The History of Portraits

A portrait is a picture, photograph, painting, drawing, or sculpture of a person that focuses on the face. Other body parts may be included, but the facial expression is the most dominant aspect of this type of art. Portraits reflect what a person is like, and you can tell a lot about a person by analysing their portrait. It can give you insight into their personality, stature, and even their background and culture. A portrait can express the subject’s mood, and their state of mind. A portrait represents the subject in a static position, unmoving, and looking straight at the artist. The result is that anyone observing the portrait feels like the picture is looking right back at them. This increases the connection with the observer, and makes it easier to notice the subject’s human qualities.

When we think of a portrait, we think of a flattering image of a person dressed in their best clothes and looking absolutely fabulous. People generally buy new outfits, visit the barber shop or hair salon, and get specialist treatments in preparation for having their portraits taken. The idea is that this image will be viewed forever, so you don’t want people to remember you in a bad light.

It hasn’t always been that way. In some earlier cultures, portraits were expected to be true representations, and the subjects insisted that they be as genuine and harsh as possible, even if the portrait ended up being unattractive. Subjects demanded that their portraits be as authentic as humanly possible. This ideal was strongly advocated during the Ancient Greek and Roman periods of history.

Later, ideal portraits became more popular. The trend began when ordinary people were asked to pose for statues or paintings representing Greek gods. Usually, the art was posed by obscure unknown models, and nude statues were based on people of questionable social standing, because the upper echelons of society couldn’t pose while naked. As the art began to be exposed and admired, ordinary subjects desired to be presented in the same beautiful ideal way, except, they wanted to keep their clothes on.

At some point, portraits became an essential part of funeral services, and some were placed on tombstones. Funeral portraits had to be accurate and realistic, to show the true form of the deceased.

In the past, portraits were a long, tedious affair. The subject had to sit still and maintain the same facial expression for hours while the artist drew or painted them. It was sometimes tiresome, and quite boring. The task was equally trying for the artists, who sometimes had to deal with fussy or fidgety clients. Today, the process is much easier, because portraits can be done using a camera, and the process takes only a few seconds.

Portraits have taken on a political significance as well. Many countries have a law that insists on the President’s portrait being present in prominent places and business establishments. Other places have portraits of religious leaders like the Pope or Orthodox Archbishops, as a sign of religious authority, or as a profession of faith.

Lots of people go to photography studios to have family portraits taken. Professional portraits are also common for key events such as weddings and graduations, where the focus is on the subject’s joy and their sense of achievement.

By Laura