A portrait is a depiction of a particular person, which aims to portray a physical likeness or to capture the individual spirit of a person. The genre of the portrait is ancient, and in Western Europe dates back to Roman, Etruscan and Greek traditions of portraiture. The portrait was a key genre from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and beyond, as wealthy and powerful patrons commissioned portraits as a way of asserting their status.
As well making a statement about the status or character of the sitter, portraits can also give us clues about the relationship between the artist and the sitter, or in the case of self-portrait, reflect on the process of art-making itself. From Van Gogh’s famous post-impressionist ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (1889) to Sarah Lucas’s ‘Self Portrait with Fried Eggs’ (1996), the genre can be serious or playful, and also explore issues of identity such as race, gender and sexuality.
Developments in portrait painting have followed formal innovations in art, reflecting the prevalent forms of the time throughout the 20th and 21st century. The contemporary portrait may use modern techniques such as analogue or digital photography or even video, but painting remains a favoured medium for artists wishing to portray the essence of a particular human being.