History of Portraits in Art: Interesting Facts About Paintings and Portraits

This entry was posted on August 22, 2023 by Gauri Thoyakkat.

History of Portraits in Art

Portraiture is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of art, dating back to ancient times. Throughout history, portraits commemorated individuals, captured their likenesses, and conveyed their status and personality. From the earliest cave paintings to the modern era of photography and digital art, portraits evolved and took on new meanings and techniques.

In this article, we will explore the rich history of portraits in art, tracing their development from the early days of Egyptian and Greek art to the Renaissance and beyond. The article also discusses the famous portrait artists of each era that contributed the most to the evolution of this art form.

What is Portraiture?

Portraiture is a term used to describe the art of creating a portrait. Portraits are a representation of an individual with the focus on their face and body, mainly above the bust area. Throughout the years, many artists used mediums like paintings, sculptures, photography, etc., to create their own portraits of themselves, their loved ones, or notable personalities.

No matter whose portrait gets made, the main goal of portraiture is to capture the essence, personality, and physical likeness of the subject. Various artistic techniques, such as painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, or even digital media, are regularly used for the purpose of creating portraits, but the goal remains the same.

M.S. Rau Antiques

Source: M.S. Rau Antiques

A good portrait, no matter in what medium it is, should be able to communicate a sense of the character and personality of the subject. Similarly, a portrait should be capable of conveying the mood and emotion of the moment captured.

The subject of a portrait is often either posed or candid and formal or informal based on what the desired effect is of the artist.

Portraiture has a rich history dating back to ancient times. It continues to be an important genre of art even today in this contemporary world. No matter what era a painted portrait belongs to, most of them aim to commemorate historical figures, celebrate a person's life, document modern culture, and capture the beauty and diversity of the human form.

The History Of Portraiture: From Ancient Ages To The 20th Century

Portraiture, and the art of creating portraits representing people, has a rich history spanning thousands of years. We can sketch the evolution of art, society, and technology by studying and analyzing the earliest cave paintings to the photographic portraits of the 20th century.

In this section, we will discuss the evolution of portraiture by looking at what portraits stood for in the various ages of visual art history.

Ancient Portraiture

Art historians dated portraiture back to the pre-historic era, even though only a few pieces of evidence survived the test of time. There is proof of portraits that reveals the practice of creating them in various forms in ancient Mediterranean civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Such evidence points out how portraiture was the medium they used to depict prominent individuals, such as rulers, leaders, and gods of their time. In ancient Egypt, especially in the art of ancient civilizations like the Fertile Crescent, portraiture was the way of portraying and worshipping gods or rulers. They primarily created portraits for their different religious and funerary purposes.

Ancient Portraiture

Source: CNN

If we notice the different ancient Egyptian art and portraits, we can find that they depicted pharaohs in a stylized manner to present them as idealized and youthful. Those folks strongly believed portraits allowed the deceased's soul to recognize their physical body in the afterlife. Archeologists and art historians believe that this is the reason why tombs often include portraits of that particular deceased person.

In ancient Greece, too, they made portraits for similar purposes. They used portraiture as a medium to honor prominent citizens. They created such portraits using mediums like sculpture, painting, and coins.

Art enthusiasts still honor and admire ancient Greek portraits for their attention to detail. Artists of the time that lived in Greece put a lot of effort into creating a picture of their subjects with realistic-looking physical features and characters.

In ancient Rome, prominent artists of the time created portraits to honor important figures, mainly Roman emperors and military leaders. Roman portraits were the most realistic among all the other ancient paintings of different civilizations. Their portraits are more realistic than even that of the Greeks, with an accurate depiction of the subject's physical features.

ancient Egyptian art

Source: Wikipedia

The ancient portraits that were left for us to admire reflect the social, cultural, and religious values that existed during the time. Their portraits play a significant role in helping us understand their desire to commemorate and immortalize influential individuals through art.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

While the names of particular successful portrait artists that lived during the ancient period are unavailable, some important portrait painters from different civilizations are as follows.

The Fayum Portrait Painters

The Fayum portrait artists created realistic portraits of individuals from diverse social classes and ethnic backgrounds in Roman Egypt. They painted portraits of people on wooden panels using wax paints that used to get placed over the faces of mummies as part of the burial process.

