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portraiture, the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. The principal portrait media are painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography. From earliest times the portrait has been considered a means to immortality. Many cultures have attributed magical properties to the portrait: symbolization of the majesty or authority of the subject, substitution for a deceased individual's living presence or theft of the soul of the living subject.

The Self-Portrait

Two conflicting objectives characterize portrait art in all cultures: the desire to represent the subject accurately and the desire to transform or idealize the subject. The conflict is particularly manifest in the self-portrait, the genre that gives the artist the greatest freedom from external constraints. Because the artist is his or her own cheapest and most available model, the self-portrait is the finest opportunity to make the most flattering statement or the most penetrating revelation of character of which he or she is capable. More deeply acquainted with this subject than with any other, artists are nevertheless forced to view themselves as mirror images and, as with less immediate subjects, through the distorting glass of their understanding.

Since the 6th cent. BC artists have often portrayed themselves with the identifying attributes of their profession such as palette, brush, and easel. During the Renaissance pictorial signatures abounded in which artists worked themselves into crowd scenes or somewhere else within a composition. Striking examples are Botticelli's confrontation of the viewer in his Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi); Ghiberti's two busts, youthful and aged, on the Doors of Paradise of the Florence cathedral baptistery; and Michelangelo's Nicodemus figure in the late Pietà (Cathedral, Florence).

Dürer was among the first masters to reveal a psychological self-awareness by means of the self-portrait, an insightful approach brought to new heights in the works of Rembrandt. Other artists, notably Jordaens, Rigaud, Ingres, and Reynolds, asserted their social and material success in their images of themselves. The classic of self-aggrandizement is Courbet's Painter's Studio (1855; Louvre). An interesting modern example of the genre is James Ensor's strange Self-Portrait (Uffizi), in which the artist appears as the only real being among a host of grotesques.

The Evolution of Portrait Painting

Portrait art has taken many forms; variation in styles and tastes has contributed as much to portrait art as to other modes of artistic expression. The Egyptians made sculptured monuments that were idealized portraits of their monarchs intended to grant them immortality. Such ideal likenesses were painted onto sarcophagi of lesser persons as well. In Asia this religious use of the portrait was widespread until the 15th cent., when realistic Western portraiture began to influence Eastern art.

In Europe the principal medieval portraitists known by name were the French court painters Fouquet and Limousin. Limousin's enamel portraits of Francis I are among the masterpieces of enamel work. The profile medals and coins of rulers, common in the early Renaissance, were greatly simplified likenesses, as were the profile portraits of donors within devotional compositions.

Master painters such as Pollaiuolo and Piero della Francesca excelled at the profile view. The Flemish and German masters developed the three-quarter and frontal portrait types, which allowed greatly increased contact between subject and viewer and enhanced the illusion of vitality. These conventions were soon adopted generally. The powerful equestrian portrait was developed in Italy. Verrocchio's sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni is an outstanding example of this genre, whose major practitioners also included Donatello, Titian, Uccello, Velázquez, and Bernini.

The portrait subject was eventually revealed at full length by such masters as Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, thereby increasing enormously the compositional possibilities. The Italian mannerists Bronzino, Pontormo, and Parmigianino expressed a cold splendor in their studies of the aristocracy. The Elizabethans favored the miniature, worn in a locket or set in an elaborate frame on a tiny stand. The foremost masters of this intimate and delicate form were Hilliard, Holbein, and Oliver.

The giant among all makers of portraits was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. In nearly 80 self-portraits he created a detailed psychological autobiography, from his joyous and exalted youth to his agonized old age. This series forms an introspective monument unique in art history. Rembrandt's portraits of others are equally penetrating. The principal baroque portraitists other than Rembrandt include Bernini, Hals, Rubens, and Van Dyck. They were followed by the French neoclassical masters David and Ingres; the Italian sculptor Canova; the English painters Hogarth, Raeburn, Lawrence, Romney, and, most notably, Gainsborough and Reynolds; the brilliant Spanish delineator of character, Goya; and the German Kneller.

Group Portraits

The Dutch painters of the 17th cent. had made popular group portraits of members of the rising burgher class, military companies, professional groups, and the like, and as the popularity of portraits spread throughout the social classes, portraits of couples, families, and other groups became common. The 18th-century English conversation piece was a small portrait group in a domestic or landscape setting, representing people in conversation. Hogarth, Zoffany, and Gainsborough excelled at this genre. Of modern masters Renoir, Degas, and Sargent were noted for their family groups.

American Portraiture

In the United States during the 18th cent. the painters John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart all modeled their styles on the prevailing English fashion. Copley, however, brought an illuminating understanding to the depiction of his sitters that clearly owed nothing to English influence.

