What is a portrait?

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By Jane Bower — is a consultant to primary schools in art, drama, dance and literacy

Original article published 26 September 2007

Introduce portraits by looking at famous paintings from the past

Girl looking in mirror

A portrait usually refers to a representation in a two-dimensional medium of a person or animal. The word ‘portrait’ can be used to mean other things, such as a description of a person in writing (a ‘pen portrait’) or a model in three dimensions, though these are usually called busts or statues.

Before photography, a portrait was the only way to record the appearance of loved ones, and many artists made a living out of painting clients – the richer the better. After photography there was a surge of interest in portraits posed for the camera, and there has been no decline in the popularity, either of photographed or painted portraits, since. Often portraits reveal many clues about the sitters. Indeed, there is something fascinating about capturing the likeness of a person forever, as if stopping time.

This article contains several examples of portraits and offers a wide range of ideas as to how to explore them, discover their secrets and create your own. Below are some intriguing facts about certain famous portraits to help get you started.

Ages 7-9

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