The Greek Sculptors

The Greek sculptors that belonged to the classical period created lifelike portrait busts of prominent individuals, such as Alexander the Great. Most prominent members of society commissioned these artists to create their figures. These were typically made of marble or bronze and depicted the emperor's head and shoulders.

Greek Sculptors

Source: ThoughtCo

The Etruscan Sculptors

The Etruscan Sculptors of ancient Italy created highly detailed and realistic portrait sculptures for religious purposes. They were known for their skill in metalworking, pottery, and sculpture. Some of the most well-known Etruscan sculptures are the Chimera of Arezzo, The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, and The Apollo of Veii.

The Roman Portrait Painters

Roman portrait artists are known for their realistic portraiture and mostly created commissioned portraits of emperors belonging to the Roman Empire and other prominent individuals. They were known for their skill in capturing the likeness of their subjects.

Indian Miniature Portrait Painters

Indian miniature portrait painters of the ancient Mughal Empire created intricate and iconic portraits and scenes on small-scale paintings made on paper or ivory. These intricate, colorful paintings depicted individuals from the Mughal court and scenes from everyday life.

Vogue India

Source: Vogue India

Medieval and Middle Ages Portraiture

Portraiture was less prevalent during the Medieval and Middle Ages than during the Renaissance periods. The existing portraiture from this period is more stylized and idealized than realistic.

More than portrait painting, the typical type of portrait made in this period was the 'portrait statue.' As the name suggests, they depicted a ruler or an important figure in a formal and idealized pose. Bronze and Stone were the common materials used to make these statues.

Middle Ages Portraiture

Source: Pinterest

After making a statue, they got placed in public spaces such as town squares or in front of government buildings. So, it is evident that such portrait statues served the purpose of exhibiting the power that rulers or important political figures possessed over the people.

Another type of painted portrait art that existed during the Medieval and Middle Ages was the illuminated manuscript portrait. These can be classified as religious portraits that contain secular and religious texts or manuscripts.

These illuminated manuscript portraits often portrayed prominent religious figures along with these religious quotes. Sometimes the subjects had highly stylized and unrealistic forms, with elongated limbs and exaggerated features.

political portraits

Source: The Guardian

While unrealistic religious or political portraits were the most common forms of portraiture that existed in the Middle Ages, there are still a few examples of naturalistic portraits. Tapestries, Stained Glass Windows, and Frescoes of the time had informal depictions of regular people.

These portrayals were more realistic as they mostly depicted scenes from daily life. Scenes such as farming, hunting, and courtly activities were the popular settings portrayed in such portraits of the Medieval period.

During the Middle Ages, Christianity grew to become a prominent religion with a lot of power and influence over the people and society. For the same reason, most portrait paintings made during the time were religious as artists shifted to creating them. Religious institutions became the major patrons of art during the time. Thus, there are many medieval portraits that portray Jesus, Mary, saints, angels, popes, and other major religious figures.

Portrait of a Carthusian

Portrait of a Carthusian
Source: Chairish

All the Medieval and Middle Ages portraits, like those of the Ancient Period, are great resources that provide valuable insights into the art, culture, and society of the time.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

Among the number of portrait artists that existed during the middle ages, the three most influential and famous artists of the era were as follows.

Cimabue (1240-1302)

Climabue was an Italian artist who pioneered the development of the Italian Renaissance style. He produced several religious portraits throughout his art career, including a famous depiction of the Madonna and Child.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

Giotto was an Italian portrait painter, and architect considered a pioneer of the Renaissance style. He was exceptionally skilled at painting portraits. His frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi include numerous depictions of St. Francis and other religious figures.

Giotto di Bondone

Source: SciHi

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter who is considered one of the most influential artists of the Northern Renaissance. He was exceptionally skilled at painting portraits, and his most famous work is the Arnolfini Portrait, which depicts a wealthy merchant and his wife.

Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464)

Rogier van der Weyden was another Flemish artist known for his religious paintings and portraits. His portraits are known for their emotional intensity and psychological realism.

Hans Memling (1430-1494)

Hans Memling was a German portrait painter who worked primarily in Bruges, Belgium. He was known for his detailed and realistic portraits, including the famous Portrait of a Unknown Man with a Letter.

