On the history of portraiture




Although the quest for a ‘good’ photograph of someone – an image that that satisfies us that the depicted person is present to us – is known to all who have eagerly sifted through a newly developed film, the ineffable surge of disappointment which generally follows such a search is perhaps equally familiar.

Surely, this is the concept of portraiture that most people identify with, the quest to recreate a subject in two dimensions with all their evident character traits in place. But it is one of the most difficult things to achieve, as a photograph is a still, flat image, which struggles to be entwined with a human personality a typically animated customer, revealing itself through situations and reaction, and not readily evident on the surface.

Nevertheless, for millennia human beings have been attempting to capture the physical and metaphysical likeness of others. Society has uncovered examples of human effigies in Jericho, New Guinea and Melanesia, dating from 5000 B.C., and over the last seven thousand years, innumerable portraits have been produced in countless styles and media, even in literary form.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a fascinating novel dating from the latter part of the nineteenth century, and recounts the tale of the titular character. Upon becoming upset at realising a portrait of himself will never age, he enters into a Faustian pact, the terms being that the portrait will display signs of ageing, while Dorian will remain unchanged. Highly influenced by the physiognomic school of thought at the time that the personality made itself visible on the facial features, Dorian’s life of debauchery makes itself apparent in the portrait, which becomes more haggard and twisted over the years. Eventually, Dorian grows infuriated with this constant reminder of his sins, and slashes the painting with a knife he had used to kill the painter, his friend, without realising that this renders the pact null and void. His servants hear a scream, and find Dorian’s body, mutated and hideous, the portrait as the day it was painted. The novel is also useful as a barometer of the late Victorian ideals of physiognomy and degeneration, which I will look at in further detail later on.

Native Americans famously believed that a camera was capable of stealing their souls, (of course this is true to a certain extent) just as ancient civilisations created sculptures and death masks to ease the soul’s journey to the afterlife. What, then is the purpose of the portrait? Is it simply to record the appearance of someone, or is there another, more deeper purpose? Is it actually possible to capture the human soul on film or on canvas?


 Chapter One: A Brief History of The Portrait


The history of the portrait is a long one, with periods of popularity and neglect in equal measure. There are three main eras of portraiture I will look at in detail, when the genre underwent particular development, being the Greco-Roman era, the Renaissance, and the dawn of Photography.

Early forms of portraiture tended to be heavily symbolic and based on religious ceremonies, or involved death. Often, as in the case of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, the images that adorn their tombs do not actually resemble their physical form at all, and can only be identified by their inscriptions. They instead portray the status and importance of the deceased a type of misrepresentation also apparent in the tomb of Qiu Shihaungdi, the first emperor of China, whose 7500 terracotta warriors, were intended to be a sprit army, to aid him in the next world.

The ancient Greeks began to utilise portrait busts in the fifth century B.C. They were influenced by the Egyptians, though their portraits tended to resemble the sitter, but had a tendency to make the subject more heroic than he actually was, and had an almost complete lack of naturalism.

The Greek artist tended to sculpt an impression of the person, which is where we get a notable display of trying to record the interior, as well as the exterior. The Roman republic would assimilate Greek culture in the first century B.C., and took on the Hellenistic development of accurate facial busts, favouring realism, with every little facial blemish noted. With the birth of the Roman empire, portraiture would often be dictated by the current Emperor’s favourite style, though the blend of realism and idealism favoured by the first emperor, Augustus 27 B.C. – A.D. 14 would prove to be an enduring favourite. James Breckenridge notes in his book Likeness:

The creator of the Roman portrait…seizes each minute detail of his subject’s appearance, every physical blemish or trait which is unique to this specific individual. By means of these, he builds up – one might almost say he compiles – the likeness. In this way, the Roman came to concentrate, as the Greeks never had, all individuality in the head and particularly the face.