By the 19th cent. portraiture had become the specialty of numerous American artists including John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, and the sculptors Horace Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Hiram Powers. Later celebrated portraitists included Frank Duveneck and the expatriates Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt. But it was Thomas Eakins who regained for the 19th cent. Copley's sensitivity, revealed in both his paintings and his photographs. Twentieth-century masters of portraiture include Robert Henri and Andrew Wyeth, who continues the Copley-Eakins tradition.

Modern Portraiture

The portrait had been a major source of income to painters since the Renaissance, and many modern European masters became, perforce, adept at the art. The French impressionists, Manet, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Soutine, Klee, Kokoschka, Matisse, and Picasso are all known for their portraits, although for none of them was portraiture the principal subject matter.

Portraits were a relatively unimportant part of movements in painting and sculpture during the later 20th cent. until a revival that began in the 1970s. Artists such as Francis Bacon employed a combination of realism and abstraction in paintings that attempted to convey psychological insights as well as the form of the sitter. Active in this period and beyond were a number artists who create portraits in various figurative styles, painters such as Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Jamie Wyeth, and David Hockney.

In the 1990s a revival of interest in portraiture took place that involved many of the latter artists as well as a variety of new ones. This renewal accompanied a concern with the individuality and physicality of human identity, with multiculturalism, and with the mass media. Among the numerous contemporary artists exploring the portrait genre at the end of the 20th cent. are Chuck Close, with his billboard-size facial close-ups; Aaron Shikler, with his extremely realistic likenesses; and Robert Greene, with his fingertip-size studies.

Photographic Portraiture

The miniature portrait had retained its popularity with all social classes until the middle of the 19th cent., when it was replaced by the more intimate and more simply executed technique of photography. The earliest portrait photographers were thoroughly painterly in their approach, since they faced fierce competition from painters. Outstanding from the common run of the early portrait photographers were Matthew Brady, the team of Hill and Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Thomas Eakins.

The American pioneers of the aesthetic movement in photography in the early 20th cent. were Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, both noted for their luminous portrait studies. In Germany during the same period August Sander produced photographs that characterized the entire range of the German social classes. A number of American photographers working during the Great Depression produced a moving composite portrait of poverty-stricken rural America. These included, among others, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, and Ben Shahn. Other outstanding American portrait photographers of the 20th cent. include Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Immogen Cunningham, and Evelyn Hofer, whose work is reminiscent of August Sander's.

In 1955 the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, mounted a vast and influential exhibition of photographs entitled "The Family of Man." Selected by Steichen from hundreds of thousands of entries from all over the world, it presented a composite visual record, a profound portrait of the human family. Since then photographic portraiture has taken several new directions in the second half of the 20th cent.

Photographic self-portraits such as those of Man Ray and Duane Michaels also portrayed the sitter in a surreal setting. Nude portraits and multimedia works have proliferated, and the confrontation with the grotesque in human nature and physiognomy, masterfully explored by Diane Arbus, has spawned a number of imitators. Photographic portraits of the 1980s and 90s include works by such artists as Richard Avedon (who has taken masterly portraits since mid-century) and Annie Leibovitz. Moreover, the late 20th cent.'s cult of celebrity has spawned a host of anonymous "paparazzi," snapping spontaneous and often unflattering portraits of the celebrated and the infamous.

See also photography, still.


See J. D. Breckenridge, Likeness: A Conceptual History of Ancient Portraiture (1968); G. Schreiber, Portraits and Self-Portraits (1968); L. E. Marrits, Modeled Portrait Sculpture (1970); F. Covino, The Fine Art of Portraiture (1971); E. Kinstler, Painting Portraits (1971); A. Fulvio, Roman Portraits (1981); W. Craven, Colonial American Portraiture (1986); R. Simon, The Portrait in Britain and America (1987); R. Brilliant, Portraiture (1991).

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Representations of monks, nuns, and members of the laity flourished in East Asian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In pre-Buddhist Han China, portraits of exemplary figures past and present derived from historical, biographical, and eulogistic texts. Ancient Chinese concepts of portrait are encompassed by the words xiang (Japanese, ), zhen (Japanese, shin), and ying (Japanese, ei). Where a caption named a figure, both words and image called to mind the larger story of that individual; a likeness was not essential. Yet most modern definitions of portraiture mandate that the subject be an individual, and that the representation be based on observed reality. Within Buddhist contexts, the word xiang also denotes buddha images (foxiang; Japanese, butsuzō), as well as representations of local deities (shen; Japanese, kami). Combinations like zhenxiang (Japanese, shinzō), and yingxiang (Japanese, eizō) stress the importance of resemblance and truth, not merely to appearances but also to the spirit. Like devotional icons, portraits consecrated in formal ceremonies embodied the living aura of their subjects. As such, they too, served as the focus of offerings and ceremonies.

