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Updated: Dec 6, 2023

The announcement of the 2013 winner of the Archibald Prize led me to ask the question – what is portraiture? The artworks making up the finalists for that year seemed to differ quite dramatically, so what defines a portrait?

Taking things back to basics, portraiture is any artistic representation of a person when the predominant features are the face and its expression, displaying a likeness, mood and personality of the subject.

Whether the portrait is a painting, a photograph, etching, lithography, video and digital media or a sculpture, a portrait is typically a composed image of the subject in a still position. Very often a portrait shows a person looking directly at the painter, creator or photographer. This is done to ensure that the subject successfully engages with the viewer of the work.

Portraitists often create their artwork by commission, either for public viewing or private collections. Portraits form an important record of state and family history and memories.

Initially portraits immortalised the wealthy and powerful, however over time it has become much more common for even the middle-class to commission works. Even today the commissioning of portraits is still popular with governments, organisations and families.

Portraiture is one of the oldest genres or styles of art dating back over 27,000 years with some of the earliest examples being those of Egyptians kings, emperors and funeral portraits (posthumous portraits) of their people. Peru’s Moche culture and ancient civilisation also produced portraits of their elite, priests and warriors. Portraits reduced the need for written references or symbols to identify someone. In fact, most cultures throughout the ages had portraiture to represent their people, from ancient Rome to the Chinese court.

While a portrait is a record of the subject’s features and expressions, inanimate objects may also be included in the artwork where they refer to the subject’s identity or reinforce the personality, mood or message.

Well known portrait artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Gustave Klimt, Claude Monet, Rembrandt, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh.

You can see all of the artworks and read more about the finalists and winners of the 2013 Archibald, Wynne, Sulman and Packing Room prizes here.

Note:  Art Gallery NSW ‘The Archibald Prize, first awarded in 1921, is Australia’s favourite art award and one of its most prestigious. Awarded to the best portrait painting, the Archibald Prize is a who’s who of Australian culture – from politicians to celebrities, sporting heroes to artists.’

Visit our Focus Art Class Pages to learn more about other styles of art – Landscapes, Still Life, Florals or Contact Ellen Michel if you’re ready to give portraiture a try for yourself. By enrolling in the Focus Art Class for Portraiture at Ellen Michel Art School you will receive expert tutoring and direction and be on your way to creating your own portraits in no time at all.

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