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Fine art portraiture can be classified by media, subject or historical era. In addition to these more traditional classifications, there are other, more modern ways to define fine art portraiture, such as environmental portraits, which can be classified by their treatment of the subject and surroundings. Art is a constantly evolving field that allows for continuous innovations and new developments that arise as quickly as artists can explore and bring them into expression. This constant change brings about new interpretations of fine art portraiture and how it captures the living subject.
One type of fine art portraiture might be described according to the medium used to create it, such as modern photographic portraits that capture subjects such as celebrities, members of royalty, infants and newly wedded couples. Historically, fine art portraits have been created using oil paint because it was easier to manipulate and it dries slowly enough that an artist has more open time in which to work on a specific effect. Portraits might even be created as sculpted pieces in marble or wood, effectively capturing active life in a non-living, unmoving medium, as in the sculpture of a warrior on a rearing horse.
The most popular subject of fine art portraiture is the human subject in all its possible poses and depictions. In ancient times, portraiture subjects were nearly always members of royalty or nobility. Modern depictions of ordinary people in their natural surroundings have become more commonplace. Some fine artists have expanded the definition of portraiture by specializing in photographic or painted portraits of pets so that animal lovers can have depictions of their dogs, cats, horses or other beloved animals.
One purpose of fine art portraiture is to commemorate an important occasion in the life of the subject. People might commission photographers or painters to create portraits of pregnant mothers, children on their birthdays or couples who are engaged to be married. Some European cultures even have longstanding traditions of taking portraits of departed loved ones in their caskets, surrounded by flowers.
Portrait subjects might be depicted in a variety of poses. Ancient civilizations commonly preserved images of certain members of royalty and nobility in bust sculptures of the head and shoulders. During the Renaissance, full-length portraits of nobles were commonly commissioned by the subjects themselves. Frequently, these depictions were strictly controlled by the person in the portrait to convey an air of authority or power. Some of these people even had the artist manipulate details to make them appear more attractive by minimizing unappealing facial features. In the Victorian era, miniature profiles of loved ones were popular ways to capture portraits of loved ones and remained so until the widespread use of photography.
Modern interpretations of fine art portraiture have given artists freedom in the ways that they can manipulate lighting, poses and surroundings to better express the nature of the subject. Environmental portraiture places the subject amid surroundings that make a statement about and describe the identity of the person. Frequently the environment is of equal or greater importance in comparison with the subject of the portrait. An example of this would be portrait artist Arnold Newman’s depiction of artist Man Ray in front of one of Ray’s paintings or pianist Igor Stravinsky with his piano.
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