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What Is a Portrait?

A portrait, in art, is a painting or sculpture intended to represent the likeness of an individual or a group of individuals. Portraits may also be drawn, engraved, or etched. Painters of portraits frequently confine themselves to delineating the subject's head and upper torso. In sculpture a popular form of portraiture is the bust, which is a three-dimensional representation of the subject's head, neck, and shoulders.

A good portrait, like any fine work of art, blends the elements of form, color, texture, and design to produce a harmonious composition. In most cases the subject poses for the artist. Many artists, such as Durer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh, have done self-portraits.

Outstanding examples of portrait sculpture and painting were created in ancient times by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. However, it was not until the Renaissance that portraiture became an important part of Western art. In the 14th century, before the painting of portraits became common, likenesses of actual persons were sometimes included in conventional religious paintings. Among the great Renaissance masters who painted outstanding portraits are Jan van Eyck, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the tradition of portraiture was fostered by artists throughout Europe, including Durer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Frans Hals, Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and Velazquez.

Portrait painting was at its height in the 18th and 19th centuries. Painted likenesses of royalty, of the aristocracy, and of fashionable people in general were especially popular in England and France. The English painters Reynolds and Gainsborough and the French sculptor Houdon devoted themselves almost exclusively to portraiture. Other well-known artists of the period whose works include portraits are Boucher, Fragonard, Chardin, David, Ingres, Delacroix, and Courbet. Among American portraitists were John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Eakins. The development of photography in the 19th century brought a change in the style of portrait painting.

Rather than compete with the exactness of photographs, artists began to abandon the realism of traditional portraiture. However, portraits in the middle 20th century have once again turned toward realism.

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