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Portrait Painting

Portraiture is one of the most important subjects in painting. The discipline has changed significantly over time and has a fascinating history.

In antiquity, portraits were exclusively reserved for gods and the most influential people in society. Paintings and statues representing the bodies of the deceased were erected to decorate tombs in Egypt. They weren't realistic but rather had a very standardized way of representing each part of the body.

In contrast to the Egyptians, painters and sculptors in Greece, who had a more in depth knowledge of the human anatomy, were more concerned about realism. Many paintings from this period were done on vases and depicted gods and mythological scenes.

In the Middle Ages, most portraits were commissioned and featuring the most important people of the time; they were painted into religious scenes to emphasise their piety and faith, along with their social status. Once these works of art had been painted, they were often donated to churches and monasteries.

The Renaissance marked a renewal for the arts and portraiture was no exception. At the beginning of this period, artists were unconcerned about lifelike, realistic work. Sitters or the subjects represented were identifiable through the use of symbolic objects and the inclusion of their name.

Giotto revolutionized portraiture by imitating sculpture. He began to paint shadows, the subjects' expressions, effects of depth and began to use foreshortening. His knowledge soon began to spread.

Brunelleschi then introduced the idea of perspective in architecture, a concept which Masaccio adapted to painting. Italy became the center of portraiture and the most important Italian families (including the Médici family) commissioned artwork by the best painters. Competition between these painters led them to innovate and led them to produce some of the greatest artworks in history. The most famous is undoubtedly the Mona Lisa by Leonardo de Vinci.

In Northern Europe during the 16th century, Flemish art was restricted by iconoclasm during the Reformation, a period during the depiction of religious figures was banned. Artists turned to courtly art which was particularly popular during the following centuries. A century earlier, Flemish art had marked a turning point with Jan Van Eyck, the inventor of oil painting (the preferred painting technique of all Renaissance painters) and master of detailed realism, who influenced an entire generation of Flemish painters.

Over the following centuries, portraiture continued to be an art form for the elite of society, but painters grew increasingly concerned about depicting realistic figures and communicating the sitter's inner world and emotions. The 20th century saw a growing trend: subjects were not painted to look beautiful (sometimes to their great dismay).

At the end of the 19th century, Impressionist painters became less reliant on sculpted models and sculpture's influence. They left their studios and painted portraits outside, “en plein air." They captured the light as they saw it and painted groups of people together rather than in in several stages.

Modern and contemporary art of the 20th century saw anything go when it came to portraits. Artists like Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Lucien Freud turned traditional techniques and codified rules on their heads and developed their own unique styles. Discover portraits by Philippe PasquaRobert CombasGuangyu Dai and Erró on Artsper.

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