portraiture: The Evolution of Portrait Painting

Portrait art has taken many forms; variation in styles and tastes has contributed as much to portrait art as to other modes of artistic expression. The Egyptians made sculptured monuments that were idealized portraits of their monarchs intended to grant them immortality. Such ideal likenesses were painted onto sarcophagi of lesser persons as well. In Asia this religious use of the portrait was widespread until the 15th cent., when realistic Western portraiture began to influence Eastern art.

In Europe the principal medieval portraitists known by name were the French court painters Fouquet and Limousin. Limousin's enamel portraits of Francis I are among the masterpieces of enamel work. The profile medals and coins of rulers, common in the early Renaissance, were greatly simplified likenesses, as were the profile portraits of donors within devotional compositions.

Master painters such as Pollaiuolo and Piero della Francesca excelled at the profile view. The Flemish and German masters developed the three-quarter and frontal portrait types, which allowed greatly increased contact between subject and viewer and enhanced the illusion of vitality. These conventions were soon adopted generally. The powerful equestrian portrait was developed in Italy. Verrocchio's sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni is an outstanding example of this genre, whose major practitioners also included Donatello, Titian, Uccello, Velázquez, and Bernini.

The portrait subject was eventually revealed at full length by such masters as Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, thereby increasing enormously the compositional possibilities. The Italian mannerists Bronzino, Pontormo, and Parmigianino expressed a cold splendor in their studies of the aristocracy. The Elizabethans favored the miniature, worn in a locket or set in an elaborate frame on a tiny stand. The foremost masters of this intimate and delicate form were Hilliard, Holbein, and Oliver.

The giant among all makers of portraits was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. In nearly 80 self-portraits he created a detailed psychological autobiography, from his joyous and exalted youth to his agonized old age. This series forms an introspective monument unique in art history. Rembrandt's portraits of others are equally penetrating. The principal baroque portraitists other than Rembrandt include Bernini, Hals, Rubens, and Van Dyck. They were followed by the French neoclassical masters David and Ingres; the Italian sculptor Canova; the English painters Hogarth, Raeburn, Lawrence, Romney, and, most notably, Gainsborough and Reynolds; the brilliant Spanish delineator of character, Goya; and the German Kneller.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Art: General