conversation piece

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portraiture, the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. The principal portrait media are painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography. From earliest times the portrait has been considered a means to immortality. Many cultures have attributed magical properties to the portrait: symbolization of the majesty or authority of the subject, substitution for a deceased individual's living presence or theft of the soul of the living subject.

The Self-Portrait

Two conflicting objectives characterize portrait art in all cultures: the desire to represent the subject accurately and the desire to transform or idealize the subject. The conflict is particularly manifest in the self-portrait, the genre that gives the artist the greatest freedom from external constraints. Because the artist is his or her own cheapest and most available model, the self-portrait is the finest opportunity to make the most flattering statement or the most penetrating revelation of character of which he or she is capable. More deeply acquainted with this subject than with any other, artists are nevertheless forced to view themselves as mirror images and, as with less immediate subjects, through the distorting glass of their understanding.

Since the 6th cent. B.C. artists have often portrayed themselves with the identifying attributes of their profession such as palette, brush, and easel. During the Renaissance pictorial signatures abounded in which artists worked themselves into crowd scenes or somewhere else within a composition. Striking examples are Botticelli's confrontation of the viewer in his Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi); Ghiberti's two busts, youthful and aged, on the Doors of Paradise of the Florence cathedral baptistery; and Michelangelo's Nicodemus figure in the late Pietà (Cathedral, Florence).

Dürer was among the first masters to reveal a psychological self-awareness by means of the self-portrait, an insightful approach brought to new heights in the works of Rembrandt. Other artists, notably Jordaens, Rigaud, Ingres, and Reynolds, asserted their social and material success in their images of themselves. The classic of self-aggrandizement is Courbet's Painter's Studio (1855; Louvre). An interesting modern example of the genre is James Ensor's strange Self-Portrait (Uffizi), in which the artist appears as the only real being among a host of grotesques.

The Evolution of Portrait Painting

Portrait art has taken many forms; variation in styles and tastes has contributed as much to portrait art as to other modes of artistic expression. The Egyptians made sculptured monuments that were idealized portraits of their monarchs intended to grant them immortality. Such ideal likenesses were painted onto sarcophagi of lesser persons as well. In Asia this religious use of the portrait was widespread until the 15th cent., when realistic Western portraiture began to influence Eastern art.

In Europe the principal medieval portraitists known by name were the French court painters Fouquet and Limousin. Limousin's enamel portraits of Francis I are among the masterpieces of enamel work. The profile medals and coins of rulers, common in the early Renaissance, were greatly simplified likenesses, as were the profile portraits of donors within devotional compositions.

Master painters such as Pollaiuolo and Piero della Francesca excelled at the profile view. The Flemish and German masters developed the three-quarter and frontal portrait types, which allowed greatly increased contact between subject and viewer and enhanced the illusion of vitality. These conventions were soon adopted generally. The powerful equestrian portrait was developed in Italy. Verrocchio's sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni is an outstanding example of this genre, whose major practitioners also included Donatello, Titian, Uccello, Velázquez, and Bernini.

The portrait subject was eventually revealed at full length by such masters as Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, thereby increasing enormously the compositional possibilities. The Italian mannerists Bronzino, Pontormo, and Parmigianino expressed a cold splendor in their studies of the aristocracy. The Elizabethans favored the miniature, worn in a locket or set in an elaborate frame on a tiny stand. The foremost masters of this intimate and delicate form were Hilliard, Holbein, and Oliver.

The giant among all makers of portraits was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. In nearly 80 self-portraits he created a detailed psychological autobiography, from his joyous and exalted youth to his agonized old age. This series forms an introspective monument unique in art history. Rembrandt's portraits of others are equally penetrating. The principal baroque portraitists other than Rembrandt include Bernini, Hals, Rubens, and Van Dyck. They were followed by the French neoclassical masters David and Ingres; the Italian sculptor Canova; the English painters Hogarth, Raeburn, Lawrence, Romney, and, most notably, Gainsborough and Reynolds; the brilliant Spanish delineator of character, Goya; and the German Kneller.

Group Portraits

The Dutch painters of the 17th cent. had made popular group portraits of members of the rising burgher class, military companies, professional groups, and the like, and as the popularity of portraits spread throughout the social classes, portraits of couples, families, and other groups became common. The 18th-century English conversation piece was a small portrait group in a domestic or landscape setting, representing people in conversation. Hogarth, Zoffany, and Gainsborough excelled at this genre. Of modern masters Renoir, Degas, and Sargent were noted for their family groups.

