What can portraits tell us?

As you can see, portraits can tell us a lot about the person, people or animals depicted in the work. The way the artist handles the medium will also tell us a lot about the intention of the work. For example, portrait artists can use any style they choose to create their work, and each style has a different effect on the overall tone of the work. Many people are fascinated by self-portraits, particularly as a way of learning about the psyche of artists throughout history.

Just as portraits tell us stories about their subjects, self-portraits can tell us something about the inner lives of artists. They will always have reasons to depict themselves in one way or another. But portraits have always been more than just a record. They have been used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter.

Portraits have almost always been flattering, and painters who refused to flatter, such as William Hogarth, tended to have their work rejected. A notable exception was Francisco Goya, with his seemingly truthful portraits of the Spanish royal family. Portraits have the capacity to portray more than just a person's likeness. They tell us about the person's culture, psychology and even the wider cultural and social context.

The genre is much more than painting pretty faces. Portraits can reveal the sitter's place in society, their hobbies or occupations, or aspects of their personality or beliefs. This is perhaps clearest when looking at portraits of kings or political leaders, who often purport to portray their subjects as strong, powerful, even divine. Court painters were artists hired by royal courts to paint portraits of the royal family and their courtiers.

To begin with, portraits could show the full figure of the person, or just the head, or any combination in between. For example, a private collector commissioning a special portrait may prefer to have its flaws "removed", rather than printed in pigment for posterity. Famous portraits serve as important documents for historians to study the lives of past figures. In Europe, between the 16th and 18th centuries, the art of miniature portraits in gouache or watercolour was in vogue.

Recall the astonishing art of Kehinde Wiley, whose portraits are characterised by their profound political and social expressions. See this portrait by Willem de Kooning for an example of abstract expressionist portraiture using this type of brushstroke. New artists are emerging who create beautiful portraits (just look at the works of Sascha Braunig), and ensure the strong status of portraiture in contemporary art. It also questions what portraiture really is, as well as inspiring artists of all mediums to approach their practice in a different way.

Almost everyone would recognise his Starry Night, but probably also his self-portrait in which his solemn gaze and fiery red facial hair stand out. Before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted or drawn portrait was the only way to record someone's appearance. Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous self-portraitists, having created over fifty paintings of herself during her lifetime, exploring different aspects of her inner life and psychology.

Roger Deonarian
Roger Deonarian

Evil analyst. General bacon scholar. . Total zombie fan. Friendly food advocate. Evil pop culture enthusiast.

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