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  Material is an important part of an artist's vocabulary; it determines the final form of a portrait and its properties directly influence style and technique.
  Marble and Bronze

Marble was used to create the bust of Madame de Sérilly. It is a relatively hard stone, pure white in its most highly-prized form, which needs to be quarried. Although the surface of the bust appears both smooth and highly polished, it would not have started off life like this. It would have been delivered to the artist as a rough-hewn block, which needed to be carved with hammer, chisel and drill and then polished. Think about what skills were needed to carry out this process: was the artist able to be spontaneous or did he work to a careful plan, for example using a model in terracotta or plaster?

Bronze is a hard water-resistant alloy of copper which can be highly finished, as can be seen in the bust of Veronese by François-Nicholas Delaistre. The artist would have modelled the bust in wax before it was finally cast in bronze. This is done by sculpting the image you require in a soft material, such as wax, then creating a mould of the image by encasing it in plaster and allowing it to harden. Further models are made using this mould, with a plaster or clay core over which is the wax ‘skin’ that carries the design. This new wax model is then encased in a thick clay casing, after which the wax is melted, leaving a void into which the molten bronze can be poured. Once it has hardened, the outer layer is removed and the portrait is revealed.

The two materials differ in many ways. For example, when working with marble you take the material away to create the image, whereas when working with wax (later bronze) you add the material. Also, they create a very different effect from each other. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of working in each material?

  Embroidery is highly skilled work as seen in the intricate details stitched across the portrait of The Restoration of King Charles II. The details in the background, including the animals and the building, are all created in flat stitches, the tree trunk and hair of the figures have been made from wire covered with a silk-like material, while the figures in the foreground have had their garments padded with wool to produce the shape of their bodies. The time involved in making the portrait can be seen as evidence of regard for the King and recognition of his return to the throne. However, embroidery has often been labelled as 'women's work' and perhaps carries strong feminine associations.
  Oil Paint
  While painting has existed for thousands of years, the invention of oil paint in the 15th century suddenly enabled artists to work in completely new ways. Oil took much longer to dry than previous media, such as 'tempera', which used egg yolks as its binding agent. Oil paint could be applied in layers to create subtle effects and its flexibility and luminosity allowed the artist to create a more realistic likeness of the subject. As a result, portraiture flourished and artists were inspired and encouraged to develop more personal styles, sometimes producing smooth, polished works on panel (e.g., Vigée le Brun’s Madame Perregaux), sometimes using thick layers of paint on canvas to create painterly texture and surface effect (e.g., Rembrandt’s Titus). In addition, the material support for the painting also had an effect on the final look and feel of the work. Think about how it might feel different to paint on hard, wooden board (e.g., Portrait of a Child with a Coral - Oil on Panel) compared with more flexible canvas (e.g., Van Dyck’s Marie de Raet and Philippe le Roy - Oil on Canvas).
  Chalk and Pastel

Chalks have been used to create the portrait of Jean-Victor, baron Besenval. At this time natural, rather than manufactured, chalks would have been used. The black chalk seen here would have been made up of carbon and clay whose compressed nature makes it particularly suitable for linear strokes as shown in this drawing. It contrasts particularly well with the natural white chalk also seen here (made from calcite and calcium carbonate) and which is really effective at highlighting the brightness of the armour and creating the illusion of  light shining towards the baron’s face.

Liotard’s portrait of Lady Fawkener is created using pastel, which consists of powdered pigmented chalk formed into a stick. Pastel allows artists to work very quickly and because it is a powdery and fragile medium it is relatively straight forward to make alterations and erase elements of the artwork in progress. It also has a translucency particularly suitable for capturing the qualities of flesh and skin tone. Liotard was particularly well known for his fine pastel portraits. This one has an added quality as it is drawn on vellum (calf’s skin).

Photography first appeared in the mid 19th century and had a great impact on portraiture. Not only did it offer a more accurate representation of its subject, but also it was vastly more affordable than more traditional painted portraits. Whereas portraiture was once the preserve of the rich, this new technology allowed middle class citizens to have their own images created. The medium therefore helped to change the status of portraiture. Photography has often been thought of as incapable of lying as it captures the unquestionable and exact likeness of the sitter and his or her surroundings. However, does photography necessarily show us the true reality of a sitter's personality, status and character? For example, do you think that the photograph of John Bowes is un-posed? It is also important to remember that early photographs would have needed a long exposure time and that the pose would need to have been held for a much longer period of time than nowadays.

How might you dress and pose for a photograph? You might want to be photographed, indoors or outdoors, in a grand setting or with a plain background. You might also include symbolic objects to create a fictitious environment or character for yourself. Indeed, we need to be just as critically aware when looking at photographic portraits as we do when looking at painting, embroidery or sculpture.

Discussion Points:
  • A simple way to test how a material affects the meaning of a portrait is to consider how your interpretation of a given work would change if the artist had used a different material. A different material would also give a completely different effect. As an experiment, the class could create images of the same person in a range or materials (such as clay, wire, polystyrene, collage) and see what effect is created by each.
  • Ask the class to take digital photographs of each other and manipulate them on the computer - are photographs as truthful as they appear?
    Related Portraits
Jean-Antoine Houdon  Bust of Madame  de Sérilly  1782
Jean-Antoine Houdon
Bust of Madame
de Sérilly

François-Nicholas Delaistre Paolo Caliari Veronese 1803

Paolo Caliari Veronese
unknown, English The Restoration of  King Charles II  circa 1665
unknown, English
The Restoration of
King Charles II

circa 1665
Anthony Van Dyck  Marie de Raet 1631 Philippe le Roy 1630
Anthony Van Dyck
Marie de Raet 1631
Philippe le Roy 1630
Rembrandt van Rijn  Titus, the Artist's Son  circa 1657
Rembrandt van Rijn
Titus, the Artist's Son
circa 1657
Élisabeth-Louise  Vigée Le Brun  Madame Perregaux 1789
Vigée Le Brun
Madame Perregaux
Unknown Portrait of a Child with a Coral 1636
Portrait of a Child with
a Coral

Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, Jean-Victor,  Baron Besenval, circa 1726-1729

baron Besenval

circa 1726-1729
Jean-Etienne Liotard, Portrait of a Woman called Lady Fawkener, circa 1760
Jean-Etienne Liotard
Portrait of a Woman
called Lady Fawkener

circa 1760
Unknown John Bowes circa 1880
John Bowes
circa 1880