A portrait is a representation of a particular person
- Introduction to portraiture
- The development of portraiture
- Artists in focus
- Other perspectives
- Portraiture in detail
Portraiture is a very old art form going back at least to ancient Egypt, where it flourished from about 5,000 years ago. Before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone.
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 find their work rejected. A notable exception was Francisco Goya in his apparently bluntly truthful portraits of the Spanish royal family. Artists’ self-portraits are an interesting sub-group of portraiture and can often be highly self-revelatory. Those of Rembrandt are particularly famous.
Among leading modern artists portrait painting on commission, that is to order, became increasingly rare. Instead artists painted their friends and lovers in whatever way they pleased. Most of Picasso’s pictures of women, for example, however bizarre, can be identified as portraits of his lovers. At the same time, photography became the most important medium of traditional portraiture, bringing what was formerly an expensive luxury product affordable for almost everyone. Since the 1990s artists have also used video to create living portraits. But portrait painting continues to flourish.
Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity
This exhibition which was on display at Tate Britain in 2005, explores the idea that portraitist Joshua Reynolds was a driving force in the creation of a cult of celebrity. Read the room guide and see what artworks were on display.
This comprehensive exhibition which was at Tate Britain in 2007, incorporates the full range of Hogarth’s work. Read the room guide which includes rooms devoted to his conversational pieces and portraits of different social classes.
The development of portraiture
Explore the development of portraiture with our slideshow of key Tate artworks from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, or use the links below to search these periods within Tate’s collection.
Sir Anthony Van Dyck: reformer of 17th century portraiture
Van Dyck was a successful Flemish portrait painter, who is most remembered for his paintings of Charles I and his court. He painted his subjects in a relaxed and elegant manner, which influenced English portraiture for the next 150 years.
Curator of Van Dyck and Britain, discusses an how Van Dyck transformed 17th century portraiture and shaped today’s view of the Stuart Monarchy.
A world on the verge of collapse
This Tate etc. article looks at Van Dyck’s largest and most ambitious work, Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, and his Family, 1635.
The man who would be British
This article charts the continental shift of a peripatetic man who spent two influential periods of time in England.
Van Dyck and France under the Ancien Régime 1641–1793
This Tate paper charts the public reception of his work and his influence on later generations of French painters.
Francis Bacon: painter of the human condition
Francis Bacon was a Irish-born British figurative painter who created emotional charged imagery that was often disturbing and raw.
He seeks to paint the human condition which is both violent and violated, cruel and tender, vulnerable and touching.
Chis Stephens, curator
Francis Bacon interactive tour
Go on an interactive tour of the exhibition Francis Bacon which was on display at Tate Britain in 2009. View all the works in the exhibition and explore thematic relationships between Bacon’s paintings.
Read an interview between Tracey Emin and Tate Etc. editor Simon Grant about why she chose to display My Bed alongside two of her favourite paintings by Bacon.
Artist Damien Hirst discusses his long-lived fascination with Bacon’s depiction of horror, death and human fragility.
Work in Focus: Francis Bacon
Watch writer Toby Litt offers a personal view of Francis Bacon’s painting Figure in Movement 1985.
Francis Bacon (1909–1992)
Writers, museum directors, artists, musicians and filmmakers pay homage to Francis Bacon, some of whom knew him and some who came to his work through art books or exhibitions.
Rineke Dijkstra: photographer of vulnerability and transition
Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra uses photography and film to portray individuals at transformative moments in their lives. She often references old Dutch masters in her portraiture, through the way the subjects are posing.
I find it much more interesting to photograph people at a moment when they don’t have everything under control.
Rineke Dijkstra’s talks about her portraits of bullfighters and of women who have recently given birth and how she leaves her subjects with no room for evasion.
This display at Tate Modern, focuses on Dijkstra’s work which represents youth and the transition to adulthood. Read the display text and see which artworks are on display.
Rineke Dijkstra in Conversation with Abigail Christenson
Watch this interview where Dijkstra discusses her work including I See a Woman Crying and Ruth Drawing Picasso.
Rineke Dijkstra: Artist’s Talk
Talks about her journey as a portrait photography and how she is often drawn to depicting vulnerability and adolescence.
Marlene Dumas: portrayer of haunting emotion
Marlene Dumas is one of the most prominent painters working today. Her intense, psychologically charged portraits explore themes of sexuality, love, death and shame, often referencing art history, popular culture and current affairs.
Who is Marlene Dumas?
Read our introduction to Dumas, with quotes from herself and art critics.
Dumas discusses her Great Men series, a group of portraits made in response to Russia’s anti-gay legislation. She states that she would like for them to exist as individuals, but the law groups them together.
TateShots: Marlene Dumas talks about Rejects
Hear Marlene Dumas talk about Rejects – a selection of portraits previously rejected from other series of her work. The collection of anonymous and well-known faces has now evolved into its own stand-alone piece which the artist herself is constantly changing and reconstructing.
Angelica Kauffmann’s Portrait of a Lady
Conceptual artist Susan Hiller reflects on Portrait of a Lady by Angelica Kauffmann, a successful portraitist at a time when female artists were extremely rare.
Watch the English National Ballet interpretation of some of Picasso’s portraits including The Frugal Meal, 1904 and The Three Dancers, 1925. The chorographers comment on Picasso’s depiction of vulnerability, life, emotion and movement.
Rineke Dijkstra: The Weeping Woman
In The Weeping Woman, Dijkstra asks young people what they see in Picasso’s Weeping Woman. The video explores the portrayal of emotional responses to a given situation during that transitional stage between childhood innocence and adult awareness.
Inspired by the haunting faces and bodies in Dumas’ work, author Colm Tóibín delves into the interior life of a lonely narrator and paints a full and moving portrait of a man with words instead of brush strokes.
Portrait in detail
Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s Portraits of Sir William and Lady Killigrew, 1638
This research paper discusses the painting of the courtier and writer Sir William Killigrew and the companion portrait of his wife Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew, both painted in 1638, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
This curatorial essay looks at portraits and figure paintings ranging from 1896 – 1915 which were all deemed masterpieces 100 years ago but over time have been neglected or forgotten.
Face-Off in Weimar Culture
This research article looks at August Sander’s 1929 photobook Face of Our Time, a series of photographic albums depicting German people published during the last years of the Weimar Republic. It is discussed in relation to interest in physiognomy in this period.
The Substance of the Subject: Representing Identity in Contemporary Portraiture
In this conference, Lara Perry investigates recent experimentations in the genre of the portrait, and explores how new modes of portrayal respond to new models for thinking about subjectivity.