“Portrait” is a term used to classify a wide range of representations, but its meaning depends greatly on the context of its use. This article includes an etymological examination of the word and its various definitions, a consideration of several different interpretations of the portrait with historical examples, and a discussion of some of the issues that have developed in media studies around the idea of portraiture.

The word “portrait” comes from the Latin “portrahere,” translated as “to drag out, reveal, expose.” (Walker, 16). Wikipedia provides a good example of the common understanding to which these roots have developed. “A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even mood of the person.” The more rigorous Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives several distinct definitions for “Portrait,” each with its own variants. The first, and most common, echoes Wikipedia: “A drawing or painting of a person, often mounted and framed for display, esp. one of the face or head and shoulders. Also, an engraving, photograph, etc., in a similar style.” A variant for sculpture also appears: “A statue (full size or as a bust), an effigy.

Other definitions that appear in the OED allow for figural renderings not exclusive to human representation. The second meaning of the term is given as: “Something which represents, typifies, or resembles the object described or implied; a type; a likeness.” This definition is now rare, but it reflects a broader use of “portrait” beyond images of individual humans that is still prevalent in theoretical work on representation [See REPRESENTATION] (see further below). Another more common definition offered is, “a representation in speech or writing [See WRITING]; esp. a vivid or graphic description.” This definition encompasses the common use of “portrait” in describing representations outside of the visual and plastic arts.

While the medium of the portrait may change significantly, the presence of the portrait’s subject is an essential term in each of these definitions. The portrait is an artistic form, but because it implies a (usually human) subject, it is also a social practice. Art historian Richard Brilliant writes, in the context of human portraiture:
The very fact of the portrait’s allusion to an individual human being, actually existing outside the work, defines the function of the artwork in the world and constitutes that cause of its coming into being. This vital relationship between the portrait and its object of representation directly reflects the social dimension of human life as a field of action among persons, with its own repertoire of signals and messages. (Brilliant, 8)

A portrait is always of something (and usually of someone). It draws its authority from the real and unique historical presence of the subject whose image it depicts, and at the same time reflects on and affects that presence.

This critical relationship of the portrait can manifest itself in many ways, often very different from the realistic images often associated with the portrait.
Many representations of individual humans are more iconic [See ICON] than realistic. Depictions of the human figure are noticeably absent among the earliest examples of creative representation; the earliest images of humans in cave painting are simple icons. The oldest known image that takes a human face as its subject matter was painted over 27,000 years ago in a cave in Western France, but even there, realistic depiction was not the goal. (“The face reminded me of a Modigliani portrait,” said a townsperson on the image’s discovery in 2006) (The Times) he social effects of these early portraits is unknown, but iconic portraiture in general often presents the human image simultaneously with broader ideas and values; Egyptian funeral masks are among the earliest portraits known, and their idolized images are imparted with a whole cosmology of funerary symbolism [See SYMBOL). Similarly, Medieval European portraiture focused on demonstrating its subjects political position, social status, and especially religious convictions, often distinguishing individuals more by their dress and their association with significant objects than by likeness. Many medieval portraits were painted without so much as a physical description of the subject’s face. (Getty)

More realistic portraiture has often been used for longevity, preserving the image [See IMAGE] of individuals in defiance of space and time. Relatively realistic portraits in both two and three-dimensional forms were standard across the states of ancient Greece, even as other cultural forms were vastly different. (Walker, 17) Political representation has also long been a critical function of portraiture. Idealized images of Roman leaders were frequently stamped onto coins and medallions as a way of establishing and maintaining political presence, and statues in important public spaces also made a leader’s image part of daily life.

The modern tradition of realistic two-dimensional portraiture has its beginnings in the European Renaissance, when the official portrait of a monarch became his single authoritative image. A king frequently had a royal portrait artist who was exclusively responsible for defining how his likeness would be visually represented. Art historian John Pope-Hennessy writes that with this new interpretation of the portrait, the portrait-artist gained new powers as “an interpreter whose habit is to probe into the mind and for whom inspection connotes analysis” (Pope-Hennessy, 4).

