What is a portrait?

What is a portrait?

Portraits can take many forms. Traditionally, the main function of a portrait was to convey the character of the sitter, which was often closely linked to a faithful representation of the subject’s physical appearance. A close reading of visual elements, such as facial expressions, poses, gestures, hairstyles, clothing, accessories, and background settings, help viewers understand how the sitter wished to be presented and remembered. Whether a lowly shepherd, a mythological character, or a powerful queen, the subject’s real or assumed features become fixed in time, assuring their fame for future generations. Portraits, however, are not as straightforward as they seem. As time progressed, artists began to play with the concept of faithful representation, creating new, intriguing forms of portraiture, ranging from conceptual works that focus on surprising aspects of the subject, to works that many would not immediately recognize as a portrait.

In this cardstack, explore works from the Blanton’s collection that range from conventional portraiture to surprising representations in contemporary art. Do these works reinforce or challenge your idea of what a portrait should be?

Byron Kim (La Jolla, California, 1961–Brooklyn, present) Synecdoche, 1998 Oil and wax on twenty panels Michener Acquisitions Fund, 1998 1998.77.1/20-20/20

Unexpected Forms of Portraiture

From Byron Kim's Synecdoche that replicates the skin color of twenty individuals, to Sonya Clark's portrait of Madam C.J. Walker made entirely out combs, the following artworks approach the portrait in unconventional terms. Rather than depict straightforward, figurative representations of individuals, these artists use unexpected materials, approaches, and techniques to represent their subjects.
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Portrait of Gregorio de Viana Unidentified Artist Circa 1760- 1770? Oil on canvas Object: 43 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. Framed: 76 x 64 x 2 in. PL2016.49

Real People: Identity Construction

Portraits are more than plain representations of people. They are complex artifacts that display how individuals interact with the world.
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Anonymous Saint Bernard, 15th century Oil, tempera, and gold leaf on wood panel Gift of Charles and Loretta Marsh, 1984 1984.105

Imagined Likeness

Throughout history, there are many instances where exact descriptions of how people looked did not survive. However, even when the
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Tavares Strachan Panchen Lama from The Constellation Series, 2011 Lightbox Promised gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2014 PG2014.3

Forgotten Histories

Among the traditions of portraiture, one of the most solemn is that of the individual lost to time or history.
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