Portrait Paintings - World Famous Portraits

"DYOKAN" is the Hebrew word for portrait derived from "Ritratto" in Italian (Ritratto). In Hebrew it comes from the word accuracy, since it is a critical value in describing a figure. Traditionally, the portrait will contain an entire face or body, or chest neck and head. From modern times in the late 19th century to the present day the portrait can be more symbolic and contain abstract or secondary images that are not exactly human (or animal). The portrait now appears in a variety of media: photography, like our passport photo, or our photo on Facebook. Painting, a traditional and ancient method of depicting a figure. Sculpture, too, is an ancient method of depicting a figure. In all of these media there are endless ways to describe a portrait. Traditionally there have been a number of ways to depict a figure in painting, sculpture and relief.

Early Portraits

The first figures depicted were of kings and gods. It should be noted that a portrait is a description of a specific person or face, as opposed to a generic figure. The first portrait paintings were intended to depict to the public the appearance of their god or ruler, since until the 19th century there were no means of communication as we know it today, such as the internet, television or any kind of press, it was necessary to spread the portrait in other ways. One way to spread the portrait of the king was by stamping his face on gold coins. Since the money belonged to the king or ruler, everyone knew that the portrait painting on it is the king's face. The portrait of the king in profile appeared on the coins in order to present as much as possible an identifiable and very definite figure, since the profile has more pronounced and easy-to-recognize lines compared to the front. Subsequently a tradition of documenting emperors in profile developed and this format became a particularly respectable way of presenting a human portrait. Another way was to distribute realistic sculptures of the ruler throughout the kingdom.

The Egypt pharaoh king Ramses IIIIn contrast, the ancient and glorious Egyptian kingdom depicted its rulers who were considered kings-gods in a way that was not realistic but idealistic: ancient Egyptian culture believed in the afterlife. This belief governed the culture and led to developments designed to preserve the qualities of the king forever. To this end, burial palaces remain within them many treasures which have been preserved, as well as portraits of the kings and queens. In addition, the coffins were designed in the form of a portrait of the king in expensive materials and by an artist. These portraits depict the king at the height of his power and beauty according to the ideals of ancient Egypt, according to which the profile shows the most details and is therefore the most beautiful angle to present a portrait. In these portraits the king always looks young, tanned and adorned with an abundance of gold. Despite the profile portrait, the eye appears frontal because it was believed to be the most aesthetic way to display facial features. The shoulders are also frontal, from the waist down again profiled. The goal was to preserve the king forever after death, out of a post-burial belief he would be resurrected in the manner depicted in the portrait paintings and the glorious burial mask, as he was surrounded by his vast possessions and could enjoy them as in his previous life.

Portraits in Christianity

In Christianity the portrait of the Jesus developed, following the need of the Christian public to identify him when he returnes as the Messiah, thus his famous figure developed as a portrait of a young man with dark long hair, beard and dark mustache as well. The portrait of The Messiah appears in countless variations in paintings, sculptures, prints, reliefs and engravings. His portrait actually received tens of thousands of faces in the many generations that depicted his face according to the spirit of the period. Thus he appeared as an ascetic biblical figure similar to biblical kings in the first centuries AD in general lines, in murals and Christian burial caves. During the 1000 years of the Middle Ages they used to create icons, images that accompanied a prayer in which Jesus appears alone or accompanied by other saints. The painting of the portrait of Jesus varies from place to place depending on the artist and the requirement of the church. Thus a portrait format known as "Jesus Pantocrator" depicts a strong and mature figure and next to it a portrait of the baby Jesus, which is usually a painting that also includes his virgin mother Mary holding him in her arms or on her knees. The Byzantine icons were painted against a gold background made of real gold leaves and there were also mosaics incorporated with gold leaves inside glass cubes, so that the portrait painting itself seemed to float in an undefined background like celestial light to give it spirituality and power. Since there was no electricity at these times, these portrait paintings were hung in semi-dark spaces when the light came from candles or torches. In this way the light flashed across the portrait and equated a metaphysical look along with the glittering gold around it. Later, the portrait painting took on a different style, when a renaissance style began to develop, which was more realistic, with the portrait appearing on a defined background such as sky, clouds, or nature and later also in an urban landscape, in church and in realistic paintings according to New Testament stories.

The oldest surviving panel icon of Jesus, and it is found at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount SinaiIcon – Mary in Hagia SophiaEl Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1580s, oil on canvas, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the 15th century, a realistic and meticulous style began to take shape in the Low Countries and Northern Europe, and within it the painting of the secular portrait developed. A portrait drawing format has been created that is considered the optimal way to depict a portrait of a person. In this format the person is drawn from a 3/4 angle, when you see a little of his profile and a little of the front of his face, as if his head is slightly turned and you can see maximum details. Paintings of this type document significant moments and ceremonies in family life, such as a wedding, for example the Arnolfini wedding painting.

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, circa 1460, oil on panel, 34 X 25.5 cm, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of ArtJan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434, oil on panel, 82 × 59.5 cm, London: national Gallery

Royal Portraits

The paintings were a precious commodity and only royalty and nobility could obtain a self-portrait, so for centuries we have witnessed portraits of the wealthy public and its rulers. Thus these portrait paintings show people at their peak, as they sought to be immortalized and famous. The king who commissioned for himself a portrait of lust in the sight of power, beauty and wealth and therefore he appears in his best robes, sometimes with a big horse, armor and arms, his face usually beautified and showing only virtues. If the nobleman was interested in presenting himself as a God-fearing man he was drawn with a holy book in his hand. In Renaissance and in Italian Brock, paintings of kings and nobles were prevalent as they knelt at the feet of their favorite saint. Many such paintings are found in Catholic Churches, where wealthy families donated a lot of money and sometimes build for themselves a chapel. In such a chapel the portraits will usually appear.

