The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Self-portrait by
Self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh

A portrait is a painting, photograph, or other artistic representation of a person. Portraits are often simple "head shots" and are not usually overly elaborate or creative. The intent is to show the basic appearance of the person, and occasionally some artistic insight into his or her personality.

The art of the portrait flourished in Roman sculptures, where the sitters demanded realistic portraits, even unflattering ones. During the 4th century, the portrait began to retreat in favor of an idealized symbol of what that person looked like. Compare the portraits of Roman Emperors Constantine I and Theodosius I at their entries. In Europe true portraits of the outward appearance of individuals re-emerged in the late Middle Ages, in Burgundy and France.

The most famous portrait in the world is Leonardo da Vinci's painting entitled Mona Lisa, which is actually a portrait of an unidentified woman.

Some of the earliest portraits of private people, who were not kings or emperors, are in the funeral portraits that survived in the dry climate of Egypt's Fayum district (illustration, left). These are the only paintings of the Roman period to have survived, aside from frescos.

When the artist creates a portrait in his or her own image, it is called a self-portrait. The first recorded self-portrait was by Nicholas Hilliard in 1575[1]. Many of the most famous works of Rembrandt were his self-portraits.

Portrait photography is a popular commercial industry all over the world. Many people enjoy having professionally made family portraits to hang in their house, or special portraits to commemorate certain events, such as graduations or weddings.

Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a young boy
Roman-Egyptian funeral portrait of a young boy

Since the dawn of photography people have been making portraits. The popularity of the Daguerreotype in the middle of the nineteenth century was due in large part to the demand for inexpensive portraiture. Studios sprung up in cities around the world, some cranking out more than 500 plates a day. The style of these early works reflected the technical challenges associated with 30-second exposure times and the painterly aesthetic of the time. Subjects were generally seated against plain backgrounds and lit with the soft light of an overhead window and whatever else could be reflected with mirrors.

As photographic techniques developed, an intrepid group of photographers took their talents out of the studio and onto battlefields, across oceans and into remote wilderness. William Shew's Daguerreotype Saloon, Roger Fenton's Photographic Van and Mathew Brady's What-is-it? wagon set the standards for making portraits and other photographs in the field.

In politics, portraits of the leader are often used as a symbol of the state. No matter where you are, in most countries it is common protocol for a portrait of the Head of State to appear in important government buildings. When portraits of the leader are used excessively, it becomes a sign of a personality cult.

In literature the term "portrait" refers to a written description or analysis of a person or thing. A written portrait often gives deep insight, and offers an analysis that goes far beyond the superficial. For example, American author Patricia Cornwell wrote a best-selling book titled Portrait of a Killer about the personality, background, and possible motivations of Jack the Ripper, as well as the media coverage of his murders, and the subsequent police investigation of his crimes.

The term portrait is also applied to the orientation of a rectangular page, painting or other graphic, denoting that the long axis is vertical. When the long axis is horizontal, it is said to be in landscape mode.

See also: Hierarchy of genres

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