Redefining Portraits

Article excerpt

Recommended for Grades 3-6.

Objective and Overview

Students will consider both tradition and innovation in portraiture and examine how modern and contemporary artists have worked in the genre. The four artists discussed in this unit expanded traditional standards in portraiture to include expressive, abstract, suggestive, and analytical representations of people. Throughout this unit, students will learn that there are different parts to people: feelings, bodies, actions, and minds. An artist might focus on one or all of these aspects, or an artist might create a portrait as he or she explores a formalistic technique. Students will discuss the definition of portraiture as they expand their understanding of the genre and create their own portraits using ideas presented here.

Introduction: Transforming the Genre of Portraiture

Since ancient times, traditional portraits appeared in both public and private contexts. Portraits of political leaders decorated coins and state sculpture, and portraits of religious leaders adorned places of worship. Wealthy patrons posed for portraits to display in their homes. In all contexts, traditional portraiture was a form of historical documentation, recording the likeness of important individuals or presenting a sense of admirable character in an idealized portrait. In general, premodern artists created portraits to honor individuals and preserve their memory. Because the sitter's identity was so important in traditional portraits, some artists found the genre to be restrictive (Carr & Miles, 2001).

The demand for painted portraits began to wane after the daguerreotype was invented in 1839. Once photography became popular, painters no longer had a monopoly on portraiture. Photography was a cheaper and more convenient way of generating a likeness of an individual. Instead of abandoning portraiture altogether, painters began to explore new ways of representing people. They experienced artistic freedom as they no longer had to paint portraits that looked just like certain individuals. Modern artists explored the genre to create meaningful combinations of human and aesthetic elements.

In the late 19th century, U.S. artists not only studied traditional portraiture-they also gleaned inspiration from European avant-garde painting. The New York City Armory Show of 1913 rallied artists to create portraiture that was more "American," or less reminiscent of European traditional styles (Carr & Miles, 2001). Some artists, including Robert Henri, chose subjects because of their personality or physical appearance instead of their social achievements. For others, such as Karl Knaths, portraiture became less of an end in itself and more of a subject through which they could experiment with technique.

In the years immediately following World War II, a unique artistic style was developed by the Abstract Expressionists of the New York area. However, with their tenant of avoiding reality in preference for abstract form and formal exploration, these artists created a philosophical void between the avantgarde and the genre of portraiture, which, by definition, depended in part on the depiction of a person (Carr & Miles, 2001). A few influential artists, including Larry Rivers, worked to bridge this gap. In the 1960s, Pop artists found ways to be modern without completely abstracting their artwork. Contemporary artists, like Chuck Close, find ways to combine abstract and representational imagery.

Even in more representational forms of modern portraiture, there is a significant difference in expression compared to that of traditional portraiture (Carr, 1987). Modern and contemporary portraits are more informal, accessible, casual, and sometimes humorous expressions of human nature. Portraits show either people's appearances, characteristics, or actions, or they are abstracted compositions that only suggest a human subject. Modern and contemporary artists paint portraits according to individualized terms. …