What Is the History of Portraits in Art?

Art|Art History

The history of portraits in art is a long and varied one, stretching back hundreds of years. It has seen countless artists, techniques, and styles – all of which have contributed to the unique look and feel of portraiture today. From the iconic works of da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Monet to the modern-day creations of Hockney and Warhol, portraits have always been an important part of artistic expression.

The earliest known portrait dates back to 25,000 BC – a sculpture known as the ‘Venus of Willendorf’. This small figure is believed to represent a female form in its most idealized state. While it is not technically a portrait, it does indicate a growing awareness of the importance of representing people in art at this time.

The first known true portrait was created by Egyptian artists around 3100 BC. These works were often used for funerary purposes and were typically painted on papyrus or wooden boards.

They depicted individuals in their most idealized form – usually standing with their arms crossed over their chest or holding an ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol for life). This type of portraiture was also popular in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used to honor important figures such as heroes or gods.

By the Renaissance period (1400–1600 AD), portrait painting had become more refined and realistic. Artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt all produced stunning works that captured both the physical features and inner character of their subjects with remarkable accuracy. The Baroque period (1600–1750 AD) saw the emergence of new techniques such as tenebrism (the use of dramatic lighting effects) which further added depth to paintings.

The nineteenth century brought a new focus on landscape painting but portraiture remained popular throughout this era too – particularly amongst Impressionist artists like Monet who often used quick brushstrokes to capture fleeting expressions or moments in time.

Modern Portraits

In modern times portraits have become increasingly abstracted – with artists such as Picasso introducing cubism into their works – while others like Warhol embraced pop culture through his iconic screen-printed images.


The history of portraits in art spans centuries and encompasses many different styles and techniques. From its earliest beginnings in ancient Egypt up until today’s modern works by contemporary artists like Hockney or Warhol – portraiture has played an important role in expressing our thoughts about ourselves and our world.