Why are Portraits so Important in Art History?

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635-1636. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection.

Reader question: “Why are portraits so important in art history? And even in museums today, some which are dedicated to portraits (like the National Portrait Gallery in London)? To me, portraits are not aesthetic or interesting, so I’m interested in your opinion on what we could appreciate about them.”

Why are portraits important? I guess it depends on how you define ‘important’, but as you said, it’s obvious that portraits are a staple of art history, with entire museums dedicated to them. Within European art history, portraits are one of the genres within the hierarchy of genres, and elsewhere, portraits have more or less always existed as representations of people from real life.

As always, art is subjective—as you say, you don’t find portraits aesthetic or interesting—but there are definitely reasons why portraiture has remained such a staple.

1. Portraiture was a way to make money.

Francisco Goya, Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800-1801. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado. Francisco Goya was first court painter, the highest position available for Spanish painters at the time. Official court painters were paid to regularly create paintings, usually portraits, for the royal family, often with a fixed salary.

Art practice as we often understand it today—that is, artists making art based on what they are inspired by or what they want to explore—is a pretty new concept. For much of history, artworks were mostly produced based on commissions. That is, artists wouldn’t primarily produce works and then put them up for sale (although this became more common as time went on); rather, they would get commissioned to create something that the buyer wanted.

This, of course, varies depending on time periods and cultures, but this was definitely the case in the European tradition, from which the formalised portraiture genre sprang. Many of the most famous artworks from before the 19th century, such as the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, were commissions.

It makes sense why portraits would be such a popular subject for patrons to commission. Similar to how we have family photos on our walls today, having portraits of you and your family was a way of representing and immortalising yourself before photography was invented.

Albrecht Altdorfer, Crucifixion, Christ on the Cross with Mary and St John, c. 1512. Oil on panel. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Kassel).

Many early portraits were ‘donor portraits’, which are portraits within a larger (generally religious) painting of the person who paid for it and their family. In the above example by Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1514), the tiny donor couple kneels at Jesus’ feet.

Initially, mostly wealthy and powerful patrons would commission these portraits, but over time, it became more and more common for middle-class people to commission portraits as well. Eventually, commissioned portraits became rarer, and artists started painting their friends, family, and those around them instead.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Three Beauties, c. 1793. Woodblock print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The above was a portrait of three famous beauties in 1790s Edo, each identified with a family crest. The artist decided to make each figure’s beauty idealised rather than realistic, probably to make sure the print would sell better.

2. Portraiture can be fascinating because it tells us about the subject.

Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Official portrait of Captain James Cook, 1776. Oil on canvas. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Painted just a few years after Cook made contact with and took possession of Australia in the name of Great Britain, this idealised portrait shows him as a celebrated explorer in a captain’s full-dress uniform with his hand on his own chart of the Southern Ocean. He points towards the Eastern coast of Australia.

When you choose to depict a person, you’re making decisions around what story to tell about that person. There is no such thing as a neutral portrait; every portrait artist has made certain choices about what to show and how to position their subject. This is why many people find portraits fascinating: they not only tell us something about the subject, but can also tell us how that subject wanted to be depicted, or how the artist wanted to depict them. 

Some things to look out for include:

  • What the subject is portrayed next to or in front of.
  • What objects the subject carries or has around them.
  • What clothing the subject wears.
  • The body language or expression of the subject.

Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from the “St. Petersburg Album,” 1615-1618. Gouache, gold, and ink on paper. Freer Gallery of Art.

This is perhaps most clear when looking at portraits of kings or political leaders, which are often aimed at portraying their subjects as strong, powerful, even godlike. The idealised portrait above is an obvious example: Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings (1615-1618) depicts its subject as a divine ruler. This is indicated by the halo surrounding his head, which is surrounded by a disc that visually fuses the sun and moon, indicating the divine truth of his rule. There are other details that tell us certain things about the emperor: the fact that he favours meeting with the Sufi Sheikh, who he is gifting with a book, over the kings below tells us that he values spirituality. Angels write ‘O Shah, May the Span of Your Life be a Thousand Years’ on the hourglass that makes up his throne.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, c. 1750. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery.

An approach that may seem less obvious is the above portrait: Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750) by Thomas Gainsborough. This is a double portrait of a recently married couple, Robert and Frances Andrews. They are situated in front of a countryside view. This isn’t any countryside, however; this is their estate, and they are portrayed as the owners of it. In fact, the estate was probably part of her dowry.

The way that the subjects are situated next to the opening that leads us into the landscape gives the impression that they are the ‘gatekeepers’ of it, or are welcoming us in as the owners of the land. The oak tree also has connotations of stability, giving a sense of successive generations taking over the family business. The landed gentry had been compared to the oak, holding Britain together.

In many portraits, especially more contemporary ones, the aim may not be to idealise. Even so, it will always tell you about how the artist wants to depict the subject. In this work by Chunchieh Huang, Ziqiang 124, the aim is to capture a stressful moment in the life of a friend of the artist. Every detail in the work reflects both the personality of the subject and the exam stress that he’s experiencing: from the trash and food wrappers on the floor, to the Facebook page on his computer screen, to the strewn out art supplies.

3. Self portraiture is seen as a way to gain insight into an artist’s psyche.

Kikuchi Yōsai, Self portrait, c. 1856-7. Kikuchi Yōsai was famous for his monochrome portraits of historical figures in his illustrated history of Japanese heroes, the Zenken Kojitsu.

Many people are fascinated by self portraiture in particular as a way to gain insight into the psyches of artists throughout history. Similarly to how portraits tell us stories about their subjects, self portraits can tell us something about the internal life of the artists. They will always have reasons for representing themselves in some way or the other.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery

Women artists have been particularly prolific in portraiture and self portraiture genres, probably because throughout most of history they weren’t able to paint nudes or in the public sphere. Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun made a name out of herself as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. In the above painting, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782), she presents herself as a fashionable, professional artist, with paintbrushes and palette in hand. She had been inspired by the Peter Paul Ruben’s painting Portrait of Susanna Lunden (1622-25), and by evoking it through her clothing and background, she is aligning herself with another great artist in history.

Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous self portraitists, creating more than fifty paintings of herself throughout her life, exploring different aspects of her inner life and psychology. One of her most famous self portraits, The Two Fridas (1939), represents two aspects of her self. The Frida on the right wears a traditional Tehuana costume while the Frida on the left wears a white European-style Victorian dress. Some art historians believe that the painting is a representation of her dual heritage, with one possible interpretation being that her husband, Diego Rivera, loved the Tehuana Frida but rejected the European Frida (the painting was completed in the year of their divorce). Kahlo’s own interpretation was that it was inspired by the memory of a childhood friend.


Gustave Courbet, Le Désespéré, c. 1843. Oil on canvas. Conseil Investissement Art BNP Paribas.

These are some of the reasons for why portraits are so important within art history, and some things that people appreciate about them. Portraiture is such a vast genre, that there is bound to be something within it that you might like. However, at the end of the day, art is subjective—just because something is common or considered important within art history, doesn’t mean that you have to like it!

With credit: http://www.howtotalkaboutarthistory.com/reader-questions/portraits-important-art-history/

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