reading portraits

This essay was part of my masters project looking at the history of the portrait in Western culture.  It is the first of two documents that look at the way portraits are read and how they can be changed to better reflect their cultural significance of contemporary society.  This was written in 2004 when the social climate was somewhat different but i have included here as a historical record of where my artistic journey began.

Cultural context of drawing:  Reading Portraits

This project is to look at the way in which portraits can be read and the influences and notions behind these definitions.  The genre of portrait painting is open to many different forms of understanding yet works within a very narrow set of parameters as a specific branch of the visual arts.  A portrait has to function as a likeness of an individual or group of individuals if it is to be considered to be a portrait, yet the way in which this likeness can be interpreted is subject to many different influences and ideas.  For this project, I am looking at the broad definition of a portrait within a Western European context and limiting my time scale from the Renaissance to the present day.  I have done this because my work falls within this tradition and is an area of interest not only within my own practice but also as a means of evolving a language that adds to this tradition.  This project is not an attempt to define a personal concept of what I believe a portrait should be, but an objective understanding of the nature of the portrait in a traditional historical context.


Portraits are not just likenesses, but are also engaged in ideas about identity, as it is understood to be at different times ad in different places.  This can include issues around the character, personality, social understanding, relationships, profession, age and gender of the subject.  These qualities are not fixed but are reliant on the time and place in which the image was made.  Despite this a portrait can only generalise about the nature, and suggest or evoke these aspects of identity.  It can only show the typical or conventional qualities of a subject, never its actuality (although this is a modern concept).  Whilst still maintaining a mimetic quality towards the subject, portraits are subject to major changes in artistic practice and convention, reflecting the prevailing artistic fashion and styles, techniques and media.


Basically, the portrait can take many forms in a wide variety of media.  It can use many different sources, whether working directly from life, copying from another likeness, or using memory only.  It will always rely on the implicit or explicit presence of the sitter.  As a genre, it is different to other aspects of the visual arts as it is concerned with the notion of “likeness”.

The portrait can be both “art” and “fact”- they straddle both areas, but can only do so by taking on specific functions, which is reflected in their production, display and reception.  This is rooted in two stereotypes that can be applied to the subject.


  • The portrait is an invention of the Renaissance
  • Portraiture is predominately a western art form

The portrait has flourished in societies that privilege the notion of the individual over the collective.


What Is a Portrait?

“Whilst a portrait can be concerned with likeness as contained in a person’s physical features.  It can also represent the subjects social position or “inner life”, such as their character and virtues.“


Portraits resonate along a continuum between the specific notion of likeness and the generality of type as represented by the subject to be depicted.  A portrait has to address the notion that an inherent part of its reading as a record of representation, in that it has, in some way or another, to portray an understanding of the physical representation of the subject.  It also has to confront the fact that an identity can be found beneath any sense of physical representation and deals with the character, soul, and virtues of the subject.  The portraits ability to address both these issues within a single image, to look at the outer and inner self make it unique and powerful of representation.


Likeness and Type

A portrait expresses a duality, the simultaneous engagement with likeness and type.  They address the question of what the subject looks like but also deal with the artist’s imagination, the perceived social role of the sitter, and the qualities of the subject that raise him/her above the occasion of the moment, which is the usual reason why their image is committed to a portrait in the first place.  This can be seen in Isabella d’Este who commissioned Titian to paint her portrait, but instead of sitting for him she sent another portrait of herself made by another artist for Titian to base his own image upon.  This was further compounded by the fact that the image on which he was to base his own portrait was not a contemporary one but one produced some 25 years earlier.  So, Titian was confronted not only with the issue of creating a likeness, but producing one that reflected the isolated record of a past image that had only a generalised link with the subject at the time of the images execution.  This image could only deal with the idealised qualities of the subject as she once was.  This reflected the current thinking of the time where it was considered that only the worthy, or highborn individuals should be the subject of portraits, and in doing so these attributes would be absorbed by the artist and passed onto the viewer.  So, asking one of the foremost artists of the day to paint a portrait of you based on a 25 year old image does not seem such a crazy idea as we may have first thought.


The duality of likeness and type was first expressed in the portrait busts of the ancient Greeks.  Greek artists wanted to distinguish their subjects’ individuality by following the subject likeness.  This meant the viewer was able to discern the subject as an individual, but they also wanted to evoke virtues that transcended individuality and dealt with the similarity of type.  The portrait therefore became a symbol of higher humanistic qualities.


These qualities of the sitter could be conveyed through gesture, expression, or role play.  A king in his garb of office, a landed family sitting in the grounds of their estate, the intellectual surrounded by books and scientific instruments.  This practice is as strong today as it has always been with many modern portraits reflecting these conventions.  The use of setting and accoutrements to express the virtues and qualities of the subject has become artistic convention in many circumstance.  For example, the convention in northern renaissance painting of placing the virgin and child under a draped awning led to these pictorial elements being imbued with vestiges of reference to the Eucharist.  This instilled these elements with a sense of authority that were then appropriated by many portrait artists in images of monarchs and aristocrats, in the understanding that a similar sense of importance would be carried over into their secular images. By the 18th century this convention had become commonplace in a wide social spectrum of subjects and had become no more than mere theatrical prop.


Other conventions had social and artistic origins.  Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione (1514 – 15) showed the subject in a half-length format, leaning on a ledge or parapet.  Portrait artists adopted this format for centuries afterwards.

Raphael Baldassare Castiglione, (1514 -1515)

In England showing he subject with his hand in the pocket of his waistcoat was a convention of portraiture rather than actual social behaviour.  Other smaller conventions included the adoption of plain black tunics in portraits of old men in 17th century Flemish portraits and the inclusion of gloves or fans in 19th century portraits of women in France.  These props served the subjects actual or desired social position, but they also became a means for the artist to express typical qualities of the subjects of the portraits.


In modern times, we can see the fraught relationship between likeness and type in the work of the German photographer August Sander.  His work “People of the 20th Century” was concerned with representing types rather than individuality.  He divided his subjects according to their profession such as farmers, craftsmen, and professionals, and because he was interested in the generality of type rather than the individual identity his subjects were not identified by name.  However, the individuality of the subjects, there uniqueness, undermines the belief that these images reflect type rather than likeness.  These remain images of individuals although they were conceived as representing general qualities of class and profession.  

Blind Miner and Soldier

Likeness and type are problematic.  Likeness is contained in all portraits no matter how obscure it may seem.  They have at least a hint of the individual in them. They also stress the typical convention and ideal aspects of the sitter, the type. These are expressed by the pose, expression, setting and props contained within the image.  It is not possible for the viewer to compare the portrait image with the original.  Therefore, likeness and to a lesser degree type become purely subjective, open to our understanding and reading of all elements contained within a portrait.  We rely on the artist to create a believable “model” of the subject of the portrait.

