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What is portrait painting

Portrait painting is a genre in painting. The intent of the portrait is to depict the visual appearance of the subject. Historically portrait painting has memorized the rich and powerful, but over time also middle class patrons commissioned portraits of themselves or their family. Traditionally the portrait was painted, but today we find portraits done in all media, even video.

To be considered well done, the portrait should not only depict the outer appearance of the sitter, but also the sitter's personality and/or social position. Of course such is open to the artist's interpretation. This was the ideal as early as Aristotle, who defined art as representing "not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance" and Aristotle added that this was what "constitutes true reality". Aristotle's definition does not, however, help is separate "art" from caricature. Of course caricature depicts the subjects inner life by exaggerating the outer features, while art attempts to depict the inner while adhering strictly to the outer appearance. Modern art forms, such as cubist portraits, are difficult to define within this simple scope.

But in general, and historically, the portrait has been satisfied to represent the subject's outer appearance. This resulted in an overproduction of formal and stiff portraits. As Charles Dickens started: "There are only two styles in portrait painting: the serious and the smirk." Smiles are generally banned from portraits because they look ridiculous and are frozen in time; so the smirk was the closest to a smile the artist would venture. The eyebrows became the most utilized element of expression, while the rest was rather stiff. The result is that portraits always have closed mouths and open eyes, if not a stiff stare. The contemporary Danish master, Jan Esmann, did something new when he created a series of hyper-realist portraits with closed eyes and open mouths (see link below).

Creating a portrait can take considerable time and usually requires several sittings. Today portrait painters use photos as a source and this cuts down or eliminates the need of the physical presence of the model. Cezanne was extreme and required up to 100 sittings, but the average number required is about four. Traditionally the artist would make several drawings and present the model with them so the model could select the most desirable. Sometimes the artist would finish the portrait from such a drawing without requiring further sittings.

Since the model was required to pose for hours, it was considered part of the painters craft to be able to keep up good and pleasant conversation while working. Occasionally a sitter is not satisfied with the result. The artist is then obliged to retouch it or withdraw from the commission unpaid. The latter of course would incur humiliation. Some very famous artists have suffered the humiliation of rejection; Jaques-Louis David, for example, had his portrait of Madame Rcamier rejected. It was, however, widely celebrated at exhibitions.


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