The History of Portraiture


Portraiture is the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright (c) 2012,
Columbia University Press.

"The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as the ‘Sampling Officials’", Rembrandt, 1662

“The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as the ‘Sampling Officials’”, Rembrandt, 1662

The Columbia encyclopedia’s “History of Portraiture” is an article about the history of portraits. The article is divided into sections discussing different types of portraits from the self-portraits to photographic portraits and many other types of portraiture. Considering the subject of this blog is about portraits, it seems appropriate to include the history behind portraits and why they exist. According to the article portraits have two purposes “the desire to represent the subject accurately and the desire to transform or idealize the subject”. There are also many different symbolic meanings to portraits. In some cultures it represents the theft of a soul and in others it can be the substitute presence for a deceased individual. And as with artists, portraits can also be representative of a particular profession. Many artists chose to include objects such as palettes and brushes in their own self portraits. Although this blog consists of painted portraits on canvas, portraits can also take the form of statues as with the Egyptian monuments representing kings as well as paintings on various substrates such as wood on tombs and walls made of stone. In the 17th century Dutch painters made group portraits popular (portrait above) and English painters soon followed this trend.  Portraits started to lose their importance in art movements during the late 20th century but gained success again the 1970s thanks to artists such as Alice Neel, Alex Katz and David Hockney. Today artists such as Chuck Close (below) ,with facial close ups broken down into individual parts, and Robert Greene   ,with portraits painted with just his fingers, are finding new ways of representing portraits.

Figure 1  "Emma", Chuck Close, 2002, woodcut

Figure 1
“Emma”, Chuck Close, 2002, woodcut

Read more: portraiture: Introduction


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