Portrait in History

Portrait in History

Portrait has always been a fascinating type of painting for artists of all times.

Before the appearance of photography it was customary to take portraits on important occasions with the aim of capturing events and people in our lives.

In ancient times the portrait was reserved for great characters and busts and half-busts were made in marble, which depicted the physiognomy of the person with great attention to detail. During the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the representations were mainly dedicated to sacred figures, who were depicted in large proportions on the canvases, while the patrons were depicted in miniature.

Over the centuries the artist's gaze has changed giving life to new and surprising solutions, passing through representative, realistic and abstract painting, giving the portrait a great added value as a representation of the inner essence of the character: art is seen as an investigation of what lies beneath the appearance in search of an inner reality.

The centrality of man in Humanism

The portrait, as we know it today, was born in the fifteenth century when man began to play a central role again, as an autonomous subject. The portrait thus becomes a more widespread representation, also meeting the bourgeoisie, and is seen as a status symbol.
The subjects were portrayed realistically in their social role and always posed in an elegant manner. Thus, women also appeared in the portraits, no longer as representatives of the ideal of beauty, but as people with their own characteristics.

Flemish painting

It was the art of Flanders that gave life to the realistic portrait with a new posture of the character depicted: the three-quarter pose, which allowed for a profound physical and psychological analysis of the character.
The Flemish influences were also felt in Italy leading the painters to concentrate on the somatic and peculiar features of their subjects.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the transformations accelerated, thanks to the research of artists such as Leonardo, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, who taught Renaissance painting.

In that period the official portrait also spread, with the sovereign on horseback or on the throne, becoming a fashion throughout Europe. Raphael was a master of the courtly and idealized portrait, while Leonardo concentrated on the psychological perception of the subject.

In Northern Europe, portraiture took on its own connotations: strong capacity for investigation and almost obsessive meticulousness.
Dürer began the tradition of the self-portrait in the mirror, which is for the artist a means to get to know and explore himself better, and allows the observer to reflect himself in the figure he observes, finding similarities

Neoclassical taste

In the eighteenth century the neoclassical taste was also projected into the paintings, which became characterized by clear tones and clear lights, simplified and clean lines, balanced and idealized somatic traits, with references to Greek art. Great artists of this style were Antonio Canova, Ingres and Jacques-Louis David.

Common subjects also entered the paintings, portrayed in picturesque compositions in a popular style. These characters were not commissioners of the work but attracted the attention of the artist who wanted to explore the variety of human beings.

The modern portrait and the influence of photography

In the nineteenth century the portraits diversified into the "classical" current, in the footsteps of David; in the "romantic" current of Delacroix, and in the political current of Courbet. The invention of photography opened new scenarios in portraiture, which became experimentation with light and colour, with the expression of the mental subconscious and with personal visions. The "inner self" returns to the center of the portrait and stands above the objective representation of the physiognomy.

An art work remembered by many as representative of the era is Windflowers, dated 1902, by artist John William Waterhouse. The work shows a flowery landscape in which there is a young woman, placed with her back to the blowing wind and wrapped in fluffy clothes. Waterhouse is a master of the depiction of movement and emotion which he depicts flawlessly on the faces of his characters.