Learn more about portraiture

Portraiture is the art of depicting a person, whether painted, drawn, sculpted or photographed. Some of the earliest expressions of portraiture include ancient Egyptian tonal portraits, painted on the lids of mummy cases, and the life-size sculptural busts or death masks made in ancient Rome. Both examples describe an enduring set of ideas central to the genre: to memorialise a subject and to capture a likeness.

Across Western art history, portraiture has functioned as a record of powerful and important people, as well as illustrated biblical or mythological figures. Portraits were often commissioned – in other words, the artist was paid to make the portrait – and so artists long grappled with the idea of representation. Portraiture was thus frequently used as a symbol of power, wealth, importance, authority, virtue, status or beauty. 

From the mid-1800s, the advent of photography changed the nature of portraiture. Artists no longer needed to accurately record their sitter’s likeness as this could be more easily be achieved with a camera. As a result, a new world of expressive forms appeared and portraiture became more deeply involved in the psychological dimensions of the subject. The sitter changed too, with artists now representing their friends and family members, even strangers on the street. 

Think and discuss 

What is the purpose of a portrait? Look at different examples of portraits throughout history. How has portraiture has changed? What is the difference between a selfie and self-portrait?


The word ‘portrait’ arose in the thirteenth century and means to show a likeness. Create a self-portrait, that is, a likeness of yourself. How would you describe who you are by comparison with descriptions of you by your family or friends? What symbols might you use to represent yourself? Create a self-portrait that defines who you are?