American Portraiture

In the United States during the 18th cent. the painters John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart all modeled their styles on the prevailing English fashion. Copley, however, brought an illuminating understanding to the depiction of his sitters that clearly owed nothing to English influence.

By the 19th cent. portraiture had become the specialty of numerous American artists including John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, and the sculptors Horace Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Hiram Powers. Later celebrated portraitists included Frank Duveneck and the expatriates Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt. But it was Thomas Eakins who regained for the 19th cent. Copley's sensitivity, revealed in both his paintings and his photographs. Twentieth-century masters of portraiture include Robert Henri and Andrew Wyeth, who continues the Copley-Eakins tradition.

Modern Portraiture

The portrait had been a major source of income to painters since the Renaissance, and many modern European masters became, perforce, adept at the art. The French impressionists, Manet, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Soutine, Klee, Kokoschka, Matisse, and Picasso are all known for their portraits, although for none of them was portraiture the principal subject matter.

Portraits were a relatively unimportant part of movements in painting and sculpture during the later 20th cent. until a revival that began in the 1970s. Artists such as Francis Bacon employed a combination of realism and abstraction in paintings that attempted to convey psychological insights as well as the form of the sitter. Active in this period and beyond were a number artists who create portraits in various figurative styles, painters such as Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Jamie Wyeth, and David Hockney.

In the 1990s a revival of interest in portraiture took place that involved many of the latter artists as well as a variety of new ones. This renewal accompanied a concern with the individuality and physicality of human identity, with multiculturalism, and with the mass media. Among the numerous contemporary artists exploring the portrait genre at the end of the 20th cent. are Chuck Close, with his billboard-size facial close-ups; Aaron Shikler, with his extremely realistic likenesses; and Robert Greene, with his fingertip-size studies.

Photographic Portraiture

The miniature portrait had retained its popularity with all social classes until the middle of the 19th cent., when it was replaced by the more intimate and more simply executed technique of photography. The earliest portrait photographers were thoroughly painterly in their approach, since they faced fierce competition from painters. Outstanding from the common run of the early portrait photographers were Matthew Brady, the team of Hill and Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Thomas Eakins.

The American pioneers of the aesthetic movement in photography in the early 20th cent. were Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, both noted for their luminous portrait studies. In Germany during the same period August Sander produced photographs that characterized the entire range of the German social classes. A number of American photographers working during the Great Depression produced a moving composite portrait of poverty-stricken rural America. These included, among others, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, and Ben Shahn. Other outstanding American portrait photographers of the 20th cent. include Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, Immogen Cunningham, and Evelyn Hofer, whose work is reminiscent of August Sander's.

In 1955 the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, mounted a vast and influential exhibition of photographs entitled “The Family of Man.” Selected by Steichen from hundreds of thousands of entries from all over the world, it presented a composite visual record, a profound portrait of the human family. Since then photographic portraiture has taken several new directions in the second half of the 20th cent.

Photographic self-portraits such as those of Man Ray and Duane Michaels also portrayed the sitter in a surreal setting. Nude portraits and multimedia works have proliferated, and the confrontation with the grotesque in human nature and physiognomy, masterfully explored by Diane Arbus, has spawned a number of imitators. Photographic portraits of the 1980s and 90s include works by such artists as Richard Avedon (who has taken masterly portraits since mid-century) and Annie Leibovitz. Moreover, the late 20th cent.'s cult of celebrity has spawned a host of anonymous “paparazzi,” snapping spontaneous and often unflattering portraits of the celebrated and the infamous.

See also photography, still.


See J. D. Breckenridge, Likeness: A Conceptual History of Ancient Portraiture (1968); G. Schreiber, Portraits and Self-Portraits (1968); L. E. Marrits, Modeled Portrait Sculpture (1970); F. Covino, The Fine Art of Portraiture (1971); E. Kinstler, Painting Portraits (1971); A. Fulvio, Roman Portraits (1981); W. Craven, Colonial American Portraiture (1986); R. Simon, The Portrait in Britain and America (1987); R. Brilliant, Portraiture (1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

conversation piece

1. (esp in 18th-century Britain) a group portrait in a landscape or domestic setting
2. a play emphasizing dialogue
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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An autumnal Burt Lancaster plays the character modeled on Praz and a Lamborghini-sleek Silvana Mangano embodies everything that threatens his "mould of the spirit." The film's title (whether in English or Italian) pays homage to Praz's 1971 book, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America.
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Yeats and the late Juan Munoz whose Conversation Piece can be seen in South Shields.
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