The History of Portraiture: A Paintru Guide

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Abigail Pfriem

The history of portraiture is inextricably wrapped in everything it means to be human. The portrayal of a person - or people - has, for millennia, acted as political propaganda, shaped religious and social beliefs, and fostered collective opinion and imagination among communities. 

How a person is portrayed is as important as the who: think of Alexander the Great and you will be hard-pressed to picture anything but heroic, leonine hair and a serene expression evocative of Golden Age Greece. It was carefully planned artistic rendering, as well as an astute awareness of the history of Hellenistic art, that transformed Alexander from leader of men to demi-god.

The Art of Portraiture

Ancient Beginnings: Bust Portrait of Alexander the Great

Historically, portraits have the power to sway public opinion. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, flooded his territories with a prolific portraiture scheme - making the city of Rome a shrine to his image and placing his profile on coins that erupted throughout the Empire. His ideological stance: right finger modestly pointing to the heavens, left knee bent in an active, though not aggressive manner, the baby Cupid clinging to his right leg, solidified his position as the rightful leader of what would become the most powerful Empire the world had known.

Augustus' portrait aligned him both with the gods and the people; it made the public forget the political strife that led to the assassination of Julius Caesar and showed them a new beginning.

From the Classical era onward, portraiture continues to be synonymous with power play. The art form turned King Henry VIII into a symbol of imperial strength, and Queen Elizabeth I into a ‘mother’ of her country.

Exploring the Evolution of Portraiture

Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait With Thorn Necklace and a Hummingbird

Portraiture also bathes everyday figures in glory: the elusive, seductive smile of the Florentine housewife that is the Mona Lisa has proved itself a potent draw for many generations - evoking tantalizing power over viewers.

Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait With Thorn Necklace and a Hummingbird deals with the power of emotions, acting as a symbol of suffering as the subject faces the onlooker defiantly.

Portraiture has, for centuries, captured not just faces, but the world, emotion, style, and traditions of the time. One sliver of a moment in time captured to last a lifetime and beyond. It would be impossible to visualize much of history without our rich history of portraiture.

Three Types Of Portraiture Commissions

There are plenty of reasons to care about - and think about - a portrait commission. You will be joining a rich and historical artistic tradition! Paintru has come up with a custom portrait guide to offer both background on the history of portraiture as well as education into possibilities for your very own commission.

Portraits for Art’s Sake

As touched upon with Frida Khalo’s self-portrait, the treatment of human faces and bodies allows artists to explore the depths of the human condition figuratively. Here, there is less focus on accurate physical representation and more on emotional symbolism.

An In-Depth Exploration with Paintru  Portraiture

Francis Bacon's Walking Figure

The tradition of using portraiture as expressive art is said to have begun with Rembrandt's self-portraits, which forced viewers to consider the emotional depths of the pieces, on top of the subject. The cerebral angst created in Francis Bacon’s contorted, stretched human forms elevate portraiture to new artistic heights.

A figurative portrait is a fantastic way to establish a deeply personal connection to your commission, while also gaining an innovative piece of art. When choosing the photo upon which your portrait commission will be based, think about the moods and atmosphere you would like portrayed in your painting.

Unraveling the Story of Portraiture

Paintru Original Oil Portraiture Commission

You may choose to evoke dark, deep feelings, like Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon, or you may want to add a sense of allure like Leonardo.

Whatever your artistic aims, the Paintru team is always excited to discuss.

Tracing the Origins of Portraiture

Paintru Original Portrait Commission Featured by Cosmopolitan

The style of painting will also determine how your piece looks on your wall. An oil painting portrait will allow more opportunity for dramatic brush strokes, giving our Paintru artists the opportunity to choose which detailing they want to focus on. A watercolor portrait will be more ethereal - giving an impression of form, rather than structural certainty. To learn more about our painting styles, read more here.

Browse more portraiture commissioned by Paintru artists >

Portraits To Remember

There are various moments in life that afford special commemoration. Graduations, weddingsanniversaries, even vacations, deserve to be captured in a unique way. It is, of course, not only the events that warrant this special attention: it is the people in our lives.

From Past to PresentPaintru's Overview of Portraiture

A Paintru Portrait Commission

Photographs are a fantastic reminder of family and friends, however, transforming the people that matter most into one-of-a-kind artworks is an honor both you and them will cherish forever.

Learn more about remembrance portraits >

A Journey Through Portraiture

A Paintru Portrait Commission

Some of our favorite Paintru commissions have elevated special occasions into artwork. Just because this type of portrait is a more traditional take on portraiture, does not mean that you cannot experiment with styles and color schemes.

Paintru Tip: An artist-inspired portrait would make a great gift for an art lover. Research their favorite styles and painters before finding a photograph that captures the mood you want to portray. We recommend the Painterly or Renoir style for this sort of commission: you will receive an artful, emotive piece that strives for enough accurate representation to satisfy memory but commits to stylistic nuances enough to please the eye.

Paintru's Guide to Portraiture History

This Paintru Mary Cassatt-inspired custom family portrait was created based upon an old, low-res photo.

Paintru Tip: Looking for something artistic but also that retains the likeness of the subjects?

A popular portrait style choice is to request a portrait painting that is realistic in representing the subject but on an artistic background, such as an impressionist backdrop or one inspired by a particular artist's style. 

From Past to PresentPaintru's Overview of Portraiture History

This Paintru wedding portrait artwork commission was created based on the request for a Money-style piece with realistic representation of the couple.

Abstract Portraits

This is one for the adventurous among us! An abstract portrait will capture the essence of a person, without paying any heed to accurate portrayal of form. The results can be psychedelic, beautiful, and enticing.

Tips from Paintru Navigating the World of Portraiture

Pablo Picasso's Asleep

Picasso demonstrates his ability to embrace surreal portraiture in his portrayal of his mistress Marie Therese in his 1932 work Asleep. The intimacy is undeniable; the polarized, primitive blocks of red and green emphasize the woman’s calm - making her restful state soporific for the viewer. There is an organic element to her face - a throwback to ancient art in her simple profile and sideways lips - that renders his lover as delicately mortal.

Understanding the Legacy of Portraiture

Paintru Original 'Ghost Form' Abstract Custom Portrait Painting

Some of the best portraits from photos begin with a (not necessarily fully-formed) direction in mind, so be sure to discuss your vision with our team.

Navigating the World of Portraiture

Paintru Original Oil Painting Portrait Commission

As ever, we are thrilled to lead potential customers through the Paintru process to ensure that your painting commission is everything you intend it to be. Why not have a browse of our gallery for inspiration, or contact us to arrange a discussion about commissioning a custom portrait painting? At Paintru, we want everyone to own unique, custom artwork that they can treasure forever.