(Top Image: “Young Girl Writing at Her Desk with Birds” by Henriette Browne)
Whether remarkably realistic or a suggestive abstraction, the portrait recreates a person’s likeness and captures some aspect of individual identity. Though the medium has evolved from sculpture to canvas to film and more, its popularity in artistic expression persists.
A portrait presents a likeness of a specific individual’s features and expresses some aspect or essence of who that person is. Ancient Egyptians painted pharaohs and subjects on tombs. Portraits in Western art date back to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and coins. Centuries later, interest in portraiture re-emerged and flourished with the Renaissance period’s interest in everyday life and individual identity. From this era came what is perhaps the most famous example of a portrait: Leonardo da Vinci’s seated woman, Mona Lisa. In many societies, having a portrait of oneself indicated status or wealth. Royalty, aristocracy, and a growing middle class in the Renaissance, post-Revolutionary, and Colonial periods commonly commissioned portraits of their likeness for display in their homes as demonstrations of their social importance and to endure through posterity. Self-portraiture developed during the Renaissance, persisting through today as a popular form of artistic expression for a variety of artists through time and space, spanning hundreds of years and found throughout the world. Early self-portrait artists painted their own likeness out of practicality, practice, and poverty since hiring models to pose could be costly to struggling artists like Vincent van Gogh, who instead acquired a mirror and practiced perfecting his craft with paintings of himself. Through the Renaissance and after, self-portraiture and portraiture in general evolved. Portraiture became for some artists a means of exposing inner anguish or introspection, as in Frida Kahlo’s work in the early 1900s. For others, like Andy Warhol, the subject proved a way to explore divisions between public and private. For some artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Lee Friedlander, the image of an individual is a vehicle for political or social commentary. Portraits are present in non-Western cultures as well, found historically in ancient Egyptian pyramid tombs, ancient Chinese scrolls, Mayan ruins, and all other cultures throughout the world.
- Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1518
- Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
- Las Meninas by Diego Vel zquez, 1656
- Mao by Andy Warhol, 1973
- Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler, 1871
- In Grant Wood’s renowned American Gothic portrait, all elements were painted separately, including the models portraying a farmer and his wife.
- Pablo Picasso’s first significant painting was a family portrait, First Communion, depicting his parents and younger sister.
- Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold at auction for $142 million, breaking previous sale records.