The Function of Portraits

Portraits take many different forms, and are used in many different ways.  They can be considered as works of art, and equally they can be seen as a substitute for the individuals they represent.  These images can be either in the private or public domain, in city squares, civic or religious institutions or even in the form of stamps and coins.  Whatever way you look at the portrait they are normally created to be in the public realm, however that may be defined.  As objects, in their own right the portrait is employed and exploited in a variety of ways.  The portrait is able to be both a record of a specific event and something more lasting.  The power of this genre lie in the tension caused by its ability to express within its image both the transient and the permanent. 

The Portrait as a Work of Art

A portrait is a work of art, but also works as a special type of object that can resist such classification.  As Richard Brilliant has said

“There is great difficulty in thinking about pictures, even [portraits by great artists, as art and not thinking about them as primarily as something else, the person represented”[1]

If we look at the development of European portrait collections we can see what he means.

Early portrait collections were of eminent men and were found in the libraries or studies of Renaissance princes as objects of emulation and inspiration.  For example, in the 1470’s Federico da Montefeltro commissioned a series of portraits of famous men from Justus of Ghent.  In these cases, the images created to a formula that meant that the effect of the whole collection outweighed the power of any one image.  This fashion for portrait collections evolved to include collections of famous artists, beautiful women and monarchs.  By the 16th and 17th Centuries the dynastic portrait collection was prevalent among the great and the good throughout Europe.  Artists were employed to paint entire collections and it was not uncommon for the artists to compose each individual image in such a way, as it would complement other portraits within the collection.  By the 18th century this had developed to be as much a family record, linking one person to their ancestors, then any collection of individual works of art.  By the 19th century the dynastic influence had been replaced by collections that represented national interests.  In the 1850’s G. F. Watts created a series of portraits of distinguished living men.  This collection was to have such a resounding effect that it was to lay the foundations of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

The setting up of the National Portrait Gallery highlights the tension between the portrait as a work of art and as something broader.  It was argued that only images of high aesthetic quality should be included in the collection, this was called the authentic portrait, with its emphasis on quality of the painting first and its function second.  However, it was considered that the gallery should contain images of significant people from British history and Phillip Henry Stanhope said in his speech to the house of lords on 4th March 1856 that the collection should include.

“Those persons who are most honourable commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in the arts, in literature, or in science”[2]

Therefore, the gallery was set up as a reflection of a national identity and celebration with the portrait functioning as the means to discern that understanding.  The purpose imposed onto the portrait can still be found today.  In the 1990’ss the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC described its collection thus.  “This is a history museum. By the time you finish with this, you will have seen all of American history”.  This approach to understanding portraits passes right down the line form discerning a national identity to these images representing institutions of various kinds.  From multinational companies, with images of company presidents, to university vice chancellors these images grace the walls of their appropriate institutions.  Because they adhere so rigidly to these conventions they become all but invisible until they are hung together and people invited to see them.  Now they become images of individuals rather than displays of artworks.

The Portrait as Document

Although portraits are representations and not documents, they transcend this definition when they are placed in a historical context.  Dress pose, props and setting all label the subject to a specific time and place.  We must, however, balance these facts t the way in which they are represented and understood.  This can be achieved in a variety of ways in which the artist authenticates the likeness in some way.  It can be done by the inclusion of text, which validates the identity of the subject.  This can be because the subject is f some importance or is visiting a foreign land and the image celebrates this fact.  These images document these events, in much the same way the photograph or news footage does today.

The portrait functions in a more complex manner than as a simple document of identity or event, and this can be seen in Jan Van Eyck’ “The Arnolfini Marriage (1434).  Although this particular image has been subject to many different interpretation it is generally agreed that it serve as a document of a marriage ceremony.  It is a witness document; this is borne out by the inclusion of Van Eyck’s signature with the words Jan van Eyck was here and the inclusion of his image in the reflection in the mirror on the back wall.  Not only was Van Eyck the author of this image he was also a witness at the actual wedding ceremony, and it is this image that proves it.  This is a rather narrow reading of this particular image as it is full of obvious and not so obvious symbolism that takes it away from a simple witness document, but I believe that this reading of the image is a valid one and seems to be an intrinsic part of its function.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434

Other examples of portraits as documents include Albrecht Dürer who produced a self-portrait of himself (c.1512-13) as a means of showing a painful sore to a distant doctor.  N 18th century Mexico portraits of daughters who were going into convents were riddle with references of their marriage to the church, and in more recent times the portrait is used in passports to allow us to travel to one country to another and photo fit records of suspect criminals have been used as a means of solving police investigations since the late 19th century.

In 2001 Marc Quinn’s DNA portrait of Sir John Sulson has questioned the fundamental understanding of the portrait as document.  Allegedly a living sample of the subject’s DNA, the image is both invisible to the naked eye yet contains the very building blocks on which the subject’s individuality is built.  Quinn called it “the most realistic portrait in the gallery” and it could be argued that the DNA relegated the object to purely forensic evidence as to the nature and individuality of the subject.

The Portrait as Proxy or Gift

A major problem in seeing portraits as documents is how the subject calls into being the individual person rather than a specific piece of information.  So, whilst portraits were used to identify criminals and document kings and queens at any given moment, they also had to stand in for the real people they depicted. Portrait painters used this to great effect in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries with the popularity of miniature and pastel portraits. Miniature portraits were made to fit into the hand, or placed inside lockets etc.  Their small size functioned as a means of creating a seemingly private relationship between the sitter and the owner of the image. The pastel portrait created a similar intimate image and quickly became popular method of creating a cherished and lifelike image. The nature of both methods, to render a lifelike and seemingly touchable image, made both the miniature and pastel portrait obsessively collectable. 

The nature of these image, to be both talismanic and erotically charged may have been one of the reasons why the portrait was used frequently in marriage negotiations among European royal families.  It became common practice for images of intended wives and husbands to be exchanged as part of the marriage preamble, as often they were politically and dynastically motivated events rather than driven by desire to be with the individual.  The portrait became a means of ascertaining the age and physical attractiveness of the sitter, as well as their state of health.  The artist Han Holbein, was sent out to paint the image of Henry VIII next wife, a replacement for Jane Seymour, whilst he remained in England and examined he returning portraits of potential spouses.  Holbein’s skill as a portraitist led to Henry VIII decision to marry Anne of Cleves.  However, his distress at finding her to be dissimilar to Holbein’s portrait is thought to have contributed to their speedy divorce.  This attest to the portraits power and its role in human relationships.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Anne of Cleves, 1539

We can see how the portrait can be seen as substitute for the individual it represents.  Used in marriage negotiations, as gift and for private contemplation the portrait grew from its power not only to stand in for the represented individual but also evoke the individuals’ presence in the mind of the viewer. 

