I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.

(Salvador Dalí)

When the European Academies of Art established the hierarchy of genres, portrait art came second – after the historical painting category (which includes religious and allegorical, with a moral message). This ranked portraits as of higher importance than landscapes, scenes of everyday life and the humble still life. It is clear that the criteria for the academic ranking was the inclusion of the human figure, which give the paintings social, historical and emotional qualities. Nearly always commissioned, the portrait presents the sitter in a most favourable light, from the best angle, and highlights the most attractive features, physical and moral, of the individual portrayed.

It is not surprising that, since art was invented, artists focused on the human figure. More than 5000 years ago, the portrait flourished in Ancient Egypt, where it fulfilled a religious, funerary role. Like the mummification of the body, supposed to immortalise the dead, the portraits also served to grant eternal life. Likeliness was less important than symbolism: the subject is beautiful, or kind, or powerful, or sage – or possibly all of these. The identity of the deceased was clarified by the inscription more than the physical characteristics, which were stereotyped. Even the later portraits, of the 25th and 26th Dynasty and the Roman period, after the demise of pharaoh Egypt, although more lifelike, remain formulaic. Were the early Egyptian artists incapable of replicating the physical features of their subject on the panel, or did they regard this aspect as of lesser importance?

The Greek sculptors created life-like, if slightly larger, copies of their noble clients, rendering them even more noble. The Romans embraced the genre enthusiastically. Were we to come face to face, on a bus, with Julius Caesar, or his son Augustus, we would recognise him immediately, from his portrait, which was replicated many times, and positioned around the empire. The Romans understood the power of the image in promotional strategy.

The Son of God

Born in a tradition that forbid the cult of personality and creation of painted divinity (Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image Exodus 20:4-6), Jesus did not benefit from the talent of contemporary portraitists. We have no reliable likeness to refer to. The New Testament gives no description of his physical appearance, and artists were not commissioned to portray him. From the 2nd century primitive cartoons in the Roman catacombs, to the 19th and 20th century global expansion of Christianity, Jesus is mainly recognised because of the iconographic context and props, rather than by his facial features.

With the Christian church the wealthiest and most generous supporter of the visual arts, a rich tradition of religious painting developed in the Western world from the Middle Ages onward. Two versions of Jesus feature prominently: as a baby in Mary’s arms and as a young adult in apocryphal scenes. Now we recognise him: he is wearing a crown of thorns, a halo around his head, on the cross, presiding over the last judgement, rising to the skies. From the personification of holiness and wisdom in Hagia Sophia to the reflective artisan originating from Rembrandt’s studio, from the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo (cca 1500) to the one by El Greco (1614) there are many images of Jesus in Medieval and Renaissance art.

There are even more paintings featuring his mother Mary, usually holding a baby Jesus in her arms. The cult of the Virgin Mary developed from the 5th Century Syria to Western culture via Byzantium, becoming more important than Jesus. Her role as the mother of the saviour is always emphasised, usually by the presence of the baby in her arms.

Beautiful Women, Brave Men

During The Renaissance and Baroque periods, Mary was the most frequently depicted woman in Western art. Hundreds – thousands – of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, that were created between the 14th and the 18th century are an indication of the position Mary held in the hearts of the artists and the people. Beyond the religious relevance, she represented one of the most cherished human relationships – a mother’s tenderness, affection and desire to protect her child.

The beauty of women and girls is the subject of many masterpieces. Leonardo’s The Lady with an Ermine (painted 15 years before its rival Mona Lisa) is considered the first modern portrait; the 1489 oil features Cecilia Gallerani, then aged 15 or 16, who was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo’s patron. She looks over her left shoulder, the green necklace on her long neck complementing the sleeve of the cloak, the hint of a smile fluttering at the corner of the perfect mouth.

Court painters, like Velázquez, had the opportunity of studying the great Renaissance portraitist, and their influence is evident in the small but significant body of portrait work . As well as the grandiose and elaborate portraits of royalty, Velazquez painted less celebre figures: “A Man”, “A Peasant Girl”, “A Little Girl” – making him famous for the flat grey/brown background and the hard, penetrating gaze.

An inspiration to other forms of art, Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” radiates from within, her face emanates light. Rather than adorning her with jewellery, Vermeer gives her a (possibly fake) pearl and portrayed the girl, simply dressed, but more luminous than the pearl itself.

It was usually the rich and famous who were able to commission portraits and keep the painters in gainful employment. Galleries are full of kings and queens, popes, cardinals and generals, with rooms named by the dynasties portrayed (the Tudors, the Stuarts, etc). The craft of painting a likeness, not just of facial features, but of hands, embroidery, coat of arms , was valued by those who insisted on a chance for posterity to be aware of their – and their wives and children - appearance.

But painters were drawn to the colourful environment and the expressive characters of the men and women in the street, on the farm. Members of the artist’s family were also favourite subjects, as were, of course, self-portraits. Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus is particularly poignant, as we know it was painted at a time of difficulties, and the painter catches with great sympathy and affection the serious, adult gaze and the youthful features of his son.

Beyond Photography

Van Gogh, who painted mostly landscapes, regarded portraits as a challenge and “the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul”. As resemblance could be easily achieved by photography, portrait painting began to focus on capturing the emotion, immortalising the expression of the subject, the feeling of the painter, and the relationship between painter and his subject.