Portraits: Not Just an iPhone Camera Mode
When I hear the word “portrait”, the first thing that comes to mind is the “portrait mode” camera option in my phone – a feature I’ve taken advantage of on many occasions. Taking a portrait photo of someone is now one of the easiest things you can do; easier than making a phone call or getting a glass of water. One “click” and you’re done. But that ease and effortlessness weren’t always the case when it comes to portraits. The word “portrait” is said to come from the Latin “portrahere” which translates to “drag out, reveal, expose.”
Before the invention of “modern” day photography, painted, sculpted or drawn portraits were the only way to capture someone’s appearance and even, in some cases, their personality – sounds tedious, right? That said, portraits have always been more than just a means of recording someone’s appearance – they’ve been used to “portray” and/or flatter the subject’s qualities and attributes, from power and importance to beauty and wealth. The popularity of portraits paved the way for them to go from expensive and customized luxuries to common and public art forms, mostly used to decorate public areas and reflect the morals and religious values of the time. The first portrait is likely to have been created during prehistoric times (around 5000 years ago) in Egypt as a means to depict rulers as gods abound. As we evolved, it wasn’t just the tools and techniques used to create portraits that evolved with us, but also the themes and purposes behind them.
Portraiture During the Middle Ages
After the Roman empire’s demise came the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages. After portraits’ intention being political during the reign of the Roman Empire (pretty obviously so, once you take a look at the sculpted portraits of all emperors displayed in public!), their intention shifted during the Middle Ages, to something a little conspicuous in the form of public art mainly created to decorate the interiors of churches and monasteries
During this time, portrait art’s biggest patron was the Church, which meant that it was concentrated on religious themes and Christian subjects. The purpose of medieval portraiture was not to capture the sitter’s specific facial features or how they looked at that moment in time, but rather to represent the individual as they wished to be remembered through the ages. One of the most well-known works of this time is Enthroned Madonna and Child at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt.
The Italian Renaissance introduced new ideas into painting including light and shade, 3-D modelling and narrative concepts like humanism (a faith in the nobility of Man), allowing a noticeable rise in the quality of Renaissance portraits. European portraiture during this time was known for its sense of reality; for the painter’s intention to portray the subject’s unique appearance or individual identity while simultaneously seeking “to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity”. Painters were able to bring out this shared touch of humanity by following a small range of conventional formats, like the profile view and the three-quarter face. Possibly the most famous portrait painting of this time, which followed the three-quarter face format, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. What’s interesting is that during this time, the Church continued to have a hold over fine art, using that grip to commission artwork (namely portraits of Martyrs, members of the Holy Family or Apostles) for chapels, monasteries and churches. The successive Popes were so keen on spending fortunes to decorate Rome that the Vatican almost went bankrupt (talk about big spending!).
20th Century Portraiture
Art in the 20th century veered away from classical genres and towards newer and more different ways of representing reality in a time of world wars and moral uncertainty. With the introduction of photography, film, and video, classical portraiture felt outdated and had little value compared to earlier eras. Instead, portrait artists of the 20th century used portraiture as simply another means of promoting their style of art. Exceptions to this included Picasso’s portraits like Portrait of Gertrude Stein and Modigliani’s Portrait of Juan Girls. Portrait art post-war also saw developments in terms of materials and techniques – especially those related to technology – exemplified by the works of Andy Warhol.
Portraiture as an art form is adaptive; during any given period of time, portraiture adapts to reflect the style of the era, like any other genre of painting. As Oscar Wilde said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”