The History of Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery has just turned 20 so we thought it was a good time to find out more about this historical artform and why portraits are still so popular.

Portraits are all about capturing people in a moment in time. There are whole galleries around the globe dedicated to portraits. There are portrait competitions like the Archibald Prize and probably the most famous painting in the world is a portrait.

According to the Lisa Slade, the Assistant Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, portraiture became very popular around the 13th century and that’s when the word ‘portrait’ was invented. So, it means to show a likeness.

That was during the Middle Ages (think medieval knights and stuff). After that came The Renaissance, around the 1500s, when artists like Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo did their thing. And people started to value art more than ever before.

Lisa says that usually the wealthy and the powerful had their portraits. Remember that there’s no photography to make a permanent image of yourself, so art served as a way of memorializing somebody. People who’d been dead for hundreds of years could still be living on the wall, if that makes sense.

As centuries went on, artists who weren’t getting paid the big bucks would paint loved ones, strangers, or their own faces instead. So, portraits were no longer just of the rich and famous. Then photography came along, and things changed again.

But are selfies portraits?

Lisa: You know, selfies are the ultimate portraits really. The ultimate self-portraits and they stand in a long line of portraiture. They’re not just something from the 21st century; artists have been making selfies for a long time, it was just more difficult in the old days. I think they are ever popular, because we are curious about ourselves, we are curious about each other, and we are curious about people who lived a long, long time ago. So, when you come into the art gallery, sometimes you can stand in front of a portrait that was made 400 years ago, it’s like time travelling.


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