We see in Roman times a move towards a transcendental kind of representation, where physical appearance is noted, as well as characteristics, where the artist would try to convey the impression of the sitter. Portraiture’s next main period of development would occur during the Renaissance, a time when religion’s domination over the arts was being challenged, as artists harked back to classical styles and eschewed the ecumenical imagery of the last millennium and a half. For the first time since the birth of Christ, ordinary human beings were being seen as having the requisite amounts of dignity and decorum to be recorded in a painting. Painters in Italy at the time had become enraptured by the notion of humanism – that people were worthy of being painted, instead of landscapes and religious tableaux. With this belief, came a consensus that full frontal and three-quarter views of the face were the best techniques for showing the maximum amount about the person.

Of course, the renaissance in Italy has provided us with one of the most famous paintings of all time – namely Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Much has been made of Leonardo’s mastery of the corner’s of the mouth and eyes results in one of the first paintings that seems to interact with the viewer, with it having a different interpretation for each person.

The renaissance did not operate solely in Southern Europe. In the north (The Netherlands, Belgium), Flemish painters practised Naturalism, compared to the southern preference for humanism. They painted portraits, but they tended to be impersonal, though highly realistic. Probably the most famous Flemish artist is Jan van Eyck. Kenneth Clark tells us that

Realistic portraiture, the use of the accidents of each individual face to reveal inner life, was not a Florentine, nor even an Italian invention. It was invented in Flanders, and came to an immediate perfection in the work of Jan van Eyck. No-one has looked at the human face with a dispassionate eye and recorded his feelings with a more delicate hand.

Several hundred years later, portraiture would undergo another massive change, with the dawn of photography. Compared to hiring an artist, and having him paint you, photography became a cheap alternative, and hence, massively popular. For the first time, lower class families were able to procure an image of their brood for posterity. On an artistic level, the innate accurateness of photography allowed artists more room to capture the essence of the sitter more diligently, as they did not have to create the image by hand anymore. However, this early photography had its drawbacks. Exposure times were ludicrously long, and many of the Carte-de-Visite photographers had more or less a conveyer belt attitude to their ‘art’, with the making of money considered more important than the actual images.

Slowly, photography moved into the twentieth century, and with improved equipment and the cult of celebrity growing by the decade, the opportunities for portraiture are as abundant as ever. Indeed, with digital, compact and disposable cameras, processing stores on every street corner, and the shift from an industrial society to an almost completely service sector based lifestyle with free time to spare, the six billion inhabitants of earth will find no shortage of people to photograph.


 Chapter Two: The Influence of Physiognomy in the Nineteenth Century


With the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal (in the very real sense of the word) work Origin of the Species in 1859, many sections of Victorian society were left reeling. Their conceived notions of Creationism, which had been safely in place for almost two thousand years, had suddenly been pulled from under their feet. From his observation of flora and fauna in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin had theorised that life on earth had experienced, and was capable of evolution, i.e., the process of adapting to the environment to ensure proliferation of the species, sometimes referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’.

Before long, a school of thought began to emerge among the elite that if the wonderful and splendiferous British Empire had evolved from primates, then surely also then surely it was possible to regress? This idea, known as atavism, appealed to the anthropologists who were concerned with the falling standards of Army recruits during this time, and the large population of poor people in Britain at the time. With this in mind, the theories that a human being’s personality could be displayed by their physiology began to take on a level of ubiquity they had never before attained.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, the classification of race had had its coefficient altered to consider the dimensions of the skull rather than the colour of the skin. The shape and angles of the skull in relation to the body dictated race. This new status of the skull, as well as its close connection with the brain, gave rise to many a science, with the most popular being phrenology, craniotomy, and physiognomy.