Hans Memling

Source: Google Arts & Culture

Renaissance Portraiture

Renaissance portraiture is known for its exceptional naturalism and realism, attention to detail, and how effectively it captured the emotional depth of the subjects. During this period, artists were more oriented towards replicating the likeness of the subjects in a realistic and accurate way. This led to a considerable change in portrait art as it shifted from the stylized and idealized form prevalent during the Middle Ages.

Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465)
Source: Eric Edwards Collected Works

The Renaissance era saw the rise of individuals as the primary subject of great importance and great interest in art. The popularity of portraiture as a genre increased and gained mainstream appeal. Many iconic artists of the time, like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, were also prominent portrait artists.

The era was a period of great cultural and intellectual awakening, and portrait artworks played a vital role in representing this newfound sense of humanism and individualism.

The portraitures made during the Renaissance era were known for their naturalistic and realistic approach to capturing the likeness of the subject. Various techniques got used by artists of the time to replicate and capture the character and personality of the subjects.

The artists also used chiaroscuro to create a feeling of realism and depth. Various objects and symbols were also included in the portraits that were meaningful to the subject to show their personality in the portrait.

Michelangelo Merisi De Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi De Caravaggio
Source: Draw Paint Academy

The portrait paintings often were painted in full face, three-quarter view, or profile. The clothing and hairstyle of the subjects also got carefully rendered to convey the identity and social status of the subject.

Renaissance portraiture also played a vital role in the representation of women in art. The female subjects got often presented in a more graceful and idealized manner which reflected the existing social attitude of the time.

Even though these social attitudes were present, artists like Titian and Botticelli were able to capture the personality and individuality of the subjects even in these idealized portraits.

Renaissance portraiture was a crucial part of the history of portraits in art as its focal point was on the individual and was known for its attention to detail and realism. Prominent artists of the time, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, could replicate the soul of their subjects in a manner that often reflected the intellectual and cultural values present at the time.

Due to all these reasons, Renaissance portraiture can be said to be one of the most influential and enduring genres in the history of art.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

As mentioned above, many great portrait artists emerged during this period who could capture the human form and personality of their subjects with remarkable skill and accuracy. Some of the most famous portrait artists of the Renaissance period include:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the greatest artists of all time. His iconic portrait, the Mona Lisa, made him get described as the master of human form and expression. His paintings are known for their delicate beauty and psychological insight.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa
Source: CNN

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Another classic artist to come out of this era, Botticelli, is famous for his graceful and elegant portraits. They often feature a delicate sense of movement and rhythm. His most famous portrait is the Birth of Venus.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

A master of woodcuts and engravings, Dürer painted many portraits during his career, making him one of the best portraitists of the Renaissance period. His paintings are famous for their attention to detail and psychological depth.

Titian (1488-1576)

Titian was a Venetian artist known for his use of color and light in his portraits. His most famous portrait is the Venus of Urbino.

Venus of Urbino

Source: Wikipedia

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)

Hans Holbein the Younger is a German artist who spent much of his art career in England during the Renaissance period. Holbein was known for his accurate and realistic portraits that captured the sitter's character and personality.

Baroque And Rococo Portraiture (17th-18th Century)

The Baroque and Rococo periods are two of the most critical eras in art history. There was an extraordinary rise in the importance of portrait painting during this period. Portrait painting also underwent considerable changes during the time as Rocco portraits became more simplistic, charming, and delicate from the idealized, stylized, grandiose Baroque portraits.

Baroque portraiture started in the early 17th century and was known for its theatrical, idealized, exquisite style. The paintings made using this style were painted on a large scale and would showcase vibrant colors, elaborate backgrounds, and dramatic lighting. Baroque portraiture aimed to capture and convey the power and grandeur of the sitter, as these paintings often focused on the social status, political influence, and wealth of the subject.

Baroque And Rococo Portraiture

Source: No Film School

Diego Velazquez, a Spanish artist, was one of the most prominent Baroque portrait artists. One of his works, Las Meninas, is known for its intricate use of light, shadow, and grand scale.

His usage of contrasting colors makes him a famous artist. His works often had the subject in darker clothes and a lighter background which directs the eyes of the viewers to the face and figure of the subject.

The Rococo era followed the Baroque period and happened during the mid-eighteenth century. This marked a considerable shift in the style used for painting portraits. Compared to the grand Baroque paintings, the Rococo portraits had a more lighthearted, charming, delicate style. Rococo portraiture often showcased elaborate costumes, pastel colors, and floral patterns to convey the grandeur of the subjects.