The Portrait as Political Tool

Portraits are not necessarily propagandist in themselves, but they could be made to be so by copying them and displaying them in relevant venues.  Copies of Allen Ramsay’s portrait of George III and Queen Charlotte were displayed in public offices throughout England and colonial America. This was not only used by Monarchs, Martin Luther’ image was instrumental in disseminating his message throughout Europe, as his image helped fuel the sense of power behind his subversive questioning of Catholic doctrine.  The most obvious example of linking as image with power through the copying of a portrait is to be found on bank note, which take the monarchs image and naturally associate it with the power of currency.

It is, however rare that a leader would use his/her image as a means of propagating a specific understanding of their leadership.  The clearest exception to this would be Adolf Hitler.  He commissioned many idealized conventional portraits of himself in the role of the leader of National Socialism during the 1930’s.  Their role was to inspire patriotic and chauvinistic feeling in those that saw them as well as to incite hero worship of the dictator.  Such was the perceived power of these images that the propaganda ministry headed by Josef Goebbels actively promoted them. 

Finally, it was the custom with these images that if he leader was disposed or disgraced they were simply taken from their public venues, as well as being renamed or altered when the political situation changed.  This can still be seen today with the very public destruction of the statue of Saddham Hussein in 2003.  The American and Iraqi citizens were expressing different feeling about his disposition but found common ground in the destruction of an iconic image, a destruction that was a potent means of signalling their position.  “The desire to destroy or tamper with a likeness testifies to the political power of portraiture”[1].

Power and Status

The portrait contains through the gesture, dress, props, background, and other facets of the image the means to understand the status of the subject.  High or low born, powerful or subjugated, these elements help define the social standing of the subject of the portrait.  These elements also enhance the function and value of the image and the way in which they are exhibited, displayed. And purchased.

Power and Patronage

Portraits are, with little exception commissioned by the wealthy and powerful; for the wealthy and the powerful and to maintain the wealthy and the powerful.  Although the wealthy and the powerful have never been exclusive patrons of portraiture.  As early as 1584 Lomazzo complained about the ubiquity of portraiture.

“Merchants and bankers who have never seen a drawn sword and who should properly appear with quill pens behind their ears, their gowns about them and day books in front of them have themselves painted in armour holding general batons”[2]

It is the European court culture that has been the most enthusiastic patrons of the portrait, and many portraits of individuals from this way of life attest to the strong tradition of members of this class commissioning portraits of them.  Yet artists have sought the subject from other social classes.  Individuals who have proved themselves worthy of depiction through their creative ability, intellect and talent rather than inherited or confiscated power.

Portraits of Rulers

For the ruling elite, the portrait has always had an important function.  Although like all of us they are fallible human beings, who grew old and died like anyone else, the portrait was a means of keeping the illusion of greatness going.  This can be seen today, not so much in the production of the portrait images that support this notion, although there are still many examples of such paintings, but in the response to critics and public alike when an image of a ruler is not deferential to its subject.  Portrait artists have had to negotiate between the physical and idealised identity of a monarch.  This was because the subjects of these portraits had not only maintained their likeness, but also had to signal their authority.  This negotiation varied by degrees in different periods but by and large these images dealt with the “effigy” rather than the actuality of their likeness or personality.  These images are called “State Portraits” and serve a mainly political function.  As Marianna Jenkins states;

“The primary purpose is not the portrayal of an individual as such, but the evocation through his image of those abstract principles for which he stands.”[3]

A way in which the authority of the subject has been maintained through the portrait image is the pose of the subject.  This has remained remarkably consistent and says as much about the subject as any apparent symbolic trapping and props.  This was the evolution of the notion of the divine right of kings, which installed the idea that the monarch derived his/her power directly from a God given mandate.  In images such as Ingres Napoleon of 1806 the subject is seen seated, facing the viewer and staring directly out.  This give the subject a divine countenance with connotations of a god given power.  Other poses used by artists to convey similar feelings include the full length standing position and the equestrian portrait.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Napoleon 1 on his Imperial Throne, 1806

The full length portrait originates in the depiction of Christ and the saints and this association is probably why monarchs were painted in a similar way right up to the 19th century.  Like her father, Elizabeth I was highly conscious of her queenly image.  Her portrait image, as she aged, reflected a consolidated sense of her royal identity.  The images become increasingly static, stylised and symbolic.  Her image is a prime example of that her symbolic status was more important than her physical likeness.  She went even as far as to attempt to control her image by issuing a proclamation that any “errors” or “deformities” evident in her portrait “grieved” her subjects.  Thus, the image of the virgin queen was established.  Stern and regal, an ageless and emotionless beauty, an image that still has resonance today.  This way of depicting royalty and great leaders continued for many centuries with images of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796) following the same technique and still finding some favour in the 20 century with Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of Elizabeth ii (1969).


Portraiture and the Middle Class


Whilst the definition of the middle class is a best problematic for the purpose of this project we will take the middle class to be as we understand it to be today.  The development of a bourgeoisie with a separate sense of identity from either the ruling classes or the lower/working/poor classes has had a profound influence on the portrait genre.  In the 19th century portraiture was coupled with the projection of this middle class distinctiveness.  It was as the critic Théodore Duret said in 1867; “The triumph of the art of the bourgeoisie is the portrait”


There are early examples of middle class portraiture as early as the 15th and 16th centuries.  Jan Van Eyck and Hans Holbein are two artists who did solely concentrate on sitters from the ruling classes, but as portraiture was commissioned by those patrons who could afford it and employed for the purpose to reinforce their status, it was largely restricted to the higher ruling elite.


The natures of these images were significantly different.  If the images of powerful individuals were interested in highlighting the moral, elevated qualities of the sitters those of the middle classes were interested in showing the subject as involved in the milieu of everyday life.  They shared much with the genre painting with a focus on the communicative, theatrical, expression, gesture and the trivial familiar or ordinary qualities of the scene.  In Edgar degas’ “Place de la Concord” of 875 we see a portrait of a family set in an everyday scene of walking along a Parisian street.  This image is at once a portrait of a set of individuals whilst at the same time it works with in the genre painting tradition of a scene from the life of a fairly well to do middle class urban family.

Edgar Degas, Place de la Concord, 1875

This is but one of a number of issues regarding the link between the middle class and portraiture.  It is sufficed to say the bourgeoisie did not just reflect the changing societies hierarchy they helped give it vital expression.  The gaining power and influence of this section of society increased as it became richer and more confident.  This was reflected and delineated by the increasing number of portrait images that depicted professional men and middleclass women in tier natural surroundings.

