Art history: Functions of portraiture in 18th century britain

Table of Content

Overview of Portraiture

            Portraiture involves the process of painting, sculpting or photographing a portrait.  It is a process of recording people.   Artists capture an individual’s personality, character, status, the place and time they lived, and the environment in which they lived, through portraits.   Portraiture includes self-portraits and portraits by an artist of other people (Wikipedia 2005).

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Portraits became exceedingly popular in Britain during the 18th century and have been described as the more characteristic theme of British art not only in England, but in Scotland as well, during this particular period.  Prior to the 18th century, British aristocrats would hire foreign artists to paint their portraits, and purchased Italian or Dutch pictures to decorate their homes.  British paintings were not the rage, and sitting for portraits was viewed as monotonous and boring.  But the 18th century has been described as the moment when British Art became of age.  During this period, portraiture became both interesting and fashionable to the British elites.  Although William Hogarth (1699-1764) was regarded as the father of British Art, the works of Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), were regarded as being pivotal in ushering in the great age of portraiture which lasted for over a century in Britain (Fortune City n.d.; A & A art and architecture 2006; History World 2006).

As Britain emerged as a world leader not only socially but in the fields of politics and economics, the country’s nobility and middle classes wanted portraits of themselves and their families made.  As British portrait artists, such as Sir Henry Raeburn, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, gained popularity, British aristocrats clamoured to have their portraits painted and displayed in their mansions.  The portraits came in different styles, but have generally been described to have a sort of “down-to-earth pragmatism” on the poses and faces of the subjects painted.  They gave off an air of people who got on their lives and made things happen (Fortune City n.d.; A & A art and architecture 2006; History World 2006).

            Portraiture also includes the tradition of portrait miniature painting which was mainly adapted from English paintings of the Rococo period during the eighteenth (18th) century.  Miniatures are considered a minor branch of portraiture, but the impact of their functions is significant as to an understanding of the way the British society thought in the 18th century.  Portrait miniatures are said to have evolved from two sources: 1) illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and 2) portrait medals from classical antiquity which were revived during the Italian Renaissance period.  Self-contained miniatures began to evolve in England during the fifteenth (15th) century and can be described as dainty pieces of paintings which are of small, oval format, and mounted in gold lockets, brooches, and bracelets.  They were regarded in the traditions of jewelry, and were kept by British elite as mementos.   In the 18th century, owning and wearing portraitures of their loved ones was very popular with the political, juridical, and business elite in Britain (The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2006).

            The dimensions of miniatures encompass a wide range – from diminutive paintings to paintings too large to pin on one’s blouse or to put in one’s pockets, but small enough to be passed around one’s dinner table.   Miniatures are often executed in watercolour.  Miniatures and the cases or frames in which they are originally mounted are usually separated when they are displayed, and the “miniat ures” or the image itself is displayed on flat surfaces instead of as part of the original three-dimensional artefact (Pointon 2001).

            Having miniatures had definite advantages for the British in 18th century.  Not only were they extensions of their social status, but they also took up less room than life-size or head-size portraits.  Miniatures also do not show the subject’s dress, and as fashion always changes, owners of miniatures find that they can keep this image of their ancestors without the image contrasting against the carpets, furnitures, and décor of their descendants (Pointon 2001).

            Portraits in miniature have been criticized as having an uncertain place in art history.  In public galleries, miniatures are exhibited in glass cases covered by cloth to protect them from day light.  The tendency for visitors in such galleries is to usually walk past such displays.  But although miniatures are considered a minor branch of portraiture, they are deemed one aspect of luxury which was a characteristic of 18th century Britain (Pointon 2001).  They had a distinct social function which will be later discussed in this study.

Functions of Portraiture in 18th Century Britain

            For the longest time in art history, the aesthetic aspect of portraiture was largely excluded from discussion.   The rapport between verbal and pictorial forms in portraiture was criticized to be merely based on the narrative nature of their subject matter.  In other words, this form of art was viewed as too closely connected to imitation. It fit awkwardly into any intellectual theory of painting.   However, the “airs” and “attitudes” of the subject matter of the portraitures were eventually recognized to provide valuable insight on 18th century British society.  “Air” meant the general appearance or manner of a person, whereas “attitude” described the totality of the subject matter’s body language.  Unlike word gesture, one’s attitude suggested motion, implied from a degree of fixity.   Even though the repertoire of portraiture attitudes in the 18th century were often limited by the need to show the sitters as pleased, in good humor, or properly elevated in character.  Extreme expressions were often avoided (Meyer 1995).

