There have been many disputes over the definition of portraits and some of them have ended up in court (in Alabama in 1863, for instance, and in New South Wales in 1944). A compromise definition is advisable, steering between the dangers of vacuousness, on the one side, and of excluding many images that are commonly taken to be portraits, on the other. For example: “a representation of one or more individuals that can be recognized by acquaintances as a likeness (despite possible elements of either idealization or caricature).” So defined, the portrait has a history, a geography, and a sociology.
Whether or not Egyptian images of pharaohs or their wives (Nefertiti, for example) were likenesses, many ancient Greek and Roman statues were. In the west, an interest in likenesses seems to have declined in the Middle Ages, reviving in the fourteenth century, spreading during the Renaissance, and remaining important ever since. Some 40 years ago, John Berger claimed that the painted portrait was obsolete, thanks not only to the rise of photography but also to the decline of belief in social roles and changes in conceptions of identity. This obituary appears to have been premature.
Portraits can be found in many parts of the world, but not with equal density. An interest in portraits, officially forbidden in Islamic culture, developed in court circles in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-fifteenth century and in Mughal India c.1600. In China, they became more important from 1600 onward (Vinograd 1992). Today, photographic portraits are as ubiquitous as globalization. Within Europe, they became fashionable in Florence and in the Netherlands before spreading elsewhere. The place of Britain is a paradoxical one. Sitters were dependent on foreign artists from Hans Holbein to Anthony Van Dyck, but in the eighteenth century, the age of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, portraiture came to be seen as typically British.
Portraits were originally confined to high-status social groups, but for this very reason they became both the sign and the means of social mobility. Complaints about the democratization of the portrait go back at least as far as sixteenth-century Italy. As a means of distinction, portraits needed to emphasize social identities (gender, class, or occupation): the warrior with hand on sword, the mandarin in his robes of office, the noblewoman in her fine clothes, etc., like “the scenic flats in photographers’ seaside studios with their empty face-holes waiting for the tourists to come and fill them in” (Brilliant 1991, 62). The rise of more informal types of portrait in eighteenth-century Europe may express a new culture of individualism, anticipated by Rembrandt in his self-portraits (Chapman 1990). In contemporary India, by contrast, a decentered view of the individual seems to underlie the current vogue for double images of the same person in photographs (Pinney 1997).
The varieties of portrait are so great that typologies are required, whether they are based on media or on genres. The media of portraiture include not only painting (oil, watercolor, pastel) and sculpture (in marble, bronze, ceramics, wax) but also textiles, graphics (drawings, woodcuts, copperplates, mezzotints, etc.), and of course photographs, still or moving – not to mention mummification, producing the “auto-icon” recommended by the nineteenth-century radical Jeremy Bentham. The genres of portraiture are almost equally various: formal (the “state” portrait, for instance) or informal, contemporary or historical, public or private, realistic or idealized, as well as self-portraits, allegorical portraits, and various kinds of group portrait, from school or team photographs to conversation pieces or the traditional Chinese yaji (“elegant gatherings”).
Videos apart, the portrait may be analyzed as a frozen act of communication. As in other analyses of communication, it is necessary to ask who is communicating what to whom, with what intentions, by what means, and with what effects. In the case of the “who,” recent scholarship has presented the portrait as the product of an “encounter” or “transaction” between artist and sitter. The “what” is a likeness, sometimes an idealization, sometimes a caricature, and often an expression of the sitter’s self-image. The public for portraits ranges from family and friends to large groups such as the nation. Their purposes include the commemoration of intimate occasions and of national heroes and heroines. The means and strategies employed are sometimes described as the “iconology” of the portrait, including clothes, gestures (more or less modest for women and men respectively), and “properties” such as classical columns, magnifying the importance of the sitter. References to other portraits, like the “quotations” from Van Dyck by Reynolds, often had a similar purpose. The effects of these acts of communication are linked to the many different uses of these artifacts, hung on walls, collected into albums, or concealed in drawers or in lockets, like English miniatures. In short, portraits come in many varieties. Rather than simply expressing individuality or presenting a social role, they reveal tensions between the individual and the social. These tensions are particularly visible in the case of a series of institutional portraits (bishops, or the heads of colleges), where formality in dress, for instance, coexists with increasing informality of posture.
- Berger, J. (1967). No more portraits. In P. Barker (ed.), Arts in society. London: Fontana, pp. 45–50.
- Brilliant, R. (1991). Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books.
- Chapman, H. P. (1990). Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Pinney, C. (1997). Camera indica: The social life of Indian photographs. London: Reaktion Books.
- Pointon, M. (1993). Hanging the head: Portraiture and social formation in eighteenth-century England. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.
- Vinograd, R. (1992). Boundaries of the self: Chinese portraits 1600–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Woodall, J. (ed.) (1997). Portraiture: Facing the subject. Manchester: Manchester University Press.