Physiognomy had been extant for millennia, as long as portraiture itself. Aristotle, the ancient Greek had written on the subject, but it was not until the work of Johann Casper Lavater that the concept began to be universally accepted. Joanne Woodall sums up the concept thus ‘Physiognomic treatises provided systems whereby a person’s character would be deduced from his (and less commonly her) external appearance’  

One of the foremost champions of physiognomy was Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). He was an instigator of the eugenics movement, which noted atavism, and decided the best way to remedy it was by selective breeding. He also showed an interest in heredity, and was involved in the development of fingerprinting for use in identification. However, it is his work in composite portraits that he is most relevant to my discussion. He had a ‘passion for quantification and numerical ranking’  which ‘coexisted with a remarkable faith in physiognomic description.’  Galton essentially understood that a criminal’s lack of morals would establish itself in his visage. He could photograph the men, but he believed ‘this method is not trustworthy, because the judgement itself is fallacious.’  Thus, the only way forward for him was to create composite images of between two and anything up to a hundred portraits of degenerative members of society. Galton believed that these composites were a visual representation of what is known as the ‘gaussian error curve’  with regards to undesirables. His photography had picked out the elements that these people had in common, thus these elements could be said to be representative of whatever condition he had chosen to composite. Allan Sekula points out Galton’s mistake:

Consider the way in which Galton conveniently exiled blurring to the edges of the composite, when in fact blurring would occur over the surface of the image, although less perceptibly. Only an imagination that wanted to see a visual analogue of the binomial curve would make this mistake, finding the type at the center and the idiosyncratic at the outer periphery.  

Galton said of his composites of criminals ‘The individual faces are villainous enough, but they are villainous in different ways, and when they are combined, the individual peculiarities disappear, and the common humanity of a low type is all that is let.’  It has been said that Galton’s photographs were scientifically flawed, and that he interpreted them to suit his beliefs, rather than alter his beliefs to the photographs, and this final quote seems to bear this. In his eyes there is no real difference between the criminal and the everyday poor. They were both part of a problem that eugenics was there to solve.

Portraiture was also important in the work of Alphonse Bertillon, a Paris police official, who took a different approach to that of Galton. Bertillon believed photography, as well as physiology could be used to facilitate the capture and prosecution of repeat offenders, by completely cataloguing their physical appearance, by use of photography and physical measurements, as he believed that the chance of two people having the same dimensions was extremely long. Although the police force ended up with 100,000 identity records, they were organised so efficiently, by categories of physical measurement, that each sub-division had only 12 cards. Bertillon however was not a physiognomist. He believed he was recording only the façade and that personality had nothing to do with his work. His system was to go on to influence the way many police forces record the criminals they arrest, and though he might not have been interested in the soul of a person, his work was to slowly identify every criminal in Paris, through portraits that actively ignore personality. This carries overtones of state repression, and of ‘Big Brother’ that would particularly influence the non-portraits of Thomas Ruff.

With the notions of evolution, atavism, craniotomy and physiognomy, the Victorians seemed determined to forge an unbreakable link between the physical and the mental. This obsession is still existent today, with culture being described as being high and low brow (A gentleman with a large forehead was deemed to have a larger brain), and descriptions with physiognomic notions still linger today (“His eyes are too close together”).


 Chapter Three: Arbus and Ruff’s Differing Approach


To further my discussion of portraiture and the soul, I will now look at the work of Diane Arbus, whose portraits make up the main element of her work, and which she seems to have had a particular gift for. She had a strong interest in the outsider of society, a desire she articulated thus:

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legends about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

She felt at ease with the subject that was not well known, and when she photographed her freaks, they felt she could open up to her. Whenever Arbus talked about her life and work, she enthuses about the subject, rather than the image. In fact she was known to be fairly unconcerned about the notions of composition and even printing. ‘I do have a feeling for the print but I don’t have a holy feeling for it.’  She told her friend Joel Meyerowitz once ‘this is too much for me, Joel, this camera. I’ve got to put it down.’  She would often use flash during daylight, as it prevented her subjects screwing up their face, and gave her a clearer picture of their features.

Her greatest asset was that her natural curiosity towards her ‘freaks’, a genuine interest, meant that she could be more intimate with the subjects, and get a close in, telling picture, Joel Meyerowitz observed that ‘Diane was an emissary from the world of feeling. She cared about this people. They felt that and gave her their secret.’

