HISTORY OF FINE ART PORTRAITS
The history of art is the history of portraiture. From the beginning, meritorious leaders and generals, as well as great athletes were portrayed in sculpture and paintings. They were honored by having their statues put on public display in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
By the 15th Century, there was an increased demand by art patrons to be immortalized in busts for display in their homes. It was no longer necessary to earn a portrait—a commissioned portrait could be had for the money. The Renaissance placed a greater emphasis on religious art than secular art, including portraits, however portraits of patrons can be found in many paintings. Many popes were deified in oil, and the most famous portrait of that period, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, has fascinated and mystified many since it was first exhibited.
In the 16th Century, an artificially mannered style produced splendid portraits of the artist’s aristocratic patrons. Northern Renaissance painters favored miniature portraits on wood, parchment or porcelain that were tiny enough to be worn by their owner: portable portraits. In America, this “fad” caught on as well.
In the 17th Century, Rembrandt van Rijn was asked to paint officials of merchants’ guilds, hospitals and the militia. His painting The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch (commonly known as The Night Watch) remains one of the most notable group portraits of all time.
In the late 18th Century, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, painting in England, made their reputations with portraits of members of high society. John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins worked on portrait paintings in America in the same period.
An artist can always use a steady source of income; portraiture has served as a means to that end for artists who have the gift to be portrait painters. However, times change. With the invention of the camera in 1840, fine art portraiture had a major competitor. Impressionists continued the genre with the members of society, but many found photography to be quicker and more fashionable. As time went on, only those who couldn’t afford a photograph were painted. Now, with nearly everyone having a smartphone in their pocket, that has changed! Artists paint portraits from photographs as well.
The dawn of the 20th Century found the advent of new art movements that threatened portraiture even more than the camera. Cubism made people unrecognizable, and abstract expressionism and minimalism eliminated all figures. Portraiture seemed doomed.
Enter Andy Warhol. In the 1960s, he combined photography and painting to make his now-famous portraits of politicians, members of high society and celebrities. He gave portraiture a much-needed lift. Another trend—photorealism—in the 1970s transcended the photograph. Portrait painting had come full circle.
The extravagant 1980s created a need for recognition that went beyond corporate limousines and gold watches. Portraiture re-emerged as an enduring celebration of family and as the customary retirement ritual for those who had risen nobly and decisively through the ranks of an organization. Fine art schools focused on training artists with the skills of representational painting to respond to the increasing demand for portrait commissions.
Primarily Portraits began in Philadelphia whose rich history of portrait painting includes such artists as Thomas Sully, Cecilia Beaux, Thomas Eakins and the Peale family who began the tradition that has continued to the present. Today, Primarily Portraits has expanded to California. We still promote the New Philadelphians, but portrait painters from around the United States have joined us to make your vision a reality.
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