greco-Roman culture. This lead to a renewed interest in exploring portraiture. In the subsequent Baroque and Rococo periods, artists were commissioned to create portraits in order to record an individual’s social status. During the 19th century, the growing middle class began to have their portraits commissioned as well. This interest was expounded upon by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists; much of their artwork depicts the working class and bourgeoisie, as well as their family and friends.
The interest in portraiture has been carried into the 20th century, and most notably explored by two very well-known English artists, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
An artist will create a portrait in order to capture the likeness of an individual. A portrait can feature one person, a couple, or a large group, such as a family. The subject might be nude or clothed; standing or sitting; or even riding a horse. The subject might be painted in full or half length, head and shoulders, or just the head. In order to successfully execute a portrait, an artist must study the subject(s) at length; this may require a number of sittings and sketches. The artist may place the subject close or far from the picture plane. This may affect the viewer’s relationship with the subject. A subject placed close to the picture plane connotes a sense of familiarity; a subject placed far back connotes formality. A self-portrait refers to a portrait that the artist creates of themselves.
Artists Known For
Rembrandt van Rijn is remembered today for his self-portraits, which many believe are the most impressive ever created. A very well-known portrait painting by a famous artist is “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo Da Vinci. The ambiguity of the subject’s facial expression still inspires much fascination in its many viewers at the Louvre today. Two famous artists from the 19th century, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, were fascinated in creating portraits that featured those of the lower class and the bourgeoisie. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was an American artist who was considered to be one of the leading portrait painters of his generation. Perhaps his most famous portrait painting is “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)”, which depicts a young socialite named Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau; she was notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and indiscrete affairs. Another scintillating famous figure painting portrait is “Olympia” by Edouard Manet, which depicts a nude woman gazing directly at the viewer. Chuck Close is well-known for his photorealist and massive-scale portrait paintings, and he uses very detailed patterns in order to portray his subjects. Other famous portraitists include Raphael, Titian, Thomas Gainsborough, Gustav Klimt, Jacques-Louis David, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Amedeo Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Kehinde Wiley.