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death rituals, social position, Roman Empire, images of people, court proceedings

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>  Characteristics of Portraits

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>  Portraiture in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific

Portraiture, visual representation of individual people, distinguished by references to the subject's character, social position, wealth, or profession. In the broadest sense, portraiture can include representations of animals (favored pets or prize-winning livestock, for example) or even representations of dwellings. As discussed here, however, portraiture refers only to images of people.

Assesment of Portraits

Portraiture is considered a specialized subgroup of art, and therefore it has its own standards and criteria. A portrait is judged, in part, on how closely it resembles the appearance of the subject. Portraits, however, are not limited to simply recreating external appearances and situations and often are highly regarded for portraying a range of qualities of an individual or group. Artists utilize elements of their portraits—backgrounds, props, or mounts for the sitter (thrones or horses, for example)—to provide information about the subject's character or place in society. The most appreciated portraits exhibit strong composition, refined handling of materials, and an appropriate or interesting application of color.

Functions of Portraiture

Portraiture has broad and varied functions. In the Roman Empire (44 bc-ad 476), portraits of the emperor were required to be present in order for court proceedings to take place. Many societies regard portraits as important ways to convey status and acknowledge power and wealth. During the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) and the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), portraits of donors were included in works of art as a means of verifying patronage, power, and virtue. Many societies have employed portraits as a means of remembering the dead. Egyptian mummy portraits and Roman death masks played important roles in death rituals. Japanese portrait sculptures commemorate deceased monks, and skulls refashioned to be lifelike are memorial representations of ancestors in Oceania.


Mann, Judith W., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Curator, Department of Early European Art, Saint :ouis Art Museum. Visiting Assistant Professor of Art, University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Article key phrases:

death rituals, social position, Roman Empire, images of people, court proceedings, Portraiture, skulls, sitter, virtue, Middle Ages, backgrounds, Renaissance, works of art, thrones, props, horses, Oceania, elements, status, power, society, century, place, criteria, character, profession, dead, references, example, wealth, subject, Artists, order, standards, societies, situations, information

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