Lineages and patriarchs

In China early Buddhist portraiture featured genealogies or lineages that trace a particular history of dharma transmission. At the Kanjingsi cave chapel at Longmen (ca. 720–730), a procession of twenty-nine patriarchs of the "western lands" (i.e., India) carved in larger than life relief surround the central image of Śākyamuni. This artificial group, found in a text of the Northern Chan school, begins with Śākyamuni's senior disciple MahĀkĀŚyapa and ends with Bodhidharma, putative founder of Chan in China. Although individually lifelike and varied, these depictions recall the Han tradition of exemplar portraits. Lineage portraits, in both painting and sculpture, spread to both Japan and Tibet. In mid-eighth century Japan at Tōdaiji, the patriarchs of each of the six competing schools of Buddhism were painted on wooden cabinets holding sūtras promoted by each school. Zhang Shengwen's Long Roll of Buddhist Images (1173–1176, National Palace Museum, Taipei), painted for the kingdom of Dali in southwestern China, incorporated a succession of Chan portraits showing each master seated in a landscape setting. In Tibet, the founders of the four Tibetan orders appeared as the large central figure in thang kas (thanka; painted hanging scrolls),surrounded by smaller depictions of their teachers and Buddhist deities. No matter how convincing or lifelike, such images were imaginary and deified representations of semilegendary and long-dead masters created to legitimize particular lineages.

The impulse to remember and venerate the sanctity of one's own teacher led to the creation of individual portraits from life and the writing of hagiographies. Numerous Chinese tales and images exemplify efforts to preserve the corpses of venerated saints, both through natural mummification and a complex practice of preservation by desiccation and cloth soaked in lacquer. Corpses encased in such a coating, placed within sūtra-mausoleums or separate temple halls, became objects of veneration for both temple and pilgrims. The mummy of the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (ca. 638–713) is the most famous extant example, while the life-sized hollow dry lacquer image of Ganjin (Chinese, Jianzhen; 688–763) may be an example of a sculpted image substituted for a "failed mummy." At Tōshōdaiji in Nara, Japan, Ganjin's portrait served as a relic of the strong connection between a revered teacher and his surviving students, as well as a portrait of the temple's founder. In the thirteenth century, Vinaya school revivalists venerated Ganjin as their patriarch and erected a portrait hall for the image. Many portraits of individual monks commemorate their leadership talents and patronage activities, as for instance Hongbian (late ninth century), whose clay portrait was installed in a small chapel at Dunhuang. Not a mummy, the image contained a bag of ashes, while a record of his activities was inscribed in a neighboring chapel.

A conflation of these strains of portraiture appears with KŪkai (774–835), who studied Zhenyan (Shingon Buddhism, Japan) teachings in Chang'an from 804 to 806. Kūkai brought back to Japan seven life-size individually painted portraits of his immediate predecessors that incorporated written biographies. After Kūkai's death, his followers added his own portrait to make a set of eight Shingon patriarchs. These paintings were copied and disseminated to Shingon temples throughout Japan, where they became an essential component in main halls and on pagoda walls.

Portraiture blossomed in thirteenth-century Japan as a result of an increased awareness of Buddhist history and fresh contact with Chinese teachers. Students of Pure Land, Vinaya, and Chan teachings brought back portraits of their teachers from China. These depicted formally dressed abbots seated in elaborate cloth-decorated chairs, holding attributes of their status and character. Often drawn from life, these paintings frequently bore inscriptions by the sitter. These individual portraits were venerated in Japanese monasteries, and when the subject died, they became the focus of memorial ceremonies. As the lineages of these teachers spread throughout Japan, copies proliferated. At some temples, separate portrait/memorial halls enshrined painted or sculpted images of founders. Perhaps the strongest manifestations of the lineage/memorial portrait tradition are the countless portraits of Chan abbots. Abbot portraits occupied central altar space in the various subtemples of Zen monasteries in Japan, where sculpted founder portraits replaced buddha images as the central object of devotion.

Donors and lay believers

Buddhist portraiture was not confined to representations of lineages, patriarchs, and abbots. In ancient India, famous lay patrons, both men and women, abound in illustrated narratives, occasionally with identifying inscriptions. Relief carved images of lay patrons also appear on the gates to stūpa mounds. While neither of these types of representation qualify as portraiture, they can be seen as precursors to donor images of royalty and prominent families found in the cave-chapels of Dunhuang and Longmen in China. At the Potala in Lhasa, a large ninth-century sculpted statue of King Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen Gampo, ca. 627–649) suggests that the making of sculpted donor portraits may have been more common than extant evidence suggests. Many of the workshop-produced paintings found at Dunhuang depict generic lay donors, with space left to record names, dates, and vows. The genres of ancestor and commemorative portraits flourished in China long after Buddhism waned among the elite classes.

