A portrait is a representation of a particular person

British School 17th century, 'The Cholmondeley Ladies' circa 1600-10
British School 17th century
The Cholmondeley Ladies circa 1600-10

Introduction to portraiture

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.

Further reading

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.

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  • Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 'Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew' 1638
    Sir Anthony Van Dyck
    Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew 1638
  • William Hogarth, 'Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury' 1744-7
    William Hogarth
    Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury 1744-7
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1270 x 1015 mm
    Purchased 1975
  • Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man' circa 1775
    Sir Joshua Reynolds
    Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man circa 1775
    Oil on canvas
    support: 749 x 622 mm
    Bequeathed by Miss Emily Drummond 1930
  • John Singer Sargent, 'Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth' 1889
    John Singer Sargent
    Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2210 x 1143 mm
    frame: 2500 x 1434 x 105 mm
    Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Proserpine' 1874
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Proserpine 1874
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1251 x 610 mm
    frame: 1605 x 930 x 85 mm
    Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1940
  • August Sander, 'Farm Girl' c. 1910, printed 1990
    August Sander
    Farm Girl c. 1910, printed 1990
    Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
    unconfirmed, frame: 490 x 390 x 30 mm
    Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
  • Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, 'Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll' circa 1931
    Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
    Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll circa 1931
    Oil on canvas
    support: 762 x 641 x 20 mm
    Presented by Tate Patrons 2009© Richard Woodward
  • Pablo Picasso, 'Weeping Woman' 1937
    Pablo Picasso
    Weeping Woman 1937
    Oil on canvas
    support: 608 x 500 mm
    frame: 847 x 739 x 86 mm
    Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax with additional payment (Grant-in-Aid) made with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987© Succession Picasso/DACS 2002
  • Lucian Freud, 'Girl with a White Dog' 1950-1
    Lucian Freud
    Girl with a White Dog 1950-1
    Oil on canvas
    support: 762 x 1016 mm
    frame: 954 x 1200 x 92 mm
    Purchased 1952© Tate
  • Frank Auerbach, 'Head of E.O.W. I' 1960
    Frank Auerbach
    Head of E.O.W. I 1960
    Oil on wood
    support: 433 x 355 mm
    frame: 645 x 547 x 95 mm
    Presented by the executors of the estate of David Wilkie 1993© Frank Auerbach
  • Andy Warhol, 'Marilyn Diptych' 1962
    Andy Warhol
    Marilyn Diptych 1962
    Acrylic on canvas
    support (each): 2054 x 1448 x 20 mm
    Purchased 1980© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS, London 2009
  • Francis Bacon, 'Three Figures and Portrait' 1975
    Francis Bacon
    Three Figures and Portrait 1975
    Oil and pastel on canvas
    support: 1981 x 1473 mm
    frame: 2175 x 1668 x 98 mm
    Purchased 1977© Estate of Francis Bacon
  • Linder, 'Untitled' 1976
    Untitled 1976
    Photomontage on paper
    279 x 196 mm
    Purchased 2007© Linder
  • Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Grace Jones' 1984
    Robert Mapplethorpe
    Grace Jones 1984
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    support: 374 x 375 mm
    ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
    © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
  • Nan Goldin, 'Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC' 1991
    Nan Goldin
    Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC 1991
    Photograph on paper
    © Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
  • Marc Quinn, 'No Visible Means of Escape IV' 1996
    Marc Quinn
    No Visible Means of Escape IV 1996
    unconfirmed: 4000 x 600 x 400 mm
    Purchased 1997© Marc Quinn
  • Chris Ofili, 'No Woman, No Cry' 1998
    Chris Ofili
    No Woman, No Cry 1998
    Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on canvas
    support: 2438 x 1828 x 51 mm
    Purchased 1999© Courtesy Chris Ofili - Afroco and Victoria Miro Gallery

Artists in focus

Sir Anthony Van Dyck: reformer of 17th century portraiture

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 'A Lady of the Spencer Family' circa 1633-8
Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Lady of the Spencer Family circa 1633-8
Oil on canvas
support: 2076 x 1276 mm
Purchased 1977

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.

Francis Bacon, 'Triptych - August 1972' 1972
Francis Bacon
Triptych - August 1972 1972
Oil on canvas
support, each: 1981 x 1473 mm
frame (each): 2175 x 1668 x 102 mm
Purchased 1980© Estate of Francis Bacon

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.

Perfect bedfellows
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

Rineke Dijkstra, 'Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994' 1994
Rineke Dijkstra
Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994 1994
Photograph on paper
image: 1170 x 945 mm
Purchased 1998© Rineke Dijkstra

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 

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. 

Rineke Dijkstra
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, 'Lucy' 2004
Marlene Dumas
Lucy 2004
Oil on canvas
support: 1103 x 1303 x 24 mm
Purchased with assistance from Foundation Dutch Artworks and Bank Giro Loterij 2007© Marlene Dumas

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.

Artist talk: Marlene Dumas
Watch this lecture, where Dumas talks about her retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, Marlene Dumas:The Image as Burden.

Other perspectives 

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 Dancers1925. The chorographers comment on Picasso’s depiction of vulnerability, life, emotion and movement.

Work of the week: Nude Woman with Necklace
Art critic Louisa Buck reflects on Picasso’s Nude Woman with Necklace, 1968.

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. 

Forgotten Faces
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.

Related glossary terms

Conversation pieceminiaturegenrescourt, grand manner, self-portrait