Art History  •  Movements and techniques

Portrait Painting and Capturing the Essence of Your Subject

Portraiture and portrait painting focuses on depicting a human subject. Historically, portraits have often been commissioned and portray either public or private figures, which gives them importance as historical records; they recorded the past before the advent of photography. They are generally inspired by admiration for the subject, who is often the muse of the artist. While early portraits were often painted in oils, modern and contemporary artists work in a variety of media, including acrylic, watercolour, pencil and even collage.

The key feature of portrait painting is not to create a literal representation of the subject, but instead to capture their inner essence – the emotions the subject experiences. Portraits are generally flattering, especially when painted on commission, and non-flattering portraits have even been rejected, such as William Hogarth. It is a time-consuming process, with the subject sitting for the artist multiple times. Cézanne even asked for as many as 100 sittings to create a portrait.

Some artists aim for photo-realistic portraits, while others are impressionist or even verging on abstraction. But for the most part, portraits are generally figurative and capture the artist’s impression of an individual. Historically portraits were painted with a closed-lip expression, and emotion was expressed through the eyes rather than the mouth. Classical portraiture often has a representation for either being serious or a smirk – think of Mona Lisa and her famous smile. Portraiture has a long and illustrious history. It can be dated back to prehistoric times, and early examples can be seen in Ancient Egypt; they were normally painted in profile, and depicted pharaohs and gods. From writings, we know Ancient Greeks painted, but we have no physical evidence, as only their sculptures survived. The Romans in turn were inspired by the Ancient Greek portrait tradition, and Roman coins show lots of examples of early portraiture.

Portraits and self-portraits form part of a longer tradition in Asian art, with two significant variations: the scholar gentleman tradition, where the subject is depicted in a larger landscape with accompanying text; and the tradition associated with Zen Buddhism, which involved semi-caricatured self-portraits.The Western portrait tradition began in medieval times, though medieval portraiture generally depicted wealthy individuals who commissioned paintings of themselves. This holds true to the general trend that historically, only the rich and powerful were commemorated in portraiture. Portrait painting gained popularity in the Renaissance, where portraits were valued as objects and as a status symbol. Several innovations in the tradition emerged during the Renaissance, such as the portrait miniature and two-sided paintings, inspired by medals. The influence of Classical sculpture was important too, particularly on the choice of poses that artists used.

In Northern Europe, among secular painters, portraits painted in oils on canvas became popular. Oil painting allowed a new level of realism, and was pioneered by Jan Van Eyck, a leading Dutch portraitist. The Arnolfini Marriage is a famous example of an early portrait by Van Eyck, and one of the first full-length paintings of a couple.

Among German painters, Albrecht Dürer was noteworthy as the first prolific self-portraitist, and Lucas Cranach was one of the first artists to paint life-sized commissions showing the full length of the subject’s body. Hans Holbein the Younger is also celebrated for painting the royal family in England, and particularly for his iconic painting of Henry VIII.During the Italian Renaissance, the nobility wanted more realistic representations of themselves, and so religious painters added portraiture to their repertoire. Renowned artists include Botticelli, Raphael – who painted several commissions of popes – and Da Vinci, who created one of the most famous portraits in Western art, the Mona Lisa.

The Baroque and Rococo periods brought numerous celebrated portraitists and an increase in their popularity, as portrait paintings signified status. Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt were all celebrated for their portraits, and Rembrandt in particular pioneered the form with more expressive faces, using unconventional composition and technique, and chiaroscuro.In the 18th century, female portrait painters also gained more recognition, such as French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Italian pastel artist Rosalba Carriera.

With the shift from Realism to Impressionism, Monet, Manet, and Renoir continued the portrait tradition and were followed by the post-Impressionists, Gauguin and Van Gogh, who experimented with colour and self-portraits. Van Gogh painted 43 self-portraits in his lifetime. The development of photography impacted portraiture, as portraits became much more accessible. As a result, modern artists worked less on commission, and focused on individuals they knew. The 20th century brought radical innovations with Matisse, who used non-natural colours for hair and skin tones, and Klimt, who incorporated Byzantine elements and gold leaf. Picasso’s Cubist portraits are far removed from realist tradition, and include female portraits, principally of his muses and lovers.

With the rise of abstraction, the popularity of portraiture fell, but there came a British revival in the 60s and 70s with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Andy Warhol created iconic graphic portraits of famous individuals such as Marilyn Monroe and Prince. Female self-portraits were also developed further in the 20th century, with Frida Kahlo and Jenny Saville producing symbolic paintings.

Singulart’s contemporary artists continue the portrait tradition, inspired by modern art and classical painting. Ewa Hauton focuses on the body in motion; Vincent Bardou paints cultural icons with a street art approach. François Pagé is a figurative storyteller, while Chibuike Uzoma employs bold colours and often obscures faces. Discover unique portraits by emerging and established contemporary artists on Singulart.


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