What is a portrait?

According to Wikipedia (Remember, Sheldon!), “a portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.” Wikipedia

According to painter Maggi Hambling “A portrait is a sort of visual conversation. The subject catches the eye of the viewer and a kind of confrontation occurs.” Hambling’s “Self-Portrait 1977-78” is one of the most popular portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Our friend Beatrice thinks the NPG is wonderful. Unfortunately, I can’t share her enthusiasm. There’s nothing wrong with the NPG per se, I just want to know where the National Landscape Gallery and the National Still Life Gallery are. Why is there an art gallery devoted to just a single genre of art?

The reason I asked my original question is that on Monday (7th May) Radio 3 are having a Portraits Day. For those who are not aware, Radio 3 is a British national classical radio station. I suppose “or other artistic representation of a person” from the Wikipedia definition can cover musical portraits such as Elgar’s Enigma Variations dedicated to “friends pictured within” starting with his wife and ending with a self-portrait.

According to Mark Hudson’s interview with Radio 3’s controller Roger Wright in today’s Daily Telegraph, “if painters have multiple means at their disposal – colour, texture, different kinds of brush marks – to evoke the idea of a person, surely composers can do something similar with energy, speed, density of orchestration, long flowing lines and more jagged, rhythmic phrases.”

Hudson continues “if painted portraits try to capture the sitter in a moment in time, music can convey changing moods and a sense of the composer’s experience of the subject.

“In recent times the painted portrait has moved closer to the musical portrait, as artists from Picasso to Francis Bacon have adopted multiple viewpoints breaking down traditional notions of time and space in works that are as much about the artist’s feelings towards the sitter’s appearance.”

Piccaso’s 1938 Portrait of Dora Maar

Hudson’s report concludes with another quote from Maggi Hambling. “I never think about likeness. That just happens. A portrait, whether a painting, a poem or music, is all about getting the spirit.”

About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website johnpindararts.weebly.com
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9 Responses to What is a portrait?

  1. ms6282 says:

    “Why is there an art gallery devoted to just a single genre of art?” i.e. the portrait.
    I guess the answer is that the gallery isn’t about the art, but the portrait, if that makes sense! I always think that the National Portrait gallery is, in many ways, a more highbrow version of Madame Tussauds ( where you don’t go to admire the art of the wax sculptor but to gawk at the celebrities and comment on how lifelike they are (or not)).

  2. clinock says:

    I really like the playing with ideas about ‘What is a Portrait’ – It’s almost as multifaceted as ‘What is Art?’…In some sense every piece produced by an artist is a Self Portrait. The conversation that occurs between the artist, the model and the media is a three way chinwag – the model, in the end, is no different than a still life or a landscape for the artist – except – the model is a living human being who shares concepts of what life is with the artist. These concepts influence the conversation…

    • Certainly the concept of a portrait is far far wider than simply a painter producing a realistic 2D representation of a sitter. I’m glad sometimes that a bowl of fruit can’t say “I don’t look anything like that!”

  3. Maybe they’re just sitting there smirking!


  4. Pingback: Portraits again | notes to the milkman

  5. Pingback: What Is A Landscape? – Two New Exhibitions In Bolton | notes to the milkman

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