Charles Le Brun and Adam Frans van der Meulen, Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV, 1638-1690, oil on canvas, 291 × 228 cm, Paris: Musée des Beaux-Arts TournaiAttributed to Hans Mielich, Portrait of Martin Klostermair (b. 1502), aged 60, half-length, in a brown coat and black hat, holding a book, 1516-1573,  oil on panel, 49.5 x 41.6 cm, NY: christiesMaster of the Baroncelli Portraits, Saint Catherine of Bologna with 3 donors, ca. 1470 - ca. 1480, oil on oak panel, 94.9 X 67.9 cm, London: Victoria and Albert Museum

Renaissance Portraits

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St Peter, 1600-1601, oil on canvas, 230 x 175 cm, Rome: Santa Maria del PopoloOne of the most prominent and special painters in the Italian Renaissance-Brock is Michelangelo Marizzi de Caravaggio. This artist worked for years for the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation period at the seam of the 16th-17th centuries. At that time the Catholic Church fought an audience of its believers against the Protestant Church. To reclaim the believers, the Catholic Church sought to conquer their hearts in moving scenes from the Bible. Caravaggio who painted in a realistic style excelled in emotional expressions and his paintings present the historical stories in a sweeping and convincing way. Many of his paintings feature life-size figures and from the perspective of the viewer's eye, so it seems to the audience that he is within the scene itself. He also used optical illusions (Trompe-l'œil) to create a sense that painted objects are gliding into the viewer's space. In this way the artist brought the audience closer to the heart of the sacred moment and evoked in him feelings and commitment. The most interesting thing of all is Caravaggio's use of figures from the street to model portraits of the saints for him. In this way the artist created a realistic portrait for historical figures and in fact defined the sights of the Bible through the daily life of his time. For example, a beggar from the street served as a model for drawing a portrait of a disciple of Jesus. The baker could have been used to describe a martyrdom of one of the church saints. Thanks to these, the portraits in his work were full of signs of life, including old age, sickness, difficulty and dirty nails. These brought widespread criticism of Caravaggio's work and some of his paintings were even rejected by the church for being too blatant or disrespectful. Another interesting element in Caravaggio's work is the paintings of the severed heads; The stories of the Bible and mythology are adorned with stories of beheadings. Scenes of this kind were also very common on the streets of Rome in those years, as the Inquisition carried out public executions and Roman society was plagued with crime and severe violence. Caravaggio was well versed in biblical writings but also in street life, he was known for his wild personality and the fights in which he participated. He was exposed to many harsh sights around him and these went into his paintings. The decapitated heads in his paintings are painfully realistic portraits, which include expressions of terror and blood splatter. They describe for example the death of the Medusa from the Odyssey, the death of Holofernes and the hero Samson, but all bear the self-portrait of Caravaggio. Why did he paint a self-portrait with depictions of severed heads? It should be noted that he also painted himself in living figures from time to time. The subject of self-portrait is a broad and complicated subject in itself and the artist's choice to present a self-portrait in any historical beheading complicates matters even further. One of the claims is that many artists created a self-portrait out of necessity, since they had to pay for models sitting in front of the artist and many of the artists were poor and could not pay for models . The simple and immediate solution was to sit in front of the mirror and repeatedly paint a self-portrait. But Caravaggio's severed head paintings are commissioned paintings for the church or financiers. Why then did the artist re-paint his self-portrait in these paintings? There are different opinions of scholars on the subject, ranging from his special interest in death in light of his dark personality, to the pangs of conscience he carried due to a murder he committed as is known about him.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Medusa, 1596-1598, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 60 x 55 cm, Florence: Uffizi GalleryMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1598, oil on canvas, 145 x 195 cm, Rome: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica (GNAA)

Modern Portraits

In the middle of the 19th century, the modern current in art began to develop, and within it a variety of sub-currents between the abstract and the Impressionist. Meanwhile the portrait paintings also got a new look, the boundaries of art were broken and the classical painting laws were broken one after the other. The camera replaced the painting with the documentation work so that it was no longer a realistic painting. The artist as well as the viewer must ask questions, no longer take anything for granted. Hence, what is a portrait? To this day the answer to this continues to change and diversify. The portrait painting no longer has to show the appearance of a person's face, it can present a personality in an abstract way, in colors, sounds, in the description of the person's inner world. The personal spirit world can include objects close to the heart, a beloved animal, a field of occupation, perhaps a room and sometimes an ensemble of colors.

Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh's Chair, 1888, oil on canvas, 91.8 x 73 cm, London: Courtauld FundVincent van Gogh, Gauguin's Armchair, 1888, oil on panel, 90.5 cm x 72.7 cm, Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

Portrait painting, then, has come a long way from being a message to the public from the gods or rulers to being a personal creation, with sometimes enigmatic meanings that are not always understood by the viewer. Portrait painting nowadays is available to anyone from "selfie" to commissioning a portrait painting from an artist in a variety of techniques. Anyone interested in painting a portrait can choose for themselves the way in which the painting will be presented according to their attitude, loves and personal taste.

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