The Genius and the Celebrity

Portraits of philosophers and writers date back to ancient times.  Artists tried to capture something about these subjects that emphasised the nature of their genius, which was distinctly different from images of monarchs and working professionals.  During the Renaissance images of writers were collected because it was thought they were worthy of the admiration and emulation by their owners.  Collections of this nature were seen by their patrons to reinforce their own learning and education, one of the most famous examples being found at the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe where they were exhibited in the grounds of the estate of Viscount Cobham.

Joshua Reynolds and his portraits of famous men and writers such as Samuel Johnson, Charles Burney and Giuseppe Baretti articulated the idea of the genius being somewhat at odds with those around him.  In these images, Reynolds draw attention to each sitters’ individualistic physical feature and in doing so highlighted the assumption that the notion of genius was above such physical concerns.  Their appearance was secondary to their intellect.  The physically imperfect genius with his great mind enabled the portrait artist to experiment with the means of depiction of the subjects.  This was especially true in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the development of the notion of the “anti-hero” whose prowess was intellectual rather than physical, and as such above ordinary human rules, and close if not actually attached to the notion of insanity.  This was to find a strong expression in Auguste Rodin’s portrait sculpture of Balzac, in which he depicts the subject in a voluminous coat, slightly unsteady posture with the subject’s head turned upwards at a high angle.  The result is that the viewer is left with the impression of the great man at work, concentrating so hard at whatever he is doing he is all but oblivious to everything around him.

Picture 7.1
Joshua Reynolds, Dr Samuel Johnson 1772-8
Picture 7.2
Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac 1898

By the end of the 20th century the idea f the genius had all but been replaced by the notion of the celebrity, which is heavily dependent on the portrait a it is reliant upon the familiarity and dissemination of a likeness.  Celebrity portraits focus less on class or social status and more upon the individuals “star” quality.  This is not to detract from these particular elements of a portrait but that the fame of the subject has in itself become an equal part of the understanding of the image.

The rise of the celebrity portrait can be linked directly to the development of new technologies and the economic growth of Europe in the 18th century.  Greater circulation of mass media led to a greater interest in the lives of those who appeared in these publications.  These individuals were generally public figure such as politicians and actors, and the rise of the portrait fuelling the celebrity of the individual went hand in hand with this expansion.  In Britain portraits of famous actors, actresses and politicians began to appear at the Royal Academy exhibitions.  The us of performers as portrait subjects was beneficial to both artist and performer as the association of one with another was often to both party’s mutual benefit.  By the 19th century and the invention of the photograph made the acquisition of the celebrity portrait instantly accessible.  Images of famous people were collected and stored in elaborate albums.  Such collections made the subjects of thee images much more immediately available and stimulated the fascination of people who had probably never seen the celebrities they admired.

The Unknown and the Underclass

Portraits are usually of people with power, authority, wealth, talent and fame, and they work to help perpetuate the status quo as represented by this section of society.  It is important to, in this study of the historical reading of portraiture to examine portraits of subjects that fall outside this grouping.  The subjects of these images rarely commissioned the portrait themselves and would only have a momentary notoriety and were relatively unknown in their own time.  The subjects for these images were the poor, servants, criminals and at certain times non Europeans.  The rasons why these subjects wre panted were because of interested third parties, or were at the artists’ own instigation as a commercial exercise.  Portraits of the lower classes breach portrait conventions, and in doing so highlight a fascination or disdain for other sections of society. 

In 1640 Philip IV of Spain commissioned Diego Veláquez to paint a series of portraits of dwarves that were part of the Spanish court.  His image of Calabacillas shows how, because of the nature of the subject Veláquez was able to free himself from the shackles of the traditional formal portrait and produce and image that is free and spontaneous.  The subject is shown sitting rather than standing, smiling rather than stiffly staring directly out of the picture.  His deformity s prominently displayed, some Velázquez would never be able to do with his highborn subjects.  He is also depicted a little worse for drink which gives an air of informality about the image.  This is a reflection that within the court dwarves were allowed certain liberties that other working members were denied.  The artist’s handling of the paint further enhances the informality of the pose and subject; it is much freer than the formal court commissions that were his stock and trade.  Yet the whole approach to this image is paradoxical, the infirmity of the subject and the image can be read in opposing ways.  The sensitive and realistic depiction of the subject expresses the humanity of the subject.  But did those who viewed the image reciprocate this, or did such an honest appraisal of the subject with its obvious physical deformities reinforce the stereotype approach that these members of the underclass had in the formal court setting.

Diego Veláquez, Calabacillas, 1640

Gender and Portraiture

We cannot consider the role of gender in portraiture without addressing both the gender of the artist as well as the gender of the subject itself.  It is a key factor in understanding the ways in which portraits represent their subject.  Artists have identified different aspects of male and female behaviour in their social roles, physical features and character, depending on many variables including the gender of the politics of the time.

In terms of gender many women artists before the 20th century were portrait painters.  His was because portraiture was seen to be of a lesser standing than other genre of the visual arts and as such was considered a low and mechanical form of art.  Women were viewed to be creatively limited and as such suited to an art form that was considered to require mutation rather than creation.  Thus, portraiture could be justified as an acceptable practice for women artists.  The issue of gender is further complicated by the way in which the artist (male or female) depicts the gender of te subject (male or female).  It should not be considered that there are fundamental differences between portraits that represent men and those that represent women, although it is possible to discern differences that are a result of gender politics of the time.

Women, Beauty and Allegory

Many portraits of women depict them in a role, goddess, historical and religious figures, or as allegorical embodiments such as “Painting” and “Beauty”.  This can be seen as denying women the role and status afforded men in their portraits, and be seen as a negative sign oof social repression as highlighted by Felicity Edholm, who said.

“Behind many portraits… is an assumption of biography, a known or knowable story. For men, in particular a story of potential when young and achievement when middle aged. Women’s lives and faces cannot tell the same story… in term of representation, it is beauty – or if not that, due modesty and gracefulness – when young, and th loss of beauty when old”[1]

Self Portraiture

As a means of merging the artist and subject into one the self-portrait gives a fascinating insight into the whole subject of portraiture.  The artist and the sitter being the same, the self-portrait has the feel of an intimate diary, a means of gaining insight into his or her personality.  This is only part of the issue regarding this particular subject; they are much more than open doors into the mind of the artist.  They act as signatures, as advertisements for the artist’s skill and experiments into the technique of expression.