The French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the most prominent Rococo portrait painters. Portraits painted by the artist like The Swing were known for their romantic and playful style. His works feature lighthearted subjects like young lovers set in beautiful ornate backgrounds.

Baroque paintings

Source: Artsy

Baroque portraiture emphasized power and grandeur, while Rococo portraiture focused on elegance, beauty, and simplicity. Often in Baroque portraiture, the subject would be seen sitting in a static pose. However, Rococo was more spirited and dynamic as he often captured the subjects in a romantic or playful moment.

Baroque and Rococo were two crucial periods in art history that marked a considerable change in the painting style. Even though both the art forms had a huge difference, it still holds a significant place in art history as it provides a peek into the change in the cultural and social attitudes of the time.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

As mentioned above, many talented artists emerged during the Baroque and Rococo eras. These artists produced a few of the most notable portrait paintings in history. Some of the most famous portrait artists of this period include:

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist considered one of the greatest royal portraitists of all time. He was the leading court painter of Charles I of England and is known for his elegant and aristocratic portraits.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Rubens was a Flemish Baroque artist known for his exuberant and dynamic paintings. He was also a talented portraitist and painted many famous figures of his time, including King Philip IV of Spain.

Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Velazquez, as mentioned above, was a Spanish Baroque artist considered one of the greatest portraitists in history. He was the court painter of King Philip IV of Spain and is known for his realistic and psychological portraits.

Portrait of a Lady at the court of Philip

Portrait of a Lady at the court of Philip IV of Spain
Source: Royal Collection Trust

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)

Chardin was a French Rococo artist known for his intimate and domestic scenes. He was also a talented portraitist and is particularly well-known for his portrait of his wife, Madame Chardin.

François Boucher (1703-1770)

Boucher was a French Rococo artist known for his decorative and sensual paintings. He was also a talented portraitist and painted many famous figures of his time, including Madame de Pompadour.

19th Century Portraiture

The 19th century was a significant era in portraiture history. There were so many social and technological changes that happened during this time. During the 19th century, the middle class had more access to portraiture, and a new medium called portrait photography emerged to capture likenesses. This new medium was very influential.

During the early 19th century, there was a change from the idealized and grandiose style in portraits towards a naturalistic approach. William Bouguereau and John Singer Sargent, famous portrait painters of the time, wished to capture the quintessence of the character and personality of the subject in a more authentic manner.

The portraits were more personal, and the subjects were shown in more natural poses. This reflected the change in the social attitudes of the time.

19th Century Portraiture

Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the mid-19th century, a new medium for capturing likeness emerged - Photography. The advent of this new technology made portraiture more accessible to the middle class, as it was cheaper.

In addition to being more affordable, photography was also able to capture the likeness of the subjects much more accurately and quickly compared to portrait painting. This aspect of photography increased its popularity, and many photographers became famous for their portraits.

A French photographer named Nadar was one of the most famous portrait photographers of the 19th century. The photographer took portraits of other prominent personalities of the time, such as Charles Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt, and Gustave Courbet. His portraits were known for their simplicity, primarily focusing on the face and expression of the subject.

most famous portrait

Source: Photofocus

Another famous portrait photographer of the era was Julia Margaret Cameron. She was an English photographer known for her portraits of influential Victorian-era personalities such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Julia Margaret Cameron was known for using a romantic, dreamy style, often using blurred edges and soft focus.

In the second half of the 19th century, a new movement emerged called the Realist movement. The idea behind the movement was to represent life in art in a more realistic and unidealized way. This movement greatly influenced portraiture as many artists, like Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, began to paint portraits to capture the sitter's natural appearance and demeanor.

The 19th century was a time that led to a lot of changes in portraitures. The invention and the rising popularity of photography made portraiture cheaper and more accessible for the middle class.

The portraits of the time were becoming more personal, reflecting the change in society and its attitude. The 19th century was a period of evolution for portraits as it paved the way for more dynamic and diverse portrayals of modern times.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

There were many famous portrait artists during the 19th century. Here are some of the most notable ones:

John Singer Sargent

Sargent was an American artist who spent much of his art career in Europe during the 19th century. He was famous for his skillful use of light and shadow. He also had a remarkable ability to capture the essence of his subjects.

