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. 

Select your favourite portrait on display. Now answer the following questions:

  • What is your first impression of the painting?
  • What is your first impression of the sitter?
  • What is the sitter’s facial expression or body position? Try re-enacting this yourself – how does it feel?
  • What are they wearing? What would it feel like to wear the clothes they have on in this portrait?
  • Would you like to meet this person – why or why not? What would you ask them?
  • How might you describe this portrait to someone who hasn’t seen it? Is it realistic or distorted in some way? What materials and techniques has the artist used?
  • Are there any clues in the background of the work that might tell you more about who this person is?
  • Time to read the wall label. When was this painting made, where and by whom? Does this help you build a picture about the work? Perhaps you could research a bit about the time and place this work was made.
  • Look closely. Undertake a series of small observation drawings perhaps using a view finder. Zoom in on areas you find interesting. Activities like this help to develop our observation skills.
  • Based on this information and your observations, what do you think the artist is trying to communicate about their subject?
  • Imagination: Write a story about the person depicted in this portrait.
  • Back in the classroom find another work of art by the same artist. How does this work compare to the one you encountered at the Gallery?
  • 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?
  • In 1839 the first photograph of a person was taken. Despite the invention of photography, artists continue to paint portraits. Galleries often hold portrait prizes, such as the Archibald Portrait Prize. Official portraits of the Head of State, Governor-General and Prime Ministers continue to be commissioned for the Historic Memorials Collection at Australian Parliament House. Why do you think painting continues to be used in portraiture?
  • 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.
  • Challenge yourself to create a self-portrait without using your face. Is a portrait still when it doesn't show a face?
  • Is a painting or a photograph of a pet or animal still a portrait? Create a portrait of your pet or favourite animal.
  • Create a portrait using collage, images and text of your favourite person in the world (you don’t have to know them).

Installation view of Gallery 13

For Teachers: Learn more about the collection

This curator talk will take you through highlights of AGSA's permanent collection exploring a variety of works of art, helping you to prepare for a self-guided visit to the Gallery. The themes and works discussed will also provide you with some alternative ideas for teaching portraiture in your classroom. Below are examples of some of the works of art mentioned during the talk.

Facing the Collection

The art of depicting a person, whether painted, drawn, photographed or sculpted, represents an attempt to capture a likeness – one that may be physical, psychological or even spiritual. In the past, many portraits were made for memorialisation, to remember the dead – and historically speaking, some people were considered more memorable than others, with likenesses of the wealthy, white, powerful and privileged outnumbering those of their fellow humans.

Below are a selection of portraits from AGSA's collection to complement Archie 100 and Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits. Far from being encyclopaedic or historically exhaustive, the selection highlights works of art from the twentieth century and shows the challenges and opportunities posed to painted portraits with the invention of photography in the century prior. Artists were liberated from accurately recording their sitters’ physical likenesses, as this could be more easily achieved with a camera, and as a result portraiture became more engaged with the psychological dimensions of the subject.

For many centuries, women artists immersed themselves in self-portraiture, not as a reflection of their vanity or self-interest but largely due to their exclusion from formal academic art training. By being denied access to life models, they turned to themselves – an inexpensive and ever-ready muse – and as a result they have left a compelling lineage, traces of which appear here.

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

This education resource has been written in collaboration with Tansy Curtin, Elle Freak, Dr. Belinda Howden, Kylie Neagle, Leigh Robb and Dr. Lisa Slade.