The Self-Portrait as Signature, Experiment and Publicity

There are few self-portraits before the 16th century, this could be because artists were seen as artisans who were at the behest of their patrons a well as the piety that they were expected to show that prevented them from glorifying themselves.  Those images that were self-portraits were initially a footnote or signature, the most famous of these being Jan Van Eyck’s reflection in the convex mirror of the Arnolfini Marriage (1434).  His contemporary Ghiberti produced two self-portraits one of which may have been as early as 1401 and another on the “Gates of Paradise” (1425 – 52).  This inclusion ws his means of associating himself with a highly prestigious commission as well as linking himself with an accepted masterpiece. 

The autonomous self-portrait only appeared when it did for a number of reasons.  Firstly. it relied on the existence of flat mirrors, which were not available outside Venice (where they were invented) until the 15th century.  Secondly the 15th and 16th centuries saw an increasing self-consciousness about the identity and the growth of autobiography and other forms of self-narrative.  Finally, there was a significant change in the status for the artist during the same period.  Academics and art theory emphasised intellectual qualities of painting over the mechanical ones.  This led to a rising in status for the artist.  The self-portrait therefore became a means for the artist to express, reinforce and enhance this new idea of his/hr worth.

Apart from being a means of expressing a new understanding of their role in society self-portraits often originated an opportunity for experimentation.  Many artist could not afforf modfels and in using themselves they were able to break free of the conventions expected when painting a third party.  Rembrandt used self-portraits as means of experimenting with extremes of light and dark (chiaroscuro), which he was to later transfer to his history painting.  Van Gogh and Käthe Kollowitz used self-portraits to experiment with different technique and ideas.  Artists also experimented with in the form of dress, pose, gesture and context, as can be seen in Egon Schiele’s contorted amputated images of himself and Frieda Kahlo paralysed images in Mexican national costume being two examples.  Artists have also used self-portraits to express the changing of time over a short or long period, Rembrandt’s self-portraits spanning his entire artistic life from a young confident man to an old reigned figure still contemplating the problems of his own identity. 

The self-portrait is also a great way to advertise your skill as a visual artist.  In the 16th and 17th century artist circulated their self-portrait around the European courts in a bid to secure patrons and with the development of important artistic academies artists were expected to donate a self-portrait to their developing collections.

The self-portrait serves many different functions and has appeared in many different manifestations, but central to its existence is the mystery of how an artist sees him/herself as other.  It means that the artist has to objectify their own corporality and in doing so create a double of themselves.  The self-portrait can also bring into focus the artists own skill, the medium that he/she is using and the process of production or experiment with techniques or style.  It also allows the viewer to slip into the shoes of the artist to see the world as they se it; it is a metaphorical mirror that reflects back not the viewer but the artist.  These qualities of the self-portrait make it elusive and compelling. 

Self-Portraiture, gender and artistic identity

The very nature of self-portraiture deals with the notion of identity, how that identity is perceived and represented is heavily influenced by the status and gender of the artist at different times in history.  We can see in the self-portraits of Albrecht Dürer different approaches to his self-image as expressed in different contexts.  The images of 1493 and 1498 show the artist in a relatively happy and contented manner. The first was a betrothal gift to his fiancée in which he is holding a sprig of holly, which is a symbol of happiness.  The second was on his return from a trip to Italy and shows him dressed as a Venetian nobleman, thus elevating his status and eschewing any reference to his artistic practice.  The last mage shows himself in a full frontal pose and seemingly making direct reference to the image of Christ.  It is hard to resolve whether this was a deliberate attempt on his part to raise his status as an artist/creator or s simply blasphemous.  But it is clear that this image has direct links to the contemporary mages of Christ, with the complete absence of any indication of hi actual profession as a painter.  He is not showing himself as an artist, which is an important omission in a period in which the status of the artist was subject to analysis and change.  Dürer was dedicated to raising the status of artists in Germany and this portrait with its noble, Christ like countenance seems to be an indication of this desire.

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait 1500

In the 19th century artists cultivated the image of themselves as free spirits, whose liberation was expressed through sexual promiscuity, working class attributes, and social behaviour.  This view of the artist placed him/her outside the norms of moral bourgeois society.  The notion that creativity was linked to sexual prowess infested itself in a number of self-portraits showing artists with their model who were in variably their lovers.  Lovis Corinth depicted himself in a sexually dominant manner with his model, Charlotte Bernard who was later to become his wife.  For Corinth, his artistic identity was bound up with his sexual prowess.

Self-Fashioning and Self-Presentation

The gender and status of the artist in their self-portraits were always considered and well thought out.  In doing so artists realised that though the self-portrait they could project particular ideas about themselves.  It had been considered for, any centuries that an individual’s behaviour could b ‘fashioned’ and in fact should be encouraged by those from higher echelons of society.  This meant that behaviour could be learned and certain character traits could be fostered so that the individual would be like a performer in front of an audience, rather than being spontaneous.  Artists were aware of this, and because they were (still are?) conscious of their own social staus they could use the tool of self-portraiture as a means of enacting roles that articulated their aspirations, much as Dürer had done.

Rather than concentrating on a single image that declare these aspirations in one image, many artists represented themselves in a variety of role and guises over a period of time.  Rembrandt produced over 50 self-portraits during his life.  From his earliest self-portraits which were etchings in which he displayed his experiments n artistic technique, to his later works which appear to exercises in facial expressions, he returned again and again to his own image as a means of carrying out these experiments.  We now look at the whole of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and see them a a map to his life, the depicting its highs and lows, to such an extent that the viewer is forced to see his life through these images.  Although there is a huge sense of roleplaying throughout all his self-portraits we cannot lose sight of the fact that our understanding of him as an artist has been affected by his role playing. 

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a cap, 1630.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-9

Self-Portraiture and Autobiography

When looking at any final image that refers to the artist themselves there is always a question regarding to what degree the image bears a resemblance with the narrative and revelatory qualities of autobiography.  It is always tempting to look at a self-portrait as the artist’s view of themselves, that the image reflects their feelings and experiences when compared to known aspects of their life. However, this link between self-portraiture and autobiography highlights both its advantageous qualities as well as revealing important differences.

Paul de Man, in his essay “Autobiography a De-Facement” stresses the inherent limitations of autobiography as a record of an individual’s life.

“We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces ts consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiography project may itself produce and determine the life and whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture.”[1]

He was specifically speaking regarding literature and to he way the genre has its own techniques and conventions, but if we apply his thinking to the painted self-portrait we can understand that the self-image conveys the sense of a specific moment through the nature of the image whilst at the same time, as an object of art, it conveys a wider understanding and a general reading that can be taken for representing the subject’s entire life.  For example, if we look at Rembrandt’s self-portrait it we can read it as a particular snap shot of the artist’s life, whether he is dressed extravagantly or expressing specific emotions, yet the conventions of portraiture soon turn the image into an art object and its generalised reading.  It is also important to realise that the flourishing of the self-portrait coincided with the advent of the autobiography as a legitimate genre.

