A pictographic representation of oneself or another person


Obvious, obscure, grand or cartoonish, portraiture comes in many forms. By definition, a portrait is a representation of a person, and a self-portrait is a representation of oneself. But portraiture is more than a mere representation of how one appears. Rather, it’s similar to a biography or autobiography: portraits try to capture a complete picture of a person through a visual means rather than with words.


Portraiture is one of the oldest art forms in history, dating back to early civilisations. It became extremely popular in ancient Egypt, and has remained an important art genre throughout history. A portrait may be created with any material, style or technique the artist chooses, although particular methods have, historically, been popular in certain eras (depending on the art movement that was in vogue at the time). This includes sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, collage and even installation art.

Prior to the advent of photography, portraiture was one of the only means to document a specific person. It was not always a realistic depiction of someone, but a way of creating a visual representation of that person. In other words, artists would create a portrait to express a message about their subject, be it to display power, authority, status, virtue, or beauty. Alternatively, artists could show their subject as demonised, barbaric, ugly, indecent or disabled. Other qualities could include the subject’s character, personality or mood.

In antiquity, portraiture was popularly captured in the form of sculptures and frescoes. Sculptural portraiture was typically reserved for rulers, and artists usually used idealised art forms, rather than depicting their subjects as they would have appeared in real life. This allowed subjects to be displayed with the utmost purity, virtue and thus power. In frescoes, portraits were created to tell narratives of folklore, religion or of momentous events.

In the Middle Ages, portraiture was popular for tomb monuments and in manuscripts. In manuscripts in particular, religious figures like the Virgin Mary were illustrated, with the aim of giving people ‘a window to the gods’. You would pray to the portrait, and this would help your prayers get translated to the a higher power. As commoners were not literate (this skill was reserved for the elite), the portraits functioned to depict religious stories, and help people connect with the gods.

In the Renaissance and Golden Dutch eras (we’re talking somewhere between the 14th and 17th centuries, mainly in Europe), portraiture was important for documenting people of prominence in society, such as royals, politicians or businessmen. However, artists were also commissioned to create portraits as a means for documenting a treaty, a birth or a marriage (marriage diptychs were common of wealthy families - two canvases - one of the bride, the other of the groom). These portraits would be adorned with symbols of wealth, status, strength.

Contemporary Context:

Today, portraiture is still an important art genre, although it has been transformed into an array of different forms. Most notably, the introduction of photography pushed artists to re-evaluate portraiture in more abstract or conceptual ways. Throughout the Modern and Contemporary periods, portraiture has transformed with every movement.

For example, Picasso created many cubist portraits of his sitters whilst Francis Bacon created expressionist / surrealist self-portraits. Conceptual artist Cindy Sherman created self-portraits that negotiate what it means to be female by dressing up in specific stereotypes or characters. Felix Gonzalez-Torres even interpreted portraiture as a anything which reminds you of the memory of someone. His installation ‘Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991) comprised of a pile of 175 pounds of candy, from which visitors each took a piece upon visiting. This was a portrait of his deceased partner Ross Haycock, but it’s really a portraiture of what Gonzalez-Torres remembers of the sweet nature of his relationship with Laycock.

Some Famous Examples:

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) - Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) - Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433
Oil on oak - 26 x 19 cm - Signed; Dated and inscribed
National Gallery, London/UK - Bought, 1851

Frans Hals (1582-1666) - Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, c. 1622

Frans Hals (1582-1666) - Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, c. 1622
Oil on canvas - 140 x 166.5 cm (55 x 65.6 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam/NL

Thutmose, Ancient Egypt - Bust of Nefertiti, 1345 BC

Thutmose, Ancient Egypt - Bust of Nefertiti, 1345 BC
Limestone and stucco - 48 cm; 19 in. (height)
Discovered 1912 in Amarna, Egypt
Neues Museum, Berlin/DE

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) - Mona Lisa - Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesca del Giocondo, c. 1503-06

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) - Mona Lisa - Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesca del Giocondo, c. 1503-06
Oil on poplar panel - 77 x 53 cm; 30 x 21 in.
Musée du Louvre, Paris/FR - Acquired 1797

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) - Femme en pleurs (Weeping Woman), 1937

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) - Femme en pleurs (Weeping Woman), 1937
Oil on canvas - 60.8 x 50.0 cm
Tate, London/UK
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax with additional payment (Grant-in-Aid) made with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987

Francis Bacon (1909–1992) - Three Studies for a Self-Portrait - 1979–80

Francis Bacon (1909–1992) - Three Studies for a Self-Portrait - 1979–80
Oil on canvas -Each: 14 3/4 x 12 1/2 in. (37.5 x 31.8 cm)
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) - Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat),1905

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) - Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat),1905
Oil on canvas - 80.65 x 59.69 cm; 31 ¾ x 23 ½ in.
SFMOMA San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Collection, San Francisco CA
© Succssion H. Matisse / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) - Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) - Untitled Film Still #21, 1978
Gelatin silver print - 19.1 x 24.1 cm; 7 ½ x 9 ½ in.
MoMA Museum of Modern Art, New York NY
Acquired from the Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel
© 2018 Cindy Sherman

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) - Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996)Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
Candies individually wrapped in multicolour cellophane, endless supply
Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight: 175 lbs.
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL - Promised gift of Donna and Howard Stone, 1999
© The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987) - Untitled from Marilyn Monroe, 1967

Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987) - Untitled from Marilyn Monroe, 1967
One from portfolio of ten screenprints, ed. 250
MoMA Museum of Modern Art, New York NY
Published by Factory Additions, New York
Gift of Mr. David Whitney
© 2018 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) - Barack Obama, 2018

Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) - Barack Obama, 2018
Oil on canvas - © 2018 Kehinde Wiley
National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Amy Sherald - Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018

Amy Sherald - Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018
Oil on linen 
National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949) - HM Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) wearing Garter Robes, Buckingham Palace, 28 March 2007

Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949) - HM Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926) wearing Garter Robes, Buckingham Palace, 28 March 2007
C-typ digital print - 31.6 x 48.0 cm
Royal Collections Trust, London/UK

Mario Testino - Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Los Angeles

Mario TestinoKeith Richards and Mick Jagger, Los Angeles
Lightjet print - 139.8 x 180 cm; 55 x 70.9 in.
British Vogue, 2003


Be the first to find out about new collections, exhibitions and artwork. Get exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.