Gustave Courbet

Courbet was a French artist who was known for his realistic style. He often depicted ordinary people in his paintings and was a leading figure in the Realist movement.

Édouard Manet

Manet was a French painter considered one of the founders of Impressionism. He was known for his portraits of fashionable Parisians and his scenes of modern life.

Édouard Manet

Source: Hyperallergic

Mary Cassatt

Cassatt was an American artist who spent most of her career in France. She was known for her paintings of women and children and was a prominent member of the Impressionist portrait movement.

Francisco Goya

Goya was a Spanish painter best known for his royal portraits of the Spanish royal family and scenes of war and social injustice. He was a leading figure in the Romantic movement.

20th-Century Portraiture

The world was changing a lot in the 20th century, and the art world was changing along with it. With the world of art changing, the art of portrait-making also evolved. There was a considerable shift and departure from the traditional style of making most portraits. Artists began experimenting with new styles, mediums, and techniques to capture their subjects' ethos.

20th-Century Portraiture

Source: Widewalls

In the former part of the 20th century, artists like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso rose to prominence as they began experimenting with cubism. Cubism was a revolutionary art form, the popularity of which increased during the period as it broke the traditional ideas of representation and perspective.

The portraits made using this style were often abstract and fragmented, in which planes and multiple perspectives were often featured.

The Cubist movement allowed for the growth and development of Western art and many modernist movements, such as Expressionism and Futurism. These movements also tried experimenting with newer forms of abstraction and representation.

The rise of Abstract Expressionism during the mid-20th century made the art of portrait-making depart further from the traditional style of portraiture. The Expressionist portraiture focused more on energy and emotion, over-representation, and likeness. The artists tried to capture the soul of the subject in a more intuitive and abstract manner.

Abstract Expressionism

Source: Skillshare

In the second half of the 20th century, more artists started experimenting with new techniques and mediums to create portraits. Pop Art, a movement that gained popularity in the 1950s, used consumerism and popular culture as the focus of their art.

Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol used this style to create portraits of famous pop icons such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monrow by using bright colors and bold outlines. Often, such portraits were produced in mass quantity, which blurred the line between fine art and commercial culture.

Photography as a medium for fine arts received the mainstream appeal, which allowed photographers such as Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus to create moving and powerful portraits of people from different strata of society. This allowed the artists to highlight the contradictions and complexities of human life and experience.

The 20th century was a significant period of art, especially portraiture, as it was a period of great innovation and experimentation. The artists were willing and hungry to push the boundaries of traditional styles and mediums by using new modern approaches and techniques to capture the quintessence of the subjects.

Portraiture witnessed changes from the fragmented and abstract style used by the Cubists to the gestural and expressive style of paintings created by the Abstract Expressionists and the mass-produced portraits made by the Pop artists in the mid-twentieth century. The twentieth century was a time of great diversity and creativity as it pushed the boundaries of traditional styles in the world of portraiture.

Famous Portrait Artists of The Period

Some of the most notable portrait artists of the 20th century, based on their popularity, recognition, and contributions to the art world, are as follows.

Pablo Picasso

The Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, is known for his avant-garde style and influential contributions to the Cubist movement. He painted several famous portraits, including Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Portrait of Dora Maar, and many self-portraits.

Pablo Picasso

Source: Wikipedia

Frida Kahlo

The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is renowned for her self-portraits that often depicted her physical and emotional pain. She remains one of the most celebrated female artists of the 20th century and gets associated with Surrealism and Magic Realism movements.

Andy Warhol

This American artist is famous for his pop art portraits that featured celebrities and iconic figures. His use of bold colors and repetitive images became his signature style.

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud is a British painter famous for his raw and honest portraits that captured the psychological complexity of his subjects. He is a realist artist and painted several notable portraits of his family and friends in a realistic style.

Alice Neel

The American artist Alice Neel is known for her figurative paintings, including several famous portraits that captured the essence of her subjects. Her use of bold colors and expressive brushstrokes made her an important figure in the American art scene.

American artist Alice Neel

Source: Smithsonian Magazine


The history of portraits in art spans thousands of years and has undergone many changes and transformations. From the early cave paintings to the 21st century, artists continually explored new ways to capture the essence of their subjects.

This article has discussed the history and evolution portraiture saw from the ancient ages to the 20th century. It also mentions the best portrait artists that existed during these periods, who significantly impacted the art form in their eras.

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