A Brief History of The Portrait: Part 1


The history of art is filled with portraiture. From cave paintings dating 27,000 years ago, to that awesome photo of your little one you took with your iPhone — human beings have always been drawn to capturing each other in art.

Portraits have evolved in so many ways since their beginning, from the medium, to the purpose, and the presentation. But one thing has always remained the same: the motive.

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. - Aristotle, Greek philosopher

What is a Portrait?

A portrait is an attempt to portray the inner essence of the subject. It doesn’t just show what someone looks like, but should show more of who they are—their personality, mood, values, and place in time.

See, a portrait is not just an image but rather a piece of history; both personal and social. It shows not only what people looked like, and how they interacted with their world, but also reveals details about what the artist themselves thought to be important in their work.

My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph. - Richard Avedon, fashion & portrait photographer

Looking at portraits from the past lets you learn so much about people and culture. What was important to them? How did they feel about themselves? How did they value art? Portraits are wonderfully complex and full of subtle insight.

The word itself has taken on many meanings over the years. It originated from the mid 16th century, from the Old French word portraire, meaning portray. Portrait is often used literally to describe “a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders”. But it can suggest more abstract concepts as well. You can create a portrait of an animal, an object, a city, or a culture. Though it has many meanings, the purpose of a portrait is simply to portray significance.

The First Portraits

The earliest semblances of a portrait came from a cave in Angoulême, France. It was a stylized representation of an eye, nose and mouth. This depiction of the human face was created long before any form of writing. We can know so much from a portrait that no words are necessary to communicate the message.  


There are surviving painted portraits from as early as the 2nd century CE. The largest group are the incredible funerary paintings from the Faiyum Basin in Egypt —realistic representations of affluent citizens attached to their mummies. They were painted on wooden surfaces with either wax paints or egg-based tempera.There is something absolutely mesmerizing about these pieces.


Naturally the Greeks have something to say about the portrait. They are often considered the pinnacle of sculpture, and their ability to render the human face in marble is astonishing. 

What’s particularly interesting about the way the Greeks approached portraits is in their use of idealism. They portrayed people as the perfect example of the human form. Their sculptures were initially of gods, so when they began to sculpt real people they were shown in a similar fashion.

One of the greatest sculptors of Classical Greece was Lysippos, famous for being the only artist Alexander the Great would allow to portray him. Lysippos’ work was elegant and graceful, often showing figures appearing quite tall. His sculptures of Alexander showed him as statuesque and godlike. Given that Alexander was short and stocky, his choice of Lysippos as his sculptor was less about physical accuracy, and more about presenting an idealized image.

Then the Romans came along. They were inspired by the Greek sculptors, but soon incorporated their own philosophy of verism. Verism comes from the Latin verus, meaning “true”. It is the “preference of contemporary everyday subject matter instead of the heroic or legendary in art and literature”. It focuses on the reality of the subject, often producing what are considered “unflattering” portraits. All imperfections were included in an attempt to show the truth.

The Romans saw it as a sign of character to have a portrait created like this. It suggested being unconcerned with vanity, and of having experience in life.  


Painted Portraits

As art progressed, painting became more popular, and so portraits were created in colours rather than marble. And yet the motive didn’t change. Artists were looking to communicate something essential to their subject.

As always, the face was the focal point of the portrait. In many cases the face was completed first, and then the rest of the painting was created afterwards. The tradition was to have a serious expression, with the majority of the emotion portrayed by the eyes.

Painted portraits were quite diverse. They could be created with many different lengths (full length, half length, head and shoulders or just the head), the background was sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors. Some painters would require only one sitting, while Cezanne famously required over 100. In general the portrait would take around a year to create.

The experience of the sitting was incredibly important to the final product. The artist had to encourage a natural pose from the subject, and put them at ease. They studied their face for the one expression that they would capture that reflected the true essence. As the sittings would take quite a long time, many great artists were skilled at keeping their subject engaged with conversation.

The value of these portraits is described when Count Balthazar thanked Raphael for the portrait of his wife, and said “Your image…alone can lighten my cares. That image is my delight; I direct my smiles to it, it is my joy.”

The Renaissance

Portraits gained in importance during the Renaissance. They became highly valued in society, and were used to record status and position. The great artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were considered geniuses rather than mere craftsmen. During this time oil painting was mastered by Jan van Eyck, which led to greater detail and realism. He painted the famous Arnolfini Portrait, a portrait of a married (or betrothed) couple.

arnolfini.jpgThis was when one of the most famous portraits in history was created: the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci was a master of the portrait, and his ability to capture the inner essence of Lisa del Giocondo has had people marvelling and wondering in front of the piece for nearly 500 years.

The Baroque to the 19th Century

As time passed, the portrait became increasingly popular. While many artists were still in pursuit of the true essence, others created works that had a more idealistic perspective. In the famous painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte is shown in a heroic pose, on a “firey horse”, with a dramatic sky behind him. 


The reality was not quite so legendary, however. He actually crossed on a nice day, riding a mule!

The subjects of portrait paintings were expanding beyond the wealthy. Vermeer was known for his painting of middle class, domestic life, with subjects like a milkmaid, a girl in a piano lesson, and an astronomer. His portraits provided a look at 17th century Dutch society.

Other advances were happening at this time, from Rembrandt exploring the many expressions capable on the human face, to the group portraits being produced in the Netherlands.

Female painters were gaining importance, especially in portraiture. Mary Cassatt, an American painter, was famous for her series of paintings that showed the relationship between mother and child. 


As artists began to look towards the middle class, the desire for portraits increased. Full size paintings were too expensive, so the portrait miniature — a small portrait, often kept in a locket — became highly valuable.

Then, in 1835, Louis Daguerre accidentally broke a mercury thermometer, and the portrait changed. Big time. 

To be continued…


« Previous post Next post »