Portraiture has a
multitude of functions that have been explored throughout its history. Every
human is born with the exact same facial features; however, no two humans are
identical. Even identical twins will have marginal differences that, to those
who know them, may appear more obvious. However, recognising a face is
different than knowing the person. To an extent, the basic idea of a portrait is
to capture a likeness of the individual, however, it is impossible to know a
person from this alone. This is where portraiture can be used as a tool to
infer information about their identity, in a similar way to how you would learn
about someone as you get to know them. In this essay, I will examine examples
of portraits differing in their functionalities and discuss the implications
for how the identity of the sitter is portrayed.
As early as the 1400s,
portraiture acted as a signifier of the sitter’s wealth and status, through the
use of signs and symbols within the image. Through its use of clothing,
environment, objects and positioning, portraiture has built a language of
symbolism to depict information such as social status, profession, wealth and divinity.
This portrait of Elizabeth
I (fig.1) is an example of how symbols are used to depict wealth and power. Sir
Henry Lee, a former champion of Elizabeth I, commissioned the painting as a way
of apology for his previous offence of living with a mistress. He had invited
her to his home in Ditchley, Oxfordshire to ask for forgiveness and the
painting was intended to commemorate her visit. Within the portrait you can see
many elements pointing to different royal symbols. For example, Elizabeth is
stood on a globe, specifically a map of England, which signifies her reign and the
power that comes with it, emphasised by the small-scale depiction of the map
compared to her large figure standing over the land. As well as the obvious
lavish gown, jewellery, ruff and headpiece to distinguish her royalty and
wealth, there are also less obvious details with just as much meaning. For
example, her earring is shown to be a skeletal celestial globe. These are used
to study the movements of the planets, and thus represents wisdom and
knowledge, as well as authority. Furthermore, the background appears split
between a bright, sunny sky, and a dark, stormy one. This further exaggerates
her regal power over nature as well as the land itself, suggesting that she has
divine like powers. This is an example of how a portrait can be used as
unrealistic propaganda, attempting to articulate that Elizabeth I’s power
extended to god-like status. However, Elizabeth’s portraits are a prime example
of portraiture that prioritises regal symbolism over gaining a realistic
likeness of the sitter. Specifically, in her portraits, since she was so
concerned with her public image, certain elements of her appearance would be
altered to her satisfaction in order to maintain a youthful picture of beauty.
preferred a mannered and decorative form of portraiture that underplayed
likeness in favour of themes of regal authority”1
Elizabeth went so far as
to even bring in a royal proclamation in 1563 that restricted representations
that she hadn’t approved, thus any deformities or imperfections that an artist
may have included to portray a likeness, would have been removed.
This leads me to question
how much of what we see in this type of portrait is representational and how
much is altered to meet certain ‘criteria’ of the royal, Elizabethan standards.
Therefore, does imagery such as this truly match the definition of a portrait?
If it is lacking in likeness; something usually considered a key element of a
portrait, and instead is portraying a visual ‘ideal’ self, does it then serve a
fundamentally intended as a form of self-representation; however, they have
always inevitably instead been about the ideal self. Especially in
self-portraiture, it is very difficult to achieve a likeness that is entirely
true-to-life, due to the human nature of self-criticism and how we want to be
seen. This means that supposed negative attributes are often ‘improved’ or
removed completely, resulting in a portrait that becomes little about true
self-representation. This is a fatal error of both self-portraiture and
portraiture alike as it is difficult to avoid; even if facial flaws/ flaws of
the body are included, the artist is still choosing and discarding elements
that make up the piece of work. Portraiture is akin to a biography, whereas
self-portraiture is like an auto-biography; ultimately, they both provide us
with a sense of the identity of the individual, just with a different bias and
perspective. Portraiture as a whole can often be extremely narcissistic, as it
aims to show the sitter in a certain light, carefully chosen by the painter in
order to depict certain aspects of the individual’s appearance and identity. This
can often also reveal information about the painter themselves, sometimes as
much as the sitter. This is suggested by Daniel Gilbert, an American Social
Psychologist, who reiterates the idea of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant in
are portraits…and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it
reflects the things portrayed” (Daniel Gilbert, 2013)2
When producing any
painting, a complex process of decision making has been made by the artist in
order to create that image, based on subjective ideas; this introduces many
variables that, in conclusion, reflect aspects of that individual. In
biographical painting, this adds an alternative view in presenting the sitter,
that is not present in autobiographical work, such as in the work of Tracey
In her work, it is evident
that Emin takes pride in the true, sometimes brutal, representation of herself.
This means that often her work is a form of portraiture that is able to engage
with the ‘honest’ self; a representation that is untouched by bias or
attempting to meet certain social standards. A key element in her
self-portraiture, is capturing a moment in her timeline that is reflected by
her surroundings. As discussed in an interview about her work, she stated:
world is my experience and what I experience comes back into my work.” (Tracey
Emin, 2005, The Guardian)
Emin is explaining how her work is a depiction of her personal experience of
her environment and her reaction to this. This process is arguably sometimes a
more successful depiction of identity as you can easily compare and contrast
environment to your own, which is perhaps quite a prominent human tool of
understanding. This creates a more accessible representation than perhaps a
simple image of a face, to an extent, as it provides the viewer with context. A
key example of this, can be seen
Emin’s interpretation of a self-portrait titled My Bed.