Near the end of her life, Arbus embarked on a series of images in a mental institution. She had always found the way to get the subject to open up to her with gentle persuasion, then let them ‘speak to the camera with their inner self, that’ the thing to photograph, not the surface only, because who cares, you’re going to get the surface anyway.’  The problem with the mentally handicapped people, Meyerowitz theorised, was that ‘the inner self was closed to her…these people were impenetrable, and I think it must have made her frantic to be on the outside like that with her subjects’ . Patricia Bosworth concurred, saying ‘Arbus had lost the clarity of her vision. She had become distraught. Whatever belief in life she had ever had was now gone. Finally, all that was left was despair…’  Arbus committed suicide shortly afterwards.

At the other end of the spectrum emerged the German photographer Thomas Ruff, who had studied under the husband and wife team, the Bechers. On more than one count Ruff’s images are redolent of Bertillon’s, in that they are identification style images. Ruff became interested with portraiture as a mode of surveillance, and identification, influenced by what was happening in the then East Germany, and his deliberately non-descript portrait are attempts to convey his views to a larger public. They are not so much portraits but statements, and are aided in this by not having to delineate the sitter. He also averred that his photographs are impersonal and do not attempt to explore the notion of soul because he believes that a human has too many layers to be represented in a photograph, and that he personally can only capture the surface, another view of Bertillon. If Ruff is right about the surface being the only part of a human open to us, what purpose does a portrait actually fulfil?

We must also bear in mind, that in discussion regarding the human soul, we have to consider the notion of soul, which at its heart is a religious concept. Dualism was the belief that the human body and soul were two separate elements and ‘preserved the notion of a self capable of existence after physical death, which is crucial to the efficacy of portraiture as re-presentation.’  This leads to an interesting paradox. With all the scientific breakthroughs surrounding photography in the nineteenth century, especially the theory of evolution, which more or less precludes the existence of a God, the traditionally held belief in creationism was being eliminated. However, these new scientific beliefs sometimes contradicted themselves. This is apparent in the physiognomic belief that left-handed people were in league with the devil, a belief that survived into the twentieth century, after the theory of evolution had been almost universally accepted. But in a steadily less religious and more scientific society, how can photographers now believe in ‘capturing the soul’? A parallel belief, that the personality is the actual basis for our belief in the soul had to emerge, and that belief is the one that remains to this day.


 Chapter Four: What is Portraiture?


I have attempted in this essay to look a little deeper at the notion of portraiture throughout the ages, and some of its artistic high points, but where does the art stand now at the start of the twenty-first century?

There are many elements to a portrait. Should it resemble the person’s character? Should it even resemble the subject physically? I mentioned in my introduction The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and the relevance of a portrait in that particular tale. I feel the lifespan of the portrait in the story stands as an allegory for portraiture itself: when the painting is created, it is an accurate representation of the subject which viewers find remind them of Dorian. Over the next eighteen years, however, the portrait becomes the visualisation of Dorian’s soul. We can see his inner character in the painting. After Dorian dies, the portrait reverts to its original self; a document of the subject, but we cannot tell much about the person’s psyche, as everything has changed. Dorian is unrecognisable physically and mentally.

This, to my mind is an important element of portraiture. I have looked at the notion of the soul in portraiture as an established school of thought, to find if the inner character can be represented in two dimensions, frozen in time, and I believe it can. A person can look at an image of someone they know of, and claim that it captures them perfectly. But I feel the important qualifier is prior connection with the subject, the important factor in recognition is knowledge of what that person was like, in order to say the image accurately captures their presence. An important example of this is Yousuf Karsch’s portrait of Winston Churchill. Karsch wanted to capture the bulldog spirit Churchill had displayed during his premiership of Britain during the Second World War, but couldn’t think how, until he came up with the idea of stealing the cigar the M.P. was smoking. Churchill’s indignant expression in the resulting photograph has long found recognition from people who didn’t even know Churchill, but have only heard of his demeanour. This raises further interesting points: if portraiture requires the subject’s soul to be displayed, then it demands recognition, and for recognition, it requires an audience with knowledge of the subject.

