Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Brief History of Portraiture

Cover of Eye To I exhibition catalog, © Katonah Museum of Art
To help us prepare to lead tours and discuss the artwork, the Katonah Museum of Art prepared extensive materials for the docents to read and learn.  One item included in the packet was a brief history of portraiture which I was asked to write.  I am sharing the essay here.


Most art historians agree that the history of portraiture does not begin with prehistoric cave paintings.  These paintings are believed to be either part of a hunting ritual or a storytelling process, and animals figure prominently in the works.   Instead, the history of portraiture began when the human figure became the central focus of the artwork.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with the start of portraiture as they carved and painted images of deities and the pharaohs, who were accepted as living gods.  For centuries, gods and deified leaders were the only acceptable subjects for portraiture. During medieval times, organized religion in both Europe and Asia gained power and financial wealth.  Portraiture boomed under the patronage of Western and Eastern religious leadership, leading artists to create images of God, Buddha, and faith-based stories in as many mediums as possible, from paintings and sculpture, to stained-glass windows and temple adornments.

During the European Renaissance the aristocracy began its patronage of the arts and with that, a wider range of subjects became acceptable for artists.  In addition to pursuing the perfection of the human form (as opposed to the perfection of divinity), the development of oil-based paints enabled artists to experiment with color, light and shadow.  Brush strokes and the use of perspective expanded artists’ personal style; placing subjects in natural and home settings allowed for even more expansive methods of expression.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, portraiture became a favorite in Colonial America.  Early American artists focused on life in the new world, painting American subjects and leaders.  Those unable to afford a large personal work either commissioned a miniature portrait or a silhouette, a profile picture created with light and shadow.  In Europe, artists were influenced either by Romanticism or Neoclassicism.   Neoclassicists continued to celebrate the human form, but simplified the backgrounds in an attempt to create an unembellished view of the person or event.  Romantics, on the other hand, venerated the “Romantic Hero” -- a character or subject elevated to the status of epic hero – and placed their subjects in more evocative settings with more saturated colors.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, artists were no longer restricted on subject matter.  Artists placed their chosen subjects in whatever settings and poses suited them, enabling artists to explore light, color, brush stroke, the perceived psyche of their subject, mediums, and style.  Self-portraits became more common and flaws were not disguised or hidden.  By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portraiture had reached a point in which the artist’s style became more important than the subject of the painting.  Artists came to be seen as interpreters, both of the subject matter and of the world at large. 

Portraiture experienced a lull as abstraction and conceptual art became the rage. However, portraiture re-emerged as pop-art artists made use of cultural references in their work, enabling viewers to further interpret the art based on their own biases and experiences.  Today, with the opportunity to explore any subject in any setting, artists have endless inspiration for portraiture.  Portraiture is accessible and created by the masses with an abundance of “selfies” circulating the Internet, proving that portraiture remains a beguiling and robust means of artistic expression.
© Vivien Zepf

Because the museum's education department wanted the summary to fit on one page, I couldn't be as expansive about some art movements as I would have liked.  I also wasn't able to cover everything; a notable absence here is tribal artwork from areas such as Africa or the Arctic Inuit culture.  However, the research I did to prepare for and write this essay was very helpful to my own knowledge base, and I am thrilled they chose to share it with all the docents.  

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Vivien
Your brief history was very informative. Thank you so much. I, also have a portrait in your exhibit. She's called "Fleur".
Carole Hoffman

Vivien Zepf said...

I'll go look for Fleur the next time I'm at the Museum, Carole!