Portrait paintings belong to a genre of painting that depict the human figure in part or whole. The term portrait painting can also be applied to the object itself. Portraits can serve as private or public records of state or genealogy. Portraits were often luxury items, acquired by commissioning an artist to paint a portrait to the specificities of the “sitter,” or subject of the painting. Because of this, portraits tended to record the likeness of the wealthy and politically important.
A well-executed portrait should not only convey the likeness of the sitter, but also the essence of the sitter. As art and time evolved, the psychology and individualization of portraits evolved significantly. In most cases, early portraits were rather serious and they became more and more evocative as artists began to explore and experiment with their depictions of people. Portraits are unique in that the details that are included in the portraits are as deliberate and as important as the likeness of the sitter. The manner of dress, the object that the sitter is holding, the background, and even the jewelry can be highly individualized and highly symbolic according to the personality and socio-economic standing of the sitter.
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Paintings can be portraits as long as the people that are depicted once existed in real life, even if they remain anonymous. With that in mind, the Card Players by Paul Cezanne, that depicts two provincial peasants modeled by local farmhands known to Cezanne, sold for two hundred and fifty million dollars. Nafea Faa Ipoipo
(When Will You Marry?) by Gaugin depicts two anonymous Tahitian women among a tropical background and was sold for two hundred and ten million dollars.
In terms of non-anonymous portraits, the pendant Portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, which depicts Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, was painted by Rembrandt on the occasion of their marriage in 1634. The pair of paintings sold for one hundred and eighty million dollars in 2016.
There are many portraits that do not have the distinction of having sold for exorbitant amounts of money, but have garnered considerable fame nonetheless. The Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous and recognizable painting in the world, is a portrait of the wife of a merchant painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I inspired several films including the 2015 film Woman in Gold, which detailed the painting’s journey from being stolen by the Nazi regime to finally being returned to the decendants of the original owners. In June 2006 the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer Iwas sold to Ronald Lauder for $135 million, at the time a record price for a painting. The painting now hangs in the Neue Gallery in New York City.
As with most art, value really depends on the artist, provenance, and condition of the work. There are many active beginning and mid-career artists who, like their predecessors, take on portrait commissions from paying patrons. Portraiture has even expanded to include a new category referred to as “pet portraits” where patrons commissions portraits of their pets, sometimes in vintage styles. Often these sorts of portraits can be obtained for nominal prices and hold more sentimental value than investment value.
Certainly, portraits by well known artists from centuries and decades past have significant value, but there are many contemporary artists whose portraits have not only shaped the aesthetics of contemporary portraiture, but hold significant value. There are many highly coveted portrait artists that are currently active including:
As mentioned above, portrait painting is still an active art form. The primary purpose of painting portraits has certainly changed from being memorials, family records, and symbols of status, but they are still sought after as gifts or mementos of special occasions. Painted portraits are often made from photographic images supplied by patrons. Even in an age where photography can faithfully capture the details of everyday life, photography has actually helped portrait painting evolve from hours of patient modeling by sitter to rendering an exact likeness without the need for models.