A Historical Perspective
The roots of twenty-first century portraiture stem from European traditions which, themselves, were influenced by Egyptian & Roman perspectives.
Early on, over and above religious and story-telling genre paintings, commissioned portraits had one thing in common : they were all of one "type" : that which depicted societal status - the position of an individual painted. The name "Henry", in King Henry the VIII, was of little consequence. What mattered was the title "King", not the person. The portrait had but one goal : depict “His Majesty” at his most "Royal" - i.e. at his most powerfully rich, benevolent (or despotic) best - (whichever was the politically correct quality to have at that time).
Whether the subject was a Queen or Consort, a King, Pope or Countess, it was the position held which was painted. Human failings or attributes were of lesser consequence and likeness could but did not necessarily happen. What had to be depicted was the "value" of the subject’s position as it pertained to the “commissioner” of the portrait and/or the society of that day. Over and above power, portraiture also served to "publicize" the general wealth of a client (as in : having more money than).
Since the 14th century with its emphasis on religious iconography, European portraiture has continuously evolved - going from representations of “position”, to representations of “profession”, to today’s renderings of “person”. For all intents and purposes, portraiture has gone from being based on perceptions of What I Am to those of What I Do to those of Who I am.
Today, we commission a portrait of ourselves, of a loved one, a friend or colleague to celebrate their/our uniqueness. And with this freer perception of the“who I am”, a more open consideration of personhood has come to pass. With a less rigid ideation regarding “what or who we are”, we are more open to recognizing (if necessary to the purpose of a portrait) an individual’s contribution to their community, institution, corporation or society at large - over and above their "beingness". Thus the concept of official portraiture has survived all of these centuries because we now look upon a portrait subject as more than simply the reason why they were painted.
What Of The Contemporary Need For Likeness
Cameras have forever altered contemporary perceptions. Through the 20th and now 21st century, we have come to increasingly recognize "likeness" as a primary benchmark by which we communicate and share (or not) with others. In essence, "what we look like to others" (or think we do) has become a crucial twenty-first century connection characteristic. A portrait painter must keep this in mind if he or she wishes to survive in the increasingly rarefied air and prized practice that is portrait painting.
Nonetheless, "recognizability" should not be the single greatest focus in the creation of a portrait. To be successful, a likeness must be more than its physical self. It must have depth. It must speak eloquently to a subject’s personality and to a sitter as a stand-alone individual. In contemporary terms, and regardless of painterly stylistics, the “face” must offer more than someone's unique nose or ears.
Ironically, though, we do so prize being recognized. We selfie ourselves to death in the hope someone will know we exist. . . But then, what will it matter? In the distant future our "portraits" will for the most part be anonymous; where no one will care much for the 15 minutes of fame concepts we espoused. Centuries from now we will, through our portraits, become nothing more than the latest in a bland rendition of an enigma genre. . .
Or, wondrously, we might become that fascinating smile, that questioning look, that sad reminder of something, someone mysterious - those eyes in that unknown face that viewers gaze into rather than stare at - and all because of the same question which has been asked since the beginning of time; since the discovery of the first incredible portrait ever created : Who was she? Who was he?
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."