To most people, a portrait is a painting of a person, usually the head and torso, as distinguished from a landscape or still life. Scroll to the bottom of the blog and look at the image of the girl with the dog. This fits our definition of a portrait, but it is not a portrait; it is an ad for Coke. The girl is not the subject; Coke is. So we need to narrow our definition. Tim Novak taught us that a portrait is any image that describes a person. This greatly changes our thoughts on portraiture! Now look at the image of the chalkboard equation "e=mc²". By our old definition this image is not a portrait, because it is not an image of a person. But by our new definition this image is a portrait, because the equation makes us think of a person; Albert Einstein, the equation's discoverer.
Now that we have a new definition of portraiture, we can see the mechanisms behind many portraits. The artist isn't just trying to describe the subject; they are often trying to represent the subject in a specific way for a purpose. Look at the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. This picture isn't just another painting of the Queen. She is making a statement. The painting is full of symbolism. The pearls, on the Queen's head and gown, symbolize purity. (Queen Elizabeth I was famously known as the Virgin Queen, since she never married). Next to her right arm is the imperial crown, and her right hand rests upon a globe with her fingers touching the Americas. In the background of the painting are scenes depicting the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; a pivotal event during Elizabeth's reign and a great triumph for the English nation. So the purpose of this painting wasn't to show what Queen Elizabeth really looked like in her daily life. The purpose of this painting was to proclaim the Queen's dominion over land and sea, and her triumph over those who would challenge her sovereignty.
So the next time you are you at a museum and see yet another boring portrait, challenge yourself to step out of your 21st century perspective and try to see what the artist is trying to convey. Who is the subject? Do they seem happy, sad, serious, joyful? What are they wearing; nice clothes, simple clothes? How are they positioned in the painting? Are they commanding the space, or is it a more humble posture? Look at the other items in the painting; what are they symbolic of? What does all this put together tell you about the subject? And then think to yourself how you might want to be remembered in 200-300 years.