David Hockney is a late 20th century artist whose work retains a strong, autobiographical sense.  Hs self-portraits relate directly to specific periods and events in his life, especially as a young man coming to terms with his fam as an artist as well a with his sexual identity.  These images relate to private and meaningful moments n his life, but because of his early fame thee moments were exposed to a vast audience, and as such they knew enough about his life to be able to relate his work to his private circumstances.  These images take a greater symbolic significance than the actual moment they represent, for example “The Student: Homage to Picasso at a Tat Retrospective” (1973) relates to his first definitive encounter with the work of Picasso at a Tate retrospective in 1960.  Whilst the mag maintains a private and pronal evocation of a particular moment in Hockney’s artistic life it takes a great symbolic meaning of one artist paying respect to another.  It I as de Man says “produce… the life of the subject as the slf-portrait relies on the frozen moment to convey a life story, rather than the literally convention of conveying a life story through time”.

David Hockney, The Student: Homage to Picasso, 1973

Self-Exploration and Psychoanalysis

Rightly or wrongly self-portraits seem to suggest a form of self-exploration, and although this is a modern concept it is often applied to self-portraits of the past.  This is epitomized when we look at the self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh.  Van Gogh’s career as a visual artist is marked by his intense desire for acknowledgement as an artist during his lifetime and his frustration at not attaining such status as he wished.  His life as an artist is well documented, with prolific periods of manic production interspersed with profound lapses into insanity.  Our knowledge of these obstacles and frustrations has been further enhanced by his own writings, which take the form of letters to his brother Theo.  All these factors have influenced the way in which we now regard Van Gogh and his work and are an example how subsequent generations of artists could use self-portraiture as a means of exploring the life of an artist.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gaugin, 1888

However, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are seen as document of an unstable mind rather than simple documents highlighting his success and failures as say the self-portraits of Rembrandt.  Many of his images seem to represent him as a melancholy, brooding, intense of threatening.  Yet there is no reason to assume that the motives behind these image are not the same as Rembrandt’s.  van Gogh was known to have perpetual money problems so affording to pay a model to pose was never going to b an issue; self-portraiture therefore presents itself as a viable and practical alternative.  Yet the nature of his death, and the publication of his letters to his brother have led to critics and art historians developing the notion of the artist as insane genius.  This retrospective definition of his self-portraits is based largely on this view of his life.


The rise, in the late 19th and early 20th century of changes in scientific understanding of psychology had a profound effect on the way in which artist approached the subject of the self-portrait and how the public interpreted them.  Jean Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud’ idea’s on hysteria and sexuality and the unconscious were instrumental in developing how the self-portrait was viewed, and as Erika Billeter ponted out “very elf-portrait is dialogue with the ego” The notion that the artist’s creativity was somehow outside of society and existed on the boarder of mental instability, led to many artists to use self-portraiture as a means of exploring tensions between their drives and go states, and in art movements were the inner life was privileged above formal experimentation such ideas became embedded.  This found favour in both Expressionism and Surrealism, which drew freely on Frud’s idea regarding the function of the unconscious and the role of sexual drive I human behaviour.


In Expressionism artists such as Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele found the exploration of the “inner life” a rich source of material for their self-portraits.  Schiele produced over a hundred self-portrait drawings and watercolours, which explored the nature of his “inner” and “outer” life.  His representations were inevitably disturbing, with his body usually naked and distorted or with amputated limbs, and emaciated body.  His face was usually dealt with in the same brutal manner and many works showed him scowling and grimacing.  The early work was not intended for exhibition and serve a similar purpose as early Rembrandt work which were experiments in facial expression.  Yet the overtly sexual content of Schiele’s self-portraits links directly to Freud’s ideas on sexual deviation, which were finding favour at the time, with the result that his portraits became a means of self-analysis drawing on contemporary psychoanalytical ideas.


The surrealists approached the use of psychoanalysis from a different viewpoint by concentrating on Freud’s ideas regarding sexual repression rather than sexual deviance.  Using the dreams, wishes and fantasises the surrealists attacked bourgeois society.  Although mainly a male dominated movement there were also a number of women attached to the movement.  One such was Frieda Kahlo who produced a number of surrealist self-portraits.  Her images deal with both autobiographical and psychanalytical self-exploration.  She alluded constantly to her adopted Mexican heritage and explicitly to a series of back operations that left her in constant pain, and to the miscarriages that meant that she would never have the longed for children.  These highly charged personal evocation of herself turn these real life vents into a metaphorical realisation of her own physical and psychological pain.

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait Facing Front, 1910.
Frieda Kahlo, Broken Column, 1944

Portrait and Modernism

For centuries portraiture was expected to provide a likeness and reval something regarding the nature of the sitter.  Although thee expectations were not abandoned completely, some fundamental changes took place with the advent of modernism.  With regards to portraiture Modernism brought with many catalysts for change.  Photography was to challenge and offer new opportunities for portraitists.  The embracing of the industrialisation of nations saw the artist challenge the accepted role of individuals in society, which was to impact on the manner in which artists used portraits to represent people in their world.  The rejection of mimesis, that had been part of many art movements up to this time, and the denunciation of portraitures links with the representational traditions of the past.

It is too easy to dismiss portraiture’s role within a modernist context, as it could not be simply reconciled with the modernist tendency of freedom assigned to it.  Modernisms ethos of universality and abstraction does not sit easily within the traditional portrait lexicon led to it being cast low down in the hierarchy of modernism.  Although few modernist painters were portraitists in the conventional sense the genre was to have a profound effect in the rethinking of the issues around representation and artistic interpretation that preoccupied the avant-garde.

Portraiture and Photography

The development of photography was a major significance for the development of portraiture.  Portraiture had quickly become the favoured practice for early photographers, the main reason being I that the process seemed to offer a fool proof means of conveying a likeness.  Early portrait photographers adopted the poses and conventions to be found in the painted images and as such threatened to replace the painted portrait but ultimately the relationship between two was to be mutually beneficial and enriching.  The photograph offered a new tool in the portrait painters working processes, yet it was to challenge the centuries old conventions of the genre.

Early photographer soon realised the potential in setting up portrait studios in which images could be produced quickly and with a minimum of fuss.  Gone were the repeated sittings and the subject was confronted with his/her likeness in no time at all.  A the costs became more attractive the portrait became accessible to people who would not normally been able to afford a painted image and as well as those who would not have considered having their portrait taken in the first place.  A new category of photographic portrait soon emerged, the carte-de-viste.  This was a business card that not only included the name and address but also the portrait of the subject, and they soon became the accepted means of social interchange between the bourgeoisies.  This format was also kept as mementos of friends and loved ones and in doing so superseded the at of miniature painting.

