Individual Portrait


“Nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference. Gesture, grimace, clothing, decor even—all must combine to realize a character.” —Charles Baudelaire

Individual portraiture—the likeness of a single person—has long been one of the most popular forms of art. Whether as an attempt at objective or documentary truth or to express the power and prestige (or idea) of a person, individual portraits examine what it means to be human and an individual. Classical Greek portraiture was concerned with formal, ideal beauty rather than documentary truth. The Renaissance and a renewed interest in humanism established the great portrait tradition, which would pervade Europe for the next three hundred years, dominated by Raphael in Rome and Titian in Venice. Individual portraits were also often commissioned by monarchs to reinforce and display royal might: Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII is a quintessential example of the portrait’s power to flatter and play to a sitter’s vanity. Likewise, portraits played a vital role in displaying and mirroring the material wealth of the growing merchant class in the Dutch golden age, as in the work of Frans Hals or Rembrandt van Rijn. The invention of photography in the mid 1800s caused the portrait tradition to rapidly change; the newfound ability to capture an individual “as they were” meant that the painted portrait could no longer be taken for granted. Many variations in the photographic portrait resulted as did the exploration of how abstract painting might still make a portrait. Artists continue today to reconcile the traditional means of portraiture with photography.