Portraits and sculptures can be found globally, dating back to prehistoric times and continue to have a very prominent place in modern day society. These art forms are an expression of one's psyche, sexuality, beauty, and may even be thought of as a form of narcissism. A portrait is by definition a rendering of a specific individual that an artist may have met in his or her life, if not themselves. It can be depicted through sculpture, painting, and photography. Portraits are not created to just show the likeness of a person, but to relate their personalities and characteristics about the model, giving viewers a striking sense of a real person's presence. These depictions record the standards of beauty of each culture worldwide and through the ages. It can be seen prominently throughout history, and has evolved over time, showing great influence from both geographic location and cultural ideals. These representations can be seen in antiquity, especially in Egypt and Rome. Portraiture, in these times was a reflection of one's wealth and power. In the Roman Republic, portraits were often created to honor military commanders or political officials, often erected in celebration of a military achievement or triumph, or in commemoration of a political achievement, like the drafting of a treaty. In the Renaissance, portraiture was not a singular work, but rather an inclusion into a piece with Christian subjects. In the fifteenth century, the wealthy would commission religious pieces, for example an altarpiece, and the artist would include the patron into the piece of artwork. A perfect example of this is the Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) painted by Robert Campin, which contains portraits of the donors on the left looking into the scene before them, as a way of honoring them for their commission. Throughout the centuries this artform has grown increasingly more important and influential in art history with artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Edvard Munch. In modern day, self portraits can be seen everywhere on social media, on platforms such as snapchat and instagram, and even in book form like Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies entitled Selfish.


King Menkaure and Queen.
King Menkaure and Queen.


Portraiture, and cultural ideas of beauty played a very large role in Rome and Egypt, especially in association with funerary contexts. In predynastic Egypt, portraiture was seen as a way of preserving the body. This was done by the wrapping of remains in linens which would then be covered in plaster, creating a sort of sculptural cast of the body. These sculptural creations were direct reflections of their belief in eternal life, creating a desire among the Egyptian people to prepare the bodies through ritual ceremony for the afterlife. The tomb sculptures revealed admirable qualities that the deceased wished to be remembered by, along with adherence to maat. Maat was a very prominent principle in the Egyptian value system, meaning harmony and cosmic equilibrium. Egyptian sculptures like King Menkaure and his Queen display the royal power and serene ethereal beauty of the afterlife of these two very important figures. Neither of the two figures are idealized which makes this a true example of portraiture (Source 3). The faces are individual to the King and Queen, showing details of a living person, rather than a perfectly idealized King which was common for the time. The function of this sculpture, and various others like it was to make certain the King would have a place in the afterlife. Ancient Egypt played a large role in the creation of portraiture, and its transformation into what we see today.









Head of a Roman Patrician. Marble.
Head of a Roman Patrician. Marble.




Ancient Rome played another very large role in portraiture, serving as a base for all future creations. In Rome portraiture was also greatly associated with funerary contexts, as well as honorific portraits, showing great influence. Art in Ancient Rome was characterized by a stylistic cycle, transitioning between the idealized and the realistic, or the “veristic” and “classicizing”. Devotion to the public and military prowess were two very important traits in the Roman Republic, and were often displayed in portraiture. Very veristic, or realistic portrait busts were created of military figures showing every wrinkle and imperfection on the subject's skin to show heroism and strength (Source 1). The sense of hyper-realism is shown in the piece Head of a Roman Patrician. This portrait, from the middle of the first century B.C.E., has deeply wrinkled, sagging skin, and a furrowed brow, all very characteristic of this time period. Classicism was a style used by Roman Emperors as a symbol of their power and wealth, and also its relations to their predecessors, legitimizing their authority. Roman art and these different styles greatly reflect the ideals of beauty that Roman society held at that time. Wisdom can be seen through the use of very realistic features, to show viewers that the figure shown has been through various times of worry and triumph, and that through this has acquired a greater understanding and knowledge of life. Loyalty to the imperial dynasty was a common goal when classicism was used (Source 2). These Roman styls help show how ideals changed through the Empire.



Female (Pwo Mask). Chokwe Peoples. Wood, fiber, pigment, metal.
Female (Pwo Mask). Chokwe Peoples. Wood, fiber, pigment, metal.

Ideals of beauty change and differ greatly often due to geographic regions, and differences in ideology, especially in the continent of Africa. Much of Africa is focused primarily on the women, with many family lines passed down through the women. An example of one of these societies is the Chokwe people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Female (Pwo) Mask strongly reflects their intense respect for women, and it also portrays the ideals of beauty that encapsulate the area. The purpose of this mask is to honor their fertile women and also those who have already successfully given birth. Fertility is the true idea of beauty in the matrilineal society of the Chokwe people. The Bundu Mask created by the Sande society of the West African Forests of Sierra Leone, also shows the central importance of women and their own cultural ideals. The purpose of this mask is to initiate the young women of West Africa into adulthood, through a ritual ceremony. This mask would have been an ideal version of a woman for all of the younger girls to try and replicate in their lives. They would strive for perfection, attempting to mimic the beauty of this mask. The mask features an elaborate, plaited hairstyle that is decorated with combs, and very reined physical features such as a high forehead, and a glossy black surface.
Bundu Mask, Sande Society, Mendes People. Wood cloth and fiber
Bundu Mask, Sande Society, Mendes People. Wood cloth and fiber
The mask has downcast, half closed eyes, reflecting dignity and poise. The mask also features a very small demure mouth and petite ears suggesting that she should be reserved and not gossip, which could be one of the most dangerous things in a small society. This mask reflects what this society in Africa sees as beauty which can differ greatly when compared to the highly classified styles of Ancient Rome.









Portraits and sculptures have evolved greatly throughout history, often displaying certain styles or elements that the culture identified as beautiful. In Egypt portraiture was seen as a way of preparing the body and soul for the afterlife. Sculptures and painting were idealized but they showed aspects of the person they were depicting. Portraits were used all the way from funerary purposes to idealism and triumphant purposes. During the Roman Era portraits were not only decorative but also used for political and military purposes. In Africa, sculpture was used to honor women and prepare and encourage them towards child birth. Overall portraits have been used for many different reasons and they continue to be popular; whether it is a cell phone selfie, or a photgraph taken to capture a moment in our lives, or a portrait painted by a master in the end they capture a moment in time and in a persons life. A portrait tells a story within the time line that is history; it is a single snapshot of a persons life, showing us who they are emotionally, physically, and characteristically.




1. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/port/hd_port.htm
2. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ropo/hd_ropo.htm
3. http://www.arthistoryspot.com/2010/04/portraiture-in-ancient-egypt/