Due to long time exposure of the early photographs the poses adopted by the sitters were usually formal, stiff, and neutral; occupying anonymous spaces with artificial elements such as columns and drapes – the established props of the painted portrait.  The ability to mas reproduce the carts-de-viste was that the portrait was circulated to the public at large.  This led to the establishment of celebrity cults of actors such as Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving.

Photography also mean the relegation of the mirror for self-portrait as well as allowing the artist to still produce wholly or partly a portrait from a photograph rather than through a number of sitting.

Ironically the idea of the photographic process as an objective tool meant that, like the arly portraitists, it use was seen as nothing more than a mimetic device and those who practice its use nothing more than technicians.  Photography was not to make portraiture obsolete but was to expand its potential.

Portraiture and the Modernist Aesthetic

As already stated Modernism did not mean the end of the conventional posed portrait.  However, a number of portraitists were attempting to offer something different to their clients and subjects.  One such as John Singer Sargent.  Whilst his portraits allude to traditional conventions that can be found dating back to the 17th century and he work of Velázquez and Hals, hi free and stylistic brushwork relates directly to contemporary impressionist paintings of the time.  He also experimented with the disposition of space, such as adopting views from a distance and arranging groups of figures in new and exciting ways that flew in the face of the established conventions.  Artists like Sargent were able to successfully combine the traditional and contemporary ideas about portraiture and painting in such a way that was both commercially successful and artistically complex.  Other artists who exhibited both a traditional approach to a likeness whilst addressing more contemporary themes include Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Although portraiture is reliant upon the depiction of a likeness and as such would seem to be at odds with modernist ideas towards non-objective art, artists such as James McNeil Whistler began to show an interest in such notions.  This was reflected in the way in which he would title his works, which he categorised in terms of their colour tones.  Portraits of recognisable sitters were of a personal nature but he emphasised their formal qualities rather than the sentimental ones.  “Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist Mother (1871) being a prime example.  This was further developed with his use of titles that had musical associations such as nocturnes, harmonies and arrangements.  In doing so he suggests the tone and mood of the image over the actual subject matter. 

James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Painters Mother, 1871

Another approach taken by artist was to use the model as a “motif” rather than a a discernible individual.  Alberto Giacometti and Mondigliani, both used the portrait as a repetitive cypher in which the individuality of the subject was secondary to the formal qualities inherent in the image.  Giacometti would us endless sittings as he reworked the image over and over again, and rather than intensifying the uniqueness of the subject in the image his finished works allude to an otherworldliness that makes the subject’s identity illusive.  It is ironic though that the power of these images is not solely reliant on the formal qualities of modernism, but also the tension between these elements and the very human nature, and sense of being exhibited by these images.

Portrait Tradition and the Avant-Garde

Although the avant-garde was committed to the idea of non objective art the portrait was still able to find an expression.  It was to continue the tradition first expressed in the 15th century, and included the props, expression, and gestures that had been an intrinsic part of this tradition since this time.  In fact, during the inter war years, a stylistically restrained time, the portrait was to dominate the visual arts.  Otto Dix adopted a style reminiscent of Luca Cranach and included clues to the status and character of hi subjects that could be found in the portraits of Holbien.  Other artists such as Max Beckman and Giorgio de Chirico were opposed to modernist tendencies in art.  Artists of this period also stressed the “ugliness of the human form”.  Egon Schiele developed his distended figures to his face and depicted himself scowling, grinning and screaming.  These images were similar to those of Rembrandt and the 18th century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, although Schiele’s prolific output of “ugly” images shows a different degree of obsession.  Later artists were to take up this mantle.  Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud both showed the body in all its corporal mass.  This was not to the benefit of their subjects and emphasised the subjects muscles, veins, and fat.

Stanley Spencer, Portrait of Patricia Preece, 1933

This was to find its culmination in the work of Francis Bacon, whose physical distortions of his subject’s features commented on directly the darker nature of the human condition.  Using his friends as his models he represented them constantly with hooked noses, crooked heads, and smeared mouths.  In doing so he was not just alluding to their physical reality but was using the portrait as a means of conveying the violence of physicality and the brutality of human suffering.  Bacon used portraiture to reveal something about the reality and the nature of the human condition that portraiture had failed to do so.

Francis Bacon, 3 Studies of George Dyer, 1969

With the advent of modernism it could be argued that portraiture has seen its role diminish.  Yet rather than sound its death bell artists embraced the concepts and theories of the movement ad were able to draw from portraitures traditions and well as challenge its tenants.  They were able to add to the modernist cannon of ideas as well as realising that it had to draw upon the past as well as the present.


The concept of the nature and construction of an identity have come to the forefront of cultural and aesthetic thinking.  Post Modernism has highlighted the cultural instability of individuality, social role, and cultural, sexual, gender stereotypes, with visual artists reacting accordingly.  They have reacted to the changing social understanding of issue around our existence and have embraced the implications of the age, gender, ethnicity, nationality and other signs of the sitter’ identity

Thi has been done, by and large, with a return to the traditional mimetic portrait.  With the standard conventions of portraiture being embraced in a playful, ironic, and paradoxical manner.  This has gone hand in hand with embracement of the camera as the medium of choice to explore these aspects.  Portraiture has also surfaced in many other areas of he visual arts including performance art.  The living sculptures of Gilbert and George are in their own was specifically about the interplay between the self-portrait as an art form and the existence of the life and relationship of the subjects. 

Portraiture in our own time is a complex visual language.  Artists have explored social rol-playing and pretence; the significance of self-portraiture to explore issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic background; and a shift of attention from the face to the body.  By looking at these aspects of contemporary portraiture we can come to some form of understanding its role and place in today’s current art practice. 

Mask and Roles

Portraiture has always been about the social roles and the tendency to fashion the self.  But the final years of the 20th century has seen role playing becoming a method of exploring fluctuating aspects of identity, as well as being a means of undermining the idea that identity can be captured by representation.  Artists such as Cindy Sherman explored the issue of the sporadic identity in her work.  From the 1970’s Sherman photographed herself as a film star in a particular role or as a figure in an old master painting.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled 216, 1989

These images do not relate directly to old films or specific old master painting, rather they allude to types rather than actual images.  Each of thee roles represents a stereotypical female rle, the Madonna or Hitchcokian beauty.  Sherman shows these women in typical female guises, as sexy, dutiful, stupid, or vulnerable.  It could be argued that in portraying herself in this way she is dealing with her personal identity in the form of self-portraiture, but she has denied this saying that her works are exploration of gender rather than self, and it could be argued that her photographs deal with the notion of representing and playing with gender as a form of performance.  Sherman’s work deals with the idea and its implications of the modern mask/face.  It is within the genre of portraiture she is able to make this exploration.

