Generally speaking, a portrait is an artistic representation of a human. A portrait can be a painting, drawing, or even a sculpture. Photography portraits differ from snapshots in that the subject generally poses for the photographer who works to capture a certain mood or expression on the face of the subject. Portrait art has existed since antiquity and continues to be a popular art form among artists and collectors.
Some of the earliest portrait art has been found in Egypt–specifically the Fayum District. The dry climate of Egypt helped to preserve many funerary portraits. The oldest portrait was actually discovered in France, however, and is 27,000 years old. Portrait art grew in popularity in ancient Greece and Rome. Romans of antiquity were particularly fond of portraiture in sculpted form. These classical works tended to be realistic in their presentation. By the fourth century, artists strove to create more flattering representations of subjects. A few ancient cultures of the Americas like the Moche of Peru also practiced portrait art; Moche artists created anatomically detailed likenesses of people.
More realistic portrait styles began to occur again in Europe during the Middle Ages and certainly into the Renaissance. Artists painted portraits on panels, illuminated texts, tombs, and other mediums. Particular works of portrait art have received some of the art world’s most renowned acclaim. For example, The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is generally regarded as the world’s most famous painting as well as the most well-known portrait.
Artists usually assign views to their portraits. They may represent a subject in profile or with a full view or three-quarter view. Some artists, like Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, are well-known for their self portraits. Some museums like the celebrated Uffizi Gallery of Italy, boast unique collections of artists self-portraits. Portraits have also been important to royalty and government leaders; their portraits have often become national symbols. Portraits of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and George Washington have achieved international renown.
Today, portrait art–both painting and photography especially–continue to be popular. Famous painted portraits include The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer, Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent, and Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt. Portrait art often evokes various artistic styles and may realistically or abstractly depict a subject. There are many famed photographic portraits too ranging from anonymous people to celebrities. Portrait art is collected by museums throughout the world and continues to be among the most popular art forms today.