History of Portraiture
Portraiture is a visual representation of an individual people,
distinguished by references to the subject's character, social
position, wealth, or profession.
Portraitists often strive for exact visual likenesses. However,
although the viewer's correct identification of the sitter is of
primary importance, exact replication is not always the goal. Artists
may intentionally alter the appearance of their subjects by
embellishing or refining their images to emphasize or minimize
particular qualities (physical, psychological, or social) of the
subject. Viewers sometimes praise most highly those images that seem
to look very little like the sitter because these images are judged to
capture some non-visual quality of the subject. In non-Western
societies portraiture is less likely to emphasize visual likeness than
in Western cultures.
Portraits can be executed in any medium, including sculpted stone and
wood, oil, painted ivory, pastel, encaustic (wax) on wood panel,
tempera on parchment, carved cameo, and hammered or poured metal
(plus, many more).
Portraits can include only the head of the subject, or they can depict
the shoulders and head, the upper torso, or an entire figure shown
either seated or standing. Portraits can show individuals either
self-consciously posing in ways that convey a sense of timelessness or
captured in the midst of work or daily activity. During some
historical periods, portraits were severe and emphasized authority,
and during other periods artists worked to communicate spontaneity and
the sensation of life.
The history of portraiture spans most of the history of Western art,
from the art of ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations to the modern
art of Europe and North America.
The Romans were expert in rendering individuals. Some scholars have
argued that it was the practice of making and keeping death masks of
ancestors (worn by survivors in the funeral processions) that accounts
for the enormous skill with which Roman portraitists captured the
individuality of their subjects. Many portrait busts survive,
including images of Roman rulers as well as poignant representations
of aged citizens. Especially noteworthy are the mummy portraits from
the region of Al FayyÅ«m in Egypt. Painted during the 2nd century ad,
these portraits depict individuals who stare wide-eyed at the viewer.
These slightly simplified representations of staring subjects
anticipate the severity and frontal orientation of early medieval