A portrait is a painting, photo or sculpture of a person whose features are recognizable. But who can tell if the Roman emperors who gaze at us from dusty shelves in museums look anything like the original? Everyone wanted to look their best.
Winston Churchill had his portrait painted by famous artist Graham Sutherland in the Fifties. He took an instant dislike to it, considering it wasn’t flattering enough. He then ordered it to be burned, and it disappeared for ever.
Even as long ago as ancient Egyptian times it is possible to recognize pharaohs by their distinctive lineaments. Some of the earliest known paintings of everyday people are those known as the Fayum portraits on wood (see illustration). These were placed over the faces of mummies and were only discovered around 1700. Many show young people and are very lifelike, surviving thanks to the dry climate of the Fayum region.
History of portrait
Portraiture was already popular in ancient Greece, particularly Roman sculpture. True portraits reappeared in the Middle Ages such as miniatures in illuminated manuscripts.
In Peru an ancient culture know as Moche which flourished from about 100-700 AD produced portraits of the ruling classes in great detail. Surprisingly, it did not have portraits of women.
The world’s oldest portrait was found in a grotto in France and is thought to be 27,000 years old.
Piero della Francesco’s portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino painted in the early 1400s is one of the most admired in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. About a hundred years later Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa acquired instant fame and draws crowds in the Louvre in Paris.
Portrait in modern times
More recent famous portrait painters worldwide include Salvador Dalì, George Grosz, Egon Schiele. Andy Warhol’s paintings of Elvis Presley are famous, not to mention those of American John Singer Sargent, considered ‘the leading portrait painter of his generation’, and Ronald Brooks Kitaj. Another American artist is the well-known artist Grant Wood who depicted social realism, and Edward Hopper who died in 1967.
Many of the artists whose paintings now sell for millions died almost penniless. Or died mysterious deaths such as Caravaggio. (by Susy)