A particular aspect of the post-modern portrait is the extent to which celebrity has become its primary subject.  Film stars, pop idols, sportsman and women and other public figures are suitable subjects for the portrait, replacing the more traditional themes such as religious leaders, monarchs and other powerful individuals.  Artists such as Elizabeth Peyton and the Singh twins are able to find suitable subjects n popular culture where the images f celebrities are easily disseminated along with details of their private lives.  These artists are involved in the perception of the subject from the specific public persona.  The social mask adopted by these subjects is inseparable from their individual identities.  Portraiture has become a suitable medium to convey the sense that identity is no longer, if it ever was, permanent and that an individual has indeed no single discernible sense of individuality.  As Richard Brilliant said

“In the 20th century the traditional view of the fully integrated, unique, and distinctive person has been severely compromised by a variety of factors, commonly accepted as causing the fragmentation of self and the perceived decline in the belief that the “individual” is a legitimate social reality”

Like modernism, post-modernism has not meant the death of the portrait.  Experimentation in role-playing and shifts in the social understanding in the concept of what actually constitutes as identity has meant that artists have looked to portraiture as a valid and vital means of embracing these concerns.

Gender, Ethnicity, and Sexuality in Self-Portraits

In the late 20th century artists have approached self-portraiture as a means of exploring issues around ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, but unlike the modest concerns of past artists these artists use self-portraiture as a means of narcissistic exploration.  Unlike in the past when gender signals were more or less taken for granted, the greater awareness of such issues in a wider social context has meant that artists explore these issues more self-consciously.  We can see this in the work of Yasumasa Morimura who explores all these issues in his photographs.

Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Futago), 1988

Like Sherman, Morimura photographs himself in different roles, but unlike her he disguises himself as a woman without fulling concealing his masculinity.  His elf-portrait as Manet’s Olympia crates a disturbing image that blurs boundaries between masculinity and femininity.  His hands cover’s his genitals but his lack of breasts highlights his true gender.  He further subverts the picture with the use of the black maid in the image. Whilst this was considered quite acceptable at the time of the original painting (1863) by today’s standards it is highly questionable, with the roles within a society hierarchy being not so clear cut as they once were.  This along with his obvious Asian identity raises many uncomfortable issues regarding the nature and history of social and ethnic subjugation.  With its broad intentions, it could be argued that this image is not a portrait at all as it is concerned with ideas above and beyond mere mimetic representation. 


Artists have felt free to use whatever means necessary to reveal not a likeness but something more fundamental about their life.  Tracy Emin’s “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With” is another such work.  It is not a traditional self-portrait, but is geared towards a self-exploration that can be seen in self-portraits of the past.  In this work she explores the most intimate aspects of her life, and through a variety of media she lists all the people who have slept with her in a narcissistic challenge to the traditional boundary of self-portraiture.

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995, 1995

In the work of Emin and artists of hr generation we see a shift away from portraiture as an iconic system of understanding to an indexical one where the variety of media ad methods employed relate directly to them.

The Body

The body has always been important in portraiture.  It alludes to the character and status of the sitter, but it has always been the face that has been seen as the.  marker of identity.  However, in the last decade of the 20th century portraiture has been drawn to a strong emphasis on the body.  Post-modern self-portraits deal overtly with the body and the issues that surround it, the objectification of the body parts and complex relationships between the body and soul.  The body image has become a major concern in western society, which has led to extremes of body typ and unhealthy obsessions surrounding food.  Artists have tapped into the aspirations and concerns surrounding these issues in their portraits.

There are various ways in which artists can articulate their concerns, cultural expectations and revelations of the “ugly” body or the ideal body so beloved by Western civilisation are but two of the ways.  Jenny Saville is an artist who uses her body to specifically debate these issues.  Her large canvases show her body in all its corpulent glory.  And bring to mind the work of Schiele and Lucien Freud.  She casts hr body in the exact opposite of the eroticised and perfect bodies so sort after.  We cannot avoid thee obese images due to their large scale and we ar forced to confront a body type that we have been led to understand is undesirable.  In her self-portraits we are forced o question our own expectations about body perfection by being confronted by one that is imperfect.

Jenny Saville, Branded, 1992

A more extreme use of the body as a means of depicting a self-portrait can be seen in the work of performance artist Orlan.  Using her own body as hr medium she has had numerous plastic surgery procedures as she attempts to recreate herself from great portraits from the past.  He makes redesigning her body a piece of performance art, and as such has spoken of it in terms of self-portraiture- calling herself a work in progress.  Although it can be argued that such disturbing work highlights the pressure on women to conform to an idealised beauty Orlan sees her work a a means of stressing women’s ability to control their own bodies, with plastic surgery the ultimate manifestation of that control.

Unlike Orlan and Saville who use the body as political/social medium, other artists have approached the body and a medium of objectification.  Chuck Close produces large scale photorealist images that in their exacting detail, force the viewer to focus on the formal qualities of the portrait.  The surface images become abstract with the minute detail, with the identity of the sitter becoming all but lost.

The body can be both monstrous and excessive or ugly in a bid to counter an obsession with image and surface.  Arnulf Rainer works deals with this approach.  He photographed his own body repeatedly and then scratched and painted over them.  The body then become cancelled out or changed and takes it from its socialised state and brings it to something more elemental.

The role of the body in portraiture has been problematic.  Artists whose works embraces these issues have created images that could be no longer recognisable as portraits.  They do not convey a likeness, but it is more advantageous to see these images reflecting the diverse and complicated nature of the genre.

The Globalisation of Portraiture

“Portraiture has always involved a work of art that has meant to represent or convey in some way a named individual.  Portraiture has always had this sort of talismanic power”

It has served other functions that other works of art cannot.  It reflects contemporary philosophical and psychological concerns.  But up to the 2oth century it has been a unique and largely western phenomenon concerned with individuality, which is alien to other cultures.  Globalisation has meant that the portrait I no longer confined to the western world.  The proliferation of images has spread around the world, and now serves many different purposes.  Portraits still document appearance, status, or profession off the sitter at any given moment.  They continue to be commissioned privately as well as publicly, and serve as vehicles of artistic experimentation and self-exploration.  Finally they have become a means to explore issues around gender, ethnicity, sexuality and the body, and have become a versatile and vital means of expressing the possibilities and function of our understanding as never before.

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