The Oxford Dictionary
definition of a Portrait is:
painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one
depicting only the face or head and shoulders.” (Oxford Dictionary)
However, this traditional
interpretation is challenged by Emin’s detailed installation of her
surroundings, rather than of her own image.
Emin is one such artist, whose works cannot be described as self-portraiture in
a traditional sense, but whose entire oeuvre is geared towards the kind of
self-exploration that characterizes self-portraiture of the past”3
In My Bed (fig. 2 & 3), Emin has recreated the scene of her
bedroom, perhaps the most autobiographical human environment; a place of
collected personal belongings and experiences. In a video interview for the
Tate, Emin explains how in 1998, she spent 4 days in a depressed,
semi-conscious state after the breakdown of a relationship. She described how
looking at her bed, she could see the “absolute mess and decay of my life”
(Tracey Emin, 2015). Personal environment provides an accurate insight in to
the current state of the individual. For example, from the empty bottle of
vodka within the detail of My Bed, we
can infer information about her physiological state during her days in bed. Furthermore,
the collection of tissues suggests information about her emotional state, most
likely involving a lot of crying. These perform in a similar way to the
symbolism within the portrait of Elizabeth I (fig.1) in the way that they
provide us with clues about the subject of the portrait. However, these are
symbols suggesting negativity of the self, and through the depiction of
vulnerability, perhaps provide us with a more successful likeness, without including
her actual appearance. When reinstalling her work in 2015, Emin was struck by
feelings of sadness, as the surroundings took her back to that moment in her
life. Even though the items may have no relevance in her current day life, they
still capture a snippet of her identity at that time, and thus perhaps a small
part of who she is today.
A portrait encapsulates a
moment in time for the sitter; an emotional state that can be difficult to
recreate, as seen in Emin’s My Bed.
This raises questions concerned with the limits of portraiture, such as how can
a single moment in time successfully summarise an individual’s identity? To
argue this, I would say that a portrait acts as a window into a person’s
identity, rather than a tool to gather enough information to completely know
& understand someone. Different interpretations of portraiture access
different aspects of one’s identity. For example, a biographical portrait such
as the 1592 painting of Elizabeth I (fig.1), will depict an outsider’s
perspective of a personality in all its complexities. On the other hand, autobiographical
portraiture such as Emin’s bed self-portrait (fig. 2 & 3) provides an
internal perspective, often able to reveal a more in-depth insight to an
individual’s vulnerabilities, however also flawed by it’s inevitable
narcissistic and biased nature.
Whether it be the identity
of the sitter or of the painter, through the use of tools such as symbolism,
emotional state and environment, portraiture is a successful depiction of an
individual. However, the extent to which a portrait is representational heavily
depends of the interpretation of the definition of a portrait. Therefore,
portraiture is successful in gaining an understanding of identity, but as a
tool of accurate depiction, it is limited.
Cooke, R. (2018). Tracey
Emin: ‘Where does that girl go? Where does that youth go?’. online the
Guardian. Available at:
Accessed 14 Jan. 2018.
Ellis-Petersen, H. (2018).
Tracey Emin’s messy bed goes on display at Tate for first time in 15 years.
online the Guardian. Available at:
Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
Mongello, M. (2018).
Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), with commentary. online
Marileecody.com. Available at: http://www.marileecody.com/eliz1-images.html
Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.
Oxford Dictionaries |
English. (2018). English Dictionary, Thesaurus, & grammar help | Oxford
Dictionaries. online Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/
Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
Royal Museums Greenwich |
UNESCO World Heritage Site In London. (2018). Symbolism in portraits of
Elizabeth I. online Available at: http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/symbolism-portraits-elizabeth-i
Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
SparkNotes: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Context. online
Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/portraitartist/context.html
Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.
Tracey Emin's My Bed | TateShots. online Available at:
Accessed 14 Jan. 2018.
Thesaurus.com – The world’s favorite online thesaurus!. online Available at:
http://www.thesaurus.com/ Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
West, S. (2004).
Portraiture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
SAATCHI GALLERY. (2017).
FROM SELFIE TO SELF-EXPRESSION. S.l.: THE SAATCHI GALLERY.
Ewing, W. and
Herschdorfer, N. (2006). Face. London: Thames & Hudson.
Butler-Bowden, T. (n.d.).
The Literature of Possibility. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Butler, E. and Stobbs, C.
(2017). Creating Ourselves. Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Pointon, M. (2013).
Portrayal and the search for identity. London: Reaktion Books.
Mullins, C. (2006).
Painting people. London: Thames & Hudson.
Emin, T. (1998). My Bed.
Installation London: Tate Gallery.
Gheeraerts the Younger, M.
(1592). Elizabeth I (the ‘Ditchley Portrait’).
My Bed. (n.d.). image
Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/L/L03/L03662_10.jpg
Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
Elizabeth I (the ‘ditchley portrait’). image Available at:
Accessed 11 Jan. 2018.
1 Shearer West, Portraiture. Oxford University Press,
Tom Butler-Bowden, The Literature of
Possibility. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2013: 122
3 Shearer West, Portraiture. Oxford University Press,