Many issues in media studies center on this social relationship implied in the creation and use of the portrait, and especially around the question of how these relations change with historical and technological developments such as the inventions of film and photography. In his canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin links photography to the demise of the cult value of art and his idea of the aura [See AURA]: “its presence [See PRESENCE] in time [See TIME] and space [See SPACE], its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (Benjamin, 103) But he gives photographic portraits a special status.
[I]n photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It falls back on a last entrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait is central to early photography. In the cult of remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty. But as the human being withdraws from the photographic image, exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to cult value. (pg.108, second version)

Benjamin claims that old photographic portraits, even in their condition of reproducibility, resist the retreat of the aura because they directly reference the historical presence of real people in specific historical moments. The technological changes around the production the portrait have led to new interpretations of the portrait’s fundamental structure. Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard portrays the famous art dealer’s image as a mosaic of shaded surfaces, and Warhol’s printed grids of pop-culture portraits directly implicate the techniques of mass production.

The rarer definition: “Something which represents, typifies, or resembles the object described or implied; a type; a likeness,” and its more common variant “a representation in speech or writing [See WRITING]; esp. a vivid or graphic description,” have come to have real descriptive power in understanding literary representation. The title of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” directly parodies that of a visual portrait, and is a detailed study of an individual presence, a fictionalized version of Joyce himself. In a sense, Joyce’s novel is the opposite of a visual or plastic portrait. The narration is divided into five parts, each one focusing on a different moment in the life of its central character, the language, structure, and themes changing as the life of its main character progresses; instead of capturing a single image, the novel shows its subject in separate moments across time and space. Rather than any structural similarity to visual and plastic portraits, it is the idea of referencing the singular presence of a real person that supports Joyce’s interpretation of the portrait. The title of the novel has itself often been parodied, and its structure as a literary interpretation of the effect of visual and plastic portraiture has been vastly influential.

Using a similarly broad understanding of the portrait, the French semiotician [See ] Louis Marin provides a rigorous analysis of the political representations of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” monarch of France in The Portrait of the King. Through an exhaustive reading [See READING] of painted portraits, images on coins and medallions, poems and folk tales from the period, and even a map of Paris, Marin shows how the representational tactics through which the monarchy made its presence felt in everyday life were based on the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. The same mechanism, he argues, by which the sanctified bread becomes the actual body of Christ allowed the monarchy to maintain profound political power by establishing the king’s real presence where his physical body was absent. Marin’s study reveals a deep political significance in the representational structures [http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/structure.htm] apparent in specific manifestations of the portrait form.

A more recent example of the social nature of the portrait comes from visual anthropologist and occasional Marshall McCluhan collaborator Edmund Carpenter, in an essay on his experience with photographic portraits in New Guinea.
One day at a marriage ceremony, we offered to photograph the bridal couple. The groom immediately posed with a male friend. We re-posed him with his pregnant bride & year old child. It was instantly obvious from the behavior of everyone present that the picture he had requested would have been routine, whereas the picture we took was anything but routine. It was as if we had photographed, in our society, the groom kissing the best man. Some weeks later we visited their home and saw this photograph carefully pinned up. [...]All the power & prestige of the camera had been used in direct conflict with one of the deepest cultural values of this society. (pg. 145)
Carpenter’s story is a striking example of how the apparently natural role that the portrait plays in the representation of individuals is actually deeply social. In this account, the two aspects of portraiture as both a form of representation and a culturally conditioned kind of social practice are clearly visible; so are the tensions that can exist between those two aspects and the real social consequences those tensions can have. In all of its definitions, the portrait is as much an image of a social and historical way of understanding its subject as it is of the subject itself.

Harry Backlund


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 3, 1935-1938. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknapp Press of Harvard UP, 2002.

Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Carpenter, Edmund. “Portraits”. In Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

“Cave Face ‘The Oldest Portrait on Record’”. The Times. (London) 5 June, 2006. Available online http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article671755.ece

Getty. Faces of Power and Piety: Medieval Portraiture. 2008. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/power_piety/

Marin, Louis. The Portrait of the King. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

Pope-Hennessy, John. The Portrait in the Renaissance. New York: Bollingen, 1966.

Schneider, Norbert. The Art of the Portrait. Koln: Taschen, 1994.

Walker, Susan. Greek and Roman Portraits. London: British Museum Press, 1995.