Portraiture: A Walk Through History

Portraiture: A Walk Through History

Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck


As long as people have constructed pieces of art, there have been portraits. For the first few thousand years, though, these portraits were mostly reserved for the elite. The subject had to be deemed important enough to be given the honour of having a work of art bearing their likeness – so this was generally only afforded to wealthy and important historic and religious figures.

Northern Europe led the way in realistic portraits; this greater realism was largely down to the finer brush strokes and oil colours used, while Italian and Spanish artists were still using tempera. Oil colours create more textures as they can be layered, and they also dry at a slower rate, giving the artist the chance to make changes more readily. In the Netherlands, Jan van Eyck developed this technique, which revolutionised art and quickly spread throughout Europe.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Leading German artists to embrace oil painting included Hans Holbein the Younger and Lucas Cranach. At this time, there were no first-class portrait painters, so artists such as Holbein were in demand. Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas Moore (1527) and Henry VIII (1540) propelled him into the limelight, whilst Cranach produced full-length commissions, which then soared in popularity.

One of the best known paintings to come from the Renaissance period is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Baroque and Rococo

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

By the time of the Baroque period following the Renaissance, some artists had also begun to show an interest in portraits of the common man. Joahnnes Vermeer and Georges De La Tour spent the majority of their careers painting scenes of middle-class life. The opposite of heroic portraits of nobility, their work focused on details of everyday life that may have been considered too banal in earlier times.

Although ordinary, anonymous individuals were being depicted, portraits were still largely commissioned by the wealthy, and portrait painting was considered to be a skilled trade – certainly not a hobby. For many years to come, status still played a key role in determining whether or not you would ever see a portrait of yourself.

The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough

Rococo artists were masters of the refined portrait, and they paid huge attention to the intricacies of dress and texture. Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy is one of the most recognised portraits of all time; he managed to achieve a shimmering effect on the boy’s blue outfit.

In the 18th century, female portrait painters were on the rise; the most well-known being Rosalba Carriera and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun.

A Cubist Self Portrait by Pablo Picasso

19th century

Attitudes began to shift in the mid-19th century, and mass production meant that anyone could buy oil paints and brushes and give it a go. Jean-Fracois Millet and Gustave Courbet were part of the Social Realism movement; they depicted not just simple scenes of middle-class life, but the poor and working-class, too. These pieces of work were not only portraits but political statements.

Artists became even more experimental, and none were more revolutionary than Vincent Van Gough and Paul Gauguin. The post-impressionists broke the mould in terms of traditional portraiture and explored all avenues of expression. This helped pave the way for artists at the beginning of the 20th century; most notably, Pablo Picasso.

Marilyn by Andy Warhol

20th century

While traditional portraits continued throughout the 20th century, abstraction and conceptual art really came to the fore. It wasn’t until the emergence of artists such as Andy Warhol in the 1960s that portraits made a comeback as a significant art form – this time as a statement on pop culture.

Today, portraiture is once again a vital genre in the art world. While there are plenty of non-traditional approaches out there, many are using traditional techniques to address modern issues, and artists are painting more portraits than ever.

Are you going to pick up a brush and try your hand at a portrait painting this week? The next question is: who will be your subject?

Why not take a look at our Art and Craft supplies to try out portraits for yourself at home.