In Japan, however, portraits of the lay elite survive in considerable numbers. Numerous sculpted portraits of Prince ShŌtoku (574–622) at different ages commemorate his role in establishing Buddhism. The hollow bodies of the sculptures often contain copies of the sūtras he promulgated, as well as donations from patrons. Several pious emperors received the tonsure upon abdicating the throne; thus their portraits show them with shaven heads in monk's clothing. Their descendants enshrined these portraits in private chapels or in temples they founded.

Throughout Japan's medieval period, numerous portraits of the aristocratic and military elite were created at their deaths to be hung in mortuary temples (bodaiji). Documentary sources tell of painters summoned to sketch their likenesses, either before or after death. These sketches served as the basis for life-size portraits, usually painted but occasionally carved. Family memorial portraits also included representations of prominent women, retired empresses and military wives, and even boys who had died young. The portraits frequently incorporated written biographies or eulogies, or the Buddhist name conferred on the deceased. Although memorial portraits depict their subjects in finery appropriate to their station, such portraits were not secular in function or place of display. The families of the deceased provided material support, often including the personal possessions of the deceased, to these mortuary temples for memorial ceremonies as well as care of family burial sites.

See also:Arhat Images; Bodhisattva Images; Buddha, Life of the, in Art; Chan Art; China, Buddhist Art in; Japan, Buddhist Art in


Guth, Christine M. E. "Portraiture." In Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, ed. Money L. Hickman. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1996.

Levine, Gregory P. "Switching Sites and Identities: The Founder's Statue at the Buddhist Temple Korin'in." Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 72–104.

Mori, Hisashi. Japanese Portrait Sculpture, translated and adapted by W. Chie Ishibashi. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1977.

Phillips, Quitman E. The Practices of Painting in Japan, 1475–1500. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Sharf, Robert H. "The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the Mummification of Ch'an Masters in Medieval China." History of Religions 32, no. 1 (1992): 1–31.

Sharf, Robert H. "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China." Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 7 (1993–1994): 149–219.

Sharf, Robert H., and Sharf, Elizabeth Horton, eds. Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Spiro, Audrey. Contemplating the Ancients: Aesthetic and Social Issues in Early Chinese Portraiture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Karen L. Brock

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por·trait / ˈpôrtrət; -ˌtrāt/ • n. 1. a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, esp. one depicting only the face or head and shoulders. ∎  a representation or impression of someone or something in language or on film: the writer builds up a full and fascinating portrait of a community. 2. [as adj.] (of a page, book, or illustration, or the manner in which it is set or printed) higher than it is wide: you can print landscape and portrait pages in the same document. Compare with landscape (sense 2). DERIVATIVES: por·trait·ist / ˈpôrtrətist; -ˌtrātist/ n. (in sense 1).

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portraiturecatcher, dacha, focaccia, patcher, scratcher, snatcher, stature, thatcher •facture, fracture, manufacture •capture, enrapture, rapture •flycatcher • oystercatcher •archer, departure, kwacha, marcher, starcher, viscacha •pasture •etcher, fetcher, fletcher, lecher, sketcher, stretcher •conjecture, lecture •sepulture •denture, misadventure, peradventure •divesture, gesture, vesture •texture • architecture • nature •magistrature •bleacher, creature, feature, headteacher, Katowice, Nietzsche, preacher, screecher, teacher •schoolteacher •ditcher, hitcher, pitcher, stitcher, twitcher •Chibcha •picture, stricture •filcher • simcha •cincture, tincture •scripture •admixture, commixture, fixture, intermixture, mixture •expenditure • forfeiture •discomfiture • garniture •primogeniture, progeniture •miniature • furniture • temperature •portraiture • literature •divestiture, vestiture

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por·trai·ture / ˈpôrtricher; -ˌchoŏr/ • n. the art of creating portraits. ∎  graphic and detailed description, esp. of a person: it's part murder mystery and part portraiture through poetry. ∎ formal a portrait.

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portrait XVI. — F., sb. use of pp. of OF. portraire picture, depict (whence portray XIV), f. por- (:— L. PRO-1) + traire draw (:- Rom. *tragere, for L. trahere).
So portraiture XIV. — OF.

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portrait An orientation of a page in which the shorter side is at the top. Compare landscape.