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Portraits and self-portraits

A portrait is a likeness of a person, especially of the face, depicted in a painting, drawing, or photograph. Often, portraits are intended to create a likeness of someone; others, such as some works by Pablo Picasso, do not look exactly like the model, but rather constitute the artist’s interpretation of the whole person. Historically, the portrait has served as a mode of examining and communicating facets of an individual subject’s personality, where the artist uses such details as clothing, pose, facial expression, and setting to relay information about a sitter’s temper, intellect, beliefs, or social status. Throughout the 20th century, the examination of individual identity has remained a major preoccupation, with artists seeking to explore how character is shaped by personal biography as well as race, ethnicity, and gender, especially as our collective understanding of how such elements contribute to the formation of the self has become more nuanced and complex.

A self-portrait is a representation of oneself made by oneself that is drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted. Although artists have been making self-portraits since ancient times, it was not until the mid-1400s that they began frequently depicting themselves as either main subjects or important characters in their own works, due simply to the newfound access to better and cheaper mirrors. Issues pertaining to individual identity are also explored in self-portraits, with the artist’s own image as a vehicle for both personal reflection and social critique. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, for example, are photographic self-portraits for which the artist transformed her appearance to resemble a range of feminine typologies and stereotypes in order to explore the levels of artifice involved in the construction of gender roles.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.