Defining Portraits and Portraiture in Art

Portraiture Is a Strong Category in Art

Adele Bloch-Bauer's Portrait by Gustav Klimt

Neue Galerie New York/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 1.0 

Portraits are works of art that record the likenesses of humans or animals that are alive or have been alive. The word portraiture is used to describe this category of art.

The purpose of a portrait is to memorialize an image of someone for the future. It can be done with painting, photography, sculpture, or almost any other medium.

Some portraiture is also created by artists purely for the sake of creating art, rather than working on commission. The human body and face are fascinating subjects that many artists like to study in their personal work.

Types of Portraits in Art

One could speculate that the majority of portraits are created while the subject is still alive. It may be a single person or a group, such as a family.

Portrait paintings go beyond simple documentation, it is the artist's interpretation of the subject. Portraits can be realistic, abstract, or representational. 

Thanks to photography, we can easily capture records of what people look like throughout their life. This was not possible prior to the invention of the medium in the mid-1800s, so people relied on painters to create their portrait. 

A painted portrait today is often seen as a luxury, even more than it was in previous centuries. They tend to be painted for special occasions, important people, or simply as artwork. Due to the cost involved, many people choose to go with photography instead of hiring a painter.

A "posthumous portrait" is one that is rendered after the death of the subject. It can be achieved by either copying another portrait or following instructions of the person who commissions the work.

Single images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, or any saints are not considered portraits. They are called "devotional images."

Many artists also choose to do a "self-portrait." It is a work of art depicting the artist created by their own hand. These are typically made from a reference photo or by looking in a mirror. Self-portraits can give you a good sense of how an artist views themselves and, quite often, it is rather introspective. Some artists will regularly create self-portraits, some just one in their lifetime, and others will not produce any.

Portraiture as Sculpture

While we tend to think of a portrait as a two-dimensional piece of artwork, the term can also apply to sculpture. When a sculptor focuses on just the head or the head and neck, it is called a portrait. The word bust is used when the sculpture includes part of the shoulder and breast.

Portraiture and Appropriation

Usually, a portrait records the subject's features, though it often also tells something about them. A portrait of the art historian Robert Rosenblum (1927–2006) by Kathleen Gilje captures the sitter's face. It also celebrates his outstanding Ingres scholarship through the appropriation of Jean-Auguste-Domonique Ingres' portrait of the Comte de Pastoret (1791—1857).

Ingres' portrait was completed in 1826 and Gilje's portrait was completed in 2006, several months before Rosenblum's death in December. Robert Rosenblum collaborated on the choice of appropriation.

Representative Portraiture

Sometimes a portrait includes inanimate objects that represent the subject's identity. It doesn't necessarily have to include the subject itself.

Francis Picabia's portrait of Alfred Stieglitz "Ici, C'est Ici Stieglitz" ("Here is Stieglitz," 1915, Stieglitz Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art) depicts only a broken bellows camera. Stieglitz was a famous photographer, dealer, and Georgia O'Keeffe's husband. The early twentieth-century Modernists loved machines and Picabia's affection for both the machine and Stieglitz is expressed in this work.

The Size of Portraits

Portraiture can come in any size. When a painting was the only way to capture a person's likeness, many well-to-do families chose to memorialize people in "portrait miniatures." These paintings were often done in enamel, gouache, or watercolor on animal skin, ivory, velum, or a similar support. The details of these tiny portraits—often just a couple of inches—are amazing and created by extremely talented artists.

Portraits can also be very large. We often think of paintings of royalty and world leaders hanging in enormous halls. The canvas itself can, at times, be larger than the person was in real life.

However, the majority of painted portraiture falls in between these two extremes. Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" (ca. 1503) is probably the most famous portrait in the world and it was painted on a 2-foot, 6-inch by 1-foot, 9-inch poplar panel. Many people do not realize how small it is until they see it in person.

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Defining Portraits and Portraiture in Art." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2021, July 29). Defining Portraits and Portraiture in Art. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Defining Portraits and Portraiture in Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).