For as long as people have been making art, they have been portraying themselves and others. Portraits can be literal, realistic representations or they can be interpretive, symbolic. By the turn of the 20th century, photography had become the most accessible and popular medium for portraiture. As though photography freed them from the burden of producing realistic depictions, many late-19th and early-20th-century artists began exploring new ways to represent people.
Artists like Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Vuillard, and Pablo Picasso (among numerous others) sought to discern and represent the character and inner psychology of their sitters. If they were familiar with their sitter, they might seek to express their relationship to him or her. Their interest in the subjective and emotional, coupled with their desire to break with the traditions of the past, led these artists to make formal innovations that would radically alter the genre of portraiture.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A representation of oneself made by oneself.
The visual portrayal of someone or something.
The way a figure is positioned.
A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.
The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
Relating to the shape or structure of an object.
A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.
What a figure is wearing.
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.
Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed 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 in MoMA’s online collection. Make a list 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 your symbol into your composition.
What did you learn about symbols? Did you find 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? Think about the costume, expression, pose, and background that would best communicate this information.
Make a drawing, painting, or collage of the person. After you’ve finished, 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?