What is a portrait
In its simplest form, the portrait is the depiction of an individual. However, in more recent times, and especially since the Renaissance, portraiture has grown into a highly accurate representation of the individual. The aim of modern photographic portraiture is to record the physical form and features of the portrait sitter. However, by extension modern portraits often include characterisation, personal context, possible relationships and often a connection with that persons life, lifestyle and work. Modern portraiture is therefore about conveying a very real and intense sense of the sitters personality, and possibly their interests and personal environment.
The practical use of portraits
Throughout history the making of a portrait has been a costly and often lengthy act. Painting and sculpture both require extensive artistry and practical skills. In the vast majority of the population this means that the ordinary person has not had access to or been depicted in portraits until more recent times. The cheap and widely available photographic medium has changed this over the last 150 years.
Since the Renaissance there has been an increasing emphasis on the accurate depiction of the features and overall appearance of the sitter. Accurate depiction of specific individuals has historically fulfilled a range of important functions. Portraits serve to remind people to whom they owe allegiance; often they have a diplomatic function and frequently have served to validate positions of authority and protect against imposters. However, grand and expensive paintings and other forms of classic portraiture have always been used to impress and to make a statement about ones own status, as well as position in the family line. However, this is essentially about heredity rather than practical identity checking.
Modern photography has therefore extended the traditional concept of portraiture into the realms of bureaucracy and identity validation. In a very real sense this has lead to a polarisation of the medium with the very formal aspects of portraiture leaning toward official and important events, paperwork and life changing events like births, marriage, death and passport controls. On the other extreme a whole branch of photography and portraiture leans toward very informal circumstances such as candid street photography and other forms of casual or free-time enactment for the camera. While modern photographic portraiture has evolved to cover a very wide range of activities is essentially still based on classic concepts and in many cases classic poses.
Portraiture through history
The ancient art of portraiture is nearly as old as painting. Portraits are recorded in cave paintings, primitive and tribal art. Often used as a means of representing power and influence, portraits have been found in many of the early civilisations notably the early Egyptian and Chinese cultures. However, the tradition really became important during the Greek and Roman times when it was common to depict people in life-like poses in solid forms such as sculpture, metalwork, coins and ceramics.
During the Middle Ages portraiture declined. Portrait-like works were more generic, offering little in the way of personal likenesses. However, religious depiction of God and other well known Biblical characters remained, although also without specific likenesses. In some cases donors to Religious causes were depicted in paintings and wall murals. Although the earliest examples were also generic in form without clear personal likenesses being shown.
Portraiture remained a relatively unimportant tradition in most European cultures except in a religious context until the late Middle Ages. At that time, again in a religious context, sculpture became more important. Later, during the fifteenth century the earliest Renaissance portraits were more inclined to religious depiction and often associated with the Biblical context rather than the depiction of powerful or influential people.
The European tradition of portraiture began to blossom during the fifteen hundreds. The early portraits had relatively few formats and sitting positions. Later portraits became increasingly more realistic with greater identification of the individual rather than the more generic approach of the earlier times. Indeed, works like the Mona Lisa (painted by Leonardo da Vinci 1503-05), showed an increasing tendency to connect the sitter with the viewer. Instead of the classical profile and later the three-quarter head position, painters in the fifteenth century increasingly found ways to introduce some depth and personal presence in the paintings. This included detailed studies of the face of the sitter with expressions appropriate to the context of the picture. The more formalised poses and expressions of the earlier times became less prevalent. The increasing reality of painting became a central theme of portraiture leading into the sixteenth century.
The Renaissance traditions of painting, and in particular portraiture, continued to develop through the sixteenth century and up to the present day. However, the gradual trend throughout that period was for an increasingly accurate likeness of the sitters and for the gradual inclusion of the inner personality and and outward character. The landed gentry, wealthy merchants, rulers and royalty were always important portrait subjects. However, painters increasingly depicted ordinary people, artisans and workers. Portraiture has always come out of the relationship between the artist and patron, and that continued to be conducive to portraiture. Nevertheless, painters increasingly undertook works on their own initiative leading to a much wider interpretation of the art of portraiture – a trend which was readily taken up by the early photographers.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the portrait became a very significant feature of the modern European cultural scene. All walks of life were depicted and often portraits included a significant view of, or insight into, the environment and meaning of the sitters life. In this context it was easy for photography to grow rapidly as a new medium for portraiture and the depiction of everyday life. The early photographic technologies, up until around 1910, were of course limited and exposure times often lasted minutes. So the practical considerations in photography limited much of what was possible to portraiture and landscape photography. This in turn lead to photographic portraits becoming a common and accepted medium which grew rapidly up to, and after, World War One.
After World War One and during the middle of the twentieth century photographic portraiture had a profound effect to depress the painted portrait. Instead, the dynamic and rapid uptake of photography by both professionals and amateurs led to an explosion of imagery of all types. While modern photography covers all aspects of society, life, nature and environment, the portrait is still of significant importance.