Art Term Tuesday: Portrait

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

In the simplest of terms, a portrait is a representation of a person. A self-portrait is a representation of the artist themself, like today’s #selfie. There are many generalities associated with portraits, for example, generally, portraits include the face and the person’s expression. Generally, a portrait is more staged than a quick, often candid, snapshot. Generally, the artist is trying to convey the personality of the sitter, or subject. Generally, the subject is looking directly at the viewer.  But rules were made to be broken, and generally it doesn’t take too long to find a portrait that doesn’t follow these “rules!”

Artists have been drawing people since art as we know it began, but early drawings don’t always identify a particular person. The first representative portraits are of pharaohs from Ancient Egypt and rulers of other Indus River Valley civilizations, some from around 3,000BC. “Regular” people, or non-royals, first began to have their portraits painted between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD for their funeral mummy. Only the rich and powerful throughout history could afford to pay an artist for a grand portrait or more than one portrait, so people saved their money to pay for a funeral portrait so no one would forget what they looked like after their death.

Styles of portraits have varied across the centuries, with some people wanting their representations to be as true to life as possible even if they weren’t all that flattering, while other people wanted their portraits to show them at their best or even better than their best. Early portraits were of rulers, and if the ruler could look powerful, strong, and god-like, all the better! Their subjects were unlikely to know the idealized portrait wasn’t true to life, never having seen their ruler in the flesh. Looking closely at the portrait is the job of the artist, something contemporary artist Joel Daniel Phillips finds fascinating.

New to San Francisco and his neighborhood, Joel began to learn about his new home by approaching people on his block to take their photographs for his large-scale charcoal and graphite portraits. He looks closely at the people he meets and talks with them when he takes their photograph, learning their personalities and histories to better convey their essence in the portraits he creates. His portraits show people who are far from rulers, they are people who are down on their luck, homeless, or dealing with life’s hardest curveballs. Joel has turned these initial portraits of people he encountered in his neighborhood into a body of work of nearly 100 portraits, people from all around the country, including here in Fort Wayne with the portrait Suzanne Galazka.

The drawing of Suzanne takes shape. The artist has drawn in her hair, the top of her face, and her glasses while the rest of her remains in sketches, waiting to be completed.
Day one of “Suzanne Galazka”. Joel Daniel Phillips, American, b. 1989. Suzanne. Charcoal, graphite, and ink on paper, 2019. Museum Purchase, 2019.78. Photo courtesy of Joel Daniel Phillips.

Portraits aren’t just drawn, painted, or sketched, although those are often the mediums, or material processes, we associate with them. Portraits also don’t have to be realistic. Looking through the works on display at FWMoA now you will see dozens of different portraits, like Picasso’s Tete de Femme, Hung Liu’s Black Madonna, and Richard Lindner’s Red Head. Picasso’s print is a portrait, but on the spectrum of recognizability, it’s closer to an abstract version of any woman. You might recognize the subject by her hairstyle, her pointed nose, or long neck, but she is not easily identifiable. Liu’s is more realistic, someone with distinct and unique features that identifies her as a specific person, not an abstracted female, like Picasso’s. Lindner’s is a midway point between the two, stylistically abstract but still recognizable.

Looking at the student work in the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, there are many fine portraits, all different. Hailey Teeguarden used an unconventional material, cardboard, to create this piece she calls Halsey. I particularly enjoy how she’s conveyed her subject’s hairstyle.

Another portrait that stands out among the rest is Alyvia Luong’s Camouflaged Beauty, which is an excellent example of how a photograph becomes a portrait rather than just a candid snapshot. Previously, we talked about generalities in portraits, and we can see one of them played out here: this is a staged, or posed, photograph, as the subject looks directly back at the viewer. What sets Luong’s work apart, though, is the lighting treatment used to convey something more than the physical reality of the subject, perhaps her fiery personality or her warm heart. Compare this to Logan Carrico’s photograph Jonathan. He is not looking at the viewer, the composition doesn’t appear staged, but we still get a sense of his unbridled personality, a glimpse of who the subject is. All are versions of the same portrait, but they vary from the general “rules” of classical portraits in different ways.

The general rules we defined in the beginning have been followed closely, broken, revisited, and redefined with each passing generation. But representing a person means more than showing their physical facial features. It can mean using symbols, objects, and signs. Look at this piece by Sarah McKendry, called Entitlement. There are no faces but the viewer can still guess who might wear these shoes and owns these objects. The eyelash curler hints that the collection of objects in the right half of the image belongs to a girl, along with the makeup and necklace. The photograph in the left half hints the person described here cares a lot for family, while the keychain hints at an Italian connection. These people are represented by the things they own, perhaps a more apt description of a person than any facial expression. The “rules” here were broken, but the spirit of this portrait is as intense as any other, even if we never see the subject’s face.

A photograph of dual possessions: on the left, Vans sneakers, a watch, keys, pocket change, and a cheap phone; on the right, Adidas sneakers, an iPhone, a crumpled 20, a key fob carkey, and expensive make-up products.
Sarah McKendry, Grade 11, Entitlement. Photography. Carroll High School.

Want to see the portraits Kaitlin discussed in real life? Come visit us Tuesday-Sunday, with extended free hours on Thursday nights from 5pm-8pm!

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