What is a portrait?

Ask yourself the question, just what is a portrait? What answer would you come up with?  To many people a portrait is an image of a person taken to capture their likeness. However, if you start to think more deeply about just what makes a portrait, the answer is not so black and white.

Does a portrait have to have a person in it? Upon initial reflection , most of us would say yes, this is what defines a portrait. A portrait is defined as 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 the mood of the person. – as described on wikipedia

If we take this statement to be true, then why does a portrait have to have a person in it at all? If the aim is to capture the personality or mood of a person then this could equally be captured by photographing their personal effects, or just part of their body. The need for it to be a face on head shot is not paramount if the aim is to capture an essence.

Quentin Arnaud, a French photographer has taken this approach to his portraiture in his Shape series. His clever use of lighting means that although the composure of the photographs is that of a “traditional” portrait, the features of the subject absent from the final image. It is questionable whether these images do in fact capture the essence of the subject, but they do offer an alternate and interesting perspective to the question of just what a portrait should be.

An image from Quentin Arnaud’s ‘Shape’ series

So, if the subjects face is not imperative to create a portrait of a person, at what times may this not be true? The purpose for the portraits commission decides whether the subject should be represented literally or not. We need to consider just who has commissioned the work and what will be its usage. For example, a portrait that is to be used for Identification purposes, such as a passport photo, clearly has a very set purpose. That being, to identify the sitter, nothing more, we do not want to capture their essence or personality, only to represent their physical likeness.

If a portrait is commissioned to be more of a remembrance piece then the photographer would have more artistic license to be creative with how he/she portrays the sitter. The need for literal representation is not required and the purpose of the portrait is to capture the essence of what makes the person unique. This way of capturing portraits was used hundreds of years ago by the wealthy elite in order to create flattering records of how they looked.

In fact, it is said that Henry VIII, chose to wed Anne of Cleves on the strength of a more than flattering portrait that had been commissioned to present her to the King. Upon meeting her he was disappointed with how she looked in reality and ended up annulling their marriage due to non- consummation. In this case the portrait had a specific purpose to flatter the subject. It did not give a true representation of what Anne looked like, much to Henry’s dismay.

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1539

So to ask myself the question once again, What is a portrait? A representation of a person, either literally or in essence, using either the face , objects or parts of the body to portray their character or likeness, depending upon the purpose of the portrait.

This YouTube video asks the same question and is worth a look.


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