Portraits can represent individuals in many different ways. They can be literal representations of a person or they can represent a person symbolically. By the turn of the 20th century, photographs had become the most accessible and popular mode of portraiture. As though freed from the burden of realism, portrait painters of the time began to explore new ways to represent people, breaking with the literal and representational portrait of the previous era.
Rather than just seeking to capture the sitter’s physical appearance, artists like Édouard Vuillard and Vincent van Gogh sought to represent his or her character, disposition, and even inner psyche. In order to represent such subjective and symbolic aspects of their subjects, artists often paid less attention to capturing precise facial features than to developing new compositional devices, employing non-naturalistic color, and making very specific choices about the background and what it might reveal about the subject.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.
A representation of oneself made by oneself.
The visual portrayal of someone or something.
A representation of a particular individual.
A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.
The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.
The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.
Questions & Activities
Compare and Contrast Two Portraits
Choose two portraits to study on MoMA’s online collection website. Make lists of everything you see in each portrait. Organize your notes and write a one-page summary of what you noticed about these two portraits.
Create a Symbolic Self-Portrait
Write 10 words that describe you. Choose one or two of those words and come up with a symbol that represents who you are. Make a drawing, painting, or collage of yourself, incorporating a symbol into your composition.
What did you learn about visual symbols? In your experience, was it easy or difficult to incorporate a symbol into your self-portrait?
Make a Portrait of Someone You Know
Select a person who would be an interesting subject for a portrait. Write a few words to describe his or her personality. What would you like to communicate about the person to the viewer? Next, think about the costume, expression, pose, and background that would best communicate this information.
Make a drawing, painting, or collage of the person. Afterwards, reflect on what you found challenging, fun, or intriguing about making this portrait. If you could do the portrait again, what would you do differently?