What then, when a portrait, during its life, finds itself with an audience that has no knowledge of the subject, and there is no one to give them insight, as a picture does not age as we do. If the portrait was intended to put across the character of the sitter, and there is no one who can confirm or deny our suppositions, what purpose does the image have? I believe then, that the former portrait becomes instead, a document. A document that tells us about the social conditions at the time, through looking at the area of the image around the face, the clothes the person is wearing, any elements of foreground and background, and secondly, what the context of the image was.

We already apply this reading of portraits to the multitude of images taken in the boom period experienced by the high street photographers during Victoria’s reign. It would be impossible for us to read anything into these images of families dressed up to the nines, because, although they were undoubtedly worthwhile to the subjects, they mean nothing to contemporary viewers, a century later, in a non-corporeal sense. We can however, use them as evidence when we analyse the boom of photography in the nineteenth century. We can use them to garner how families dressed, or more information about photographic practices of the time. In many cases, the portrait then becomes more useful than it was before.

Diane Arbus’ image Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade is a strong example of this. When the image was taken, it stood alone as a portrait of a young boy, displaying his beliefs. Arbus would have no doubt been fascinated by the sight of a young man, still in his teens, advocating a war that would little doubt involve his conscription, and by his partisan appearance during the year of the summer of love. For people who knew the boy, it would exist as a portrait of someone they knew and loved, and it would have varying degrees of accuracy, depending on how well they knew him. For the viewing public, it would be a document, a statement, and an observation. Even observed at the time of the portrait’s production, we could have guessed if it was imbued with the boy’s soul, but we would not know how accurate we were. We would probably ask questions about his personality, based on the image. When we view this image now, with the benefit of hindsight regarding the Vietnam War, the questions we ask as observers are different to the ones we would have asked then. What kind of man did he grow into? Did his views on the war change? Was he involved in Vietnam? Undoubtedly, the status and meaning of the image has been in transition.

How relevant is a picture of another person these days? Increasingly, documentary photography is coming into its own, covering the current events we seem to crave. With the further development of faster and faster methods of data transferral, we seem to be constantly recording the world around us. Even in art, since the late nineteenth century, new schools of thought have steered image –making away from the traditional and into the realms of the experimental. Increasingly, portraiture seems limited to glossy photographs of film stars, or pictures taken on APS cameras of friends and family. It seems portraiture has become an industry rather than an art form. Of course, in the context of the argument that a portrait should contain some element of the human personality, sometimes a picture taken with a compact camera of a friend can be more true to this ideal than a portrait painted by an expensively commissioned artist. But having said that, you would be expected to know your close friend more intimately than an artist and his subject.




Portraiture is a large part of our lives. We see images of other people every day, in many different contexts, and when many people look at a photograph, they are undoubtedly looking at a person, whether they know them or not. Portraits generally do try to capture something of the person, by accident a lot of the time, but it must be said that that is the true goal of portrait photography. An image of someone that captures only his or her outer body could almost be classed as a human landscape; exploring the topography of the face. I have also argued that this goal, unlike many others, has a stronger relationship with the viewer than many other genres. The portrait needs the fascination with facial features to enter existence. I think it is also important that the other side is noted, that when the photograph loses the personality it has been imbibed with, which it will do, when there is nobody left to recognise the subject, it does not become worthless, as it will stand as a document instead. To recap, if a portrait is to be a portrait, it must possess an element of the subject’s personality. Otherwise, it stands only as a document of a human being on their way through life.

Thus, the two most important elements in a portrait, which truly make an image a portrait of someone, are physical representation and an insight into the human psyche, character and personality. These are our modern day components of the soul, and what makes us individual. Continuing on this theme, it becomes clear to me that the true portrait has to make a connection with us on a certain emotional level, otherwise it’s just another picture.


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