All about Portrait Painting

Why do Painters Paint Portraits?

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'British Museum

People have been making portraits of one another for thousands of years. Before we had mobile phones with cameras, or in fact any cameras at all, the only way to capture the image of another human being was through artistic mediums. For the ancient Egyptians, this might have been through sculpture and painted surfaces, the focus being upon capturing the spiritual essence of the person rather than any uncanny likeness. (See Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon').

The Potato Peeler (reverse: Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat) (1885) by Vincent van GoghThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

As societies evolve, so do the techniques by which they are documented. Generally speaking, the sitters who could afford to commission a portrait have enjoyed elevated positions of power and wealth, the chosen artists feeling obliged to flatter in their representations. 

Painters who refused to portray their subjects through such a rose-tinted lens wouldn’t get the work, therefore it is mostly these loosely factual works of art that remain to tell the story of our historical figures.  

The availability of art supplies boomed around the time of the Industrial Revolution, thereby allowing more impoverished artists access to materials and the middle and working classes began to see themselves represented. 

Time Covers -The 80S (1980-05-26)LIFE Photo Collection

The birth of a modern approach to creating art in the 19th Century saw that artists no longer felt compelled to produce stuffy portraits for the highest bidder, instead they enjoyed a freedom to depict sitters whom they felt closest to. Portraiture became an exploration into human psychology, with artists such as Matisse and Picasso playing with form and perspective in revolutionary ways. (See Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar on this Time cover). 

Ma Sœur (2020) by Donna Maria KellyPaintings in Hospitals

Now, with this exhibition, we see portrait painters from all over the world come together to document healthcare workers from afar – often depicting sitters who they have never met in person, using photographs sent by social media. 

Victoria (2020) by Nick FearPaintings in Hospitals

All manner of techniques are represented, the theme that runs throughout is the desire to give something back to the people who are working hard every day during a time of international crisis.

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