            For instance, a popular pose for portraits during the 18th century was the male pose with a hand tucked in a waistcoat.  Art historians have analyzed this pose and attitude to signify the critical transformation of Britain as it emerged as a national power in response to French challenges to the country’s political and religious autonomy (Meyer 1995).   The posture and gestures in portraits during the 18th century were often derived from ancient Roman sculpture or Italian Renaissance paintings, and often conveyed the dignified status of its sitters or subjects (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,  “Tour: British and American” 2006).

            Portraiture, as the most popular art genre in 18th century Britain, came in various forms: large-scale painted portraits, portrait prints, small-scale painted portraits, drawings, and miniatures.   The smaller images fulfilled numerous functions – such as personal memorials, fashionable decorations, or expressions of political affiliation (Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens 2003).

            Mainly, portraiture has been regarded as a way to convey status and to acknowledge power and wealth.   Portraits of art donors were included as work of arts as a way to verify patronage, power and virtue.  Portraiture has also functioned as a way of remembering the dead or as memorial representations of ancestors (MSN Encarta 2006).

            The 18th century has often been described as the period that marked “the birth of the individual”.  Thus, one of the functions of portraiture was as an archetypical form of representation.  It was also viewed as a central tool of a humanist understanding of the past.  It functioned as a way of constructing an image for posterity (UCL History of Art 2005).

            England has been described as the nation with the greatest fondness for portraiture among all civilized nations, whether ancient or modern.  Portraiture in the 18th century and even today serves to enable individuals to represent themselves, their families, and their possessions.  In the 18th century in particular, portraitures contributed greatly to the organizing governance of the British elite by ensuring that their clothing, jewelry, and personal adornment were depicted accurately on portrait.  And the England especially in the 18th century, surpassed all other nations in Europe in terms of luxury of dress and personal appear.  In other words, the paintings function as expressions and articulations of wealth and luxury (von Archenholz 1797).

            According to art historian Margaretta Lovell (2005), portraits, particularly family-group portraits, showed new ideas about childhood and family in the 18th century (269).   For instance, in her book Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America (2005), Lovell pointed out that the father’s position in family portraits altered over time.  In the first half of the 18th century, the father dominated family portraits, but by the mid-century, the father’s position in family portraits placed him in positions that encouraged those who view his art “to focus on his progeny and not on him” (156).

Lovell also pointed out that mothers in the later part of the 18th century often moved to the center of the canvas, conveying the new idea that the mother’s role has been elevated by her custodial relationship to the child (Reason 2005).

            As mentioned, many other art historians have criticized portraitures as symbols of wealth and vanity among the British elite.  However, Lovell (2005) provides for two arguments against this criticism: 1) according to probate records from that century, family portraits were usually hung in private rooms rarely frequented by guests; and 2) unlike other luxury goods such as furniture or silverware, family portraits had almost no resale value.   Family portraits were valuable due to the subject matter of the portraits rather than the portrait’s aesthetic qualities.   Art buyers were less likely to buy portraits depicting another person’s family (Reason 2005).

            Lovell (2005) also argues that family portraits during the 18th century were commonly not for sale.   They were inherited and passed on from one generation to the other.  This, according to Lovell, indicates one of the primary functions of portraiture – reinforcement of kinship ties and family obligation among leading heirs (Reason 2005).

            The social functions of portrait miniatures are also indicative of values and mind frames of 18th century British elite.     As the trend towards accumulation of and spending on luxury goods prevailed over the middle and upper classes in Britain, the collection of miniature portraits expressly for display became one of the means of establishing a visual family tree with modest expenditure and without getting in the way of the limited spaces in many of the British urban homes of that period (Pointon 2001).

A head-and-shoulders view of a miniature portrait of an individual already provided an impression on that person’s social status.  Details of dress are usually omitted in miniatures, since these were viewed as things that will eventually go out of fashion.  Miniatures thus served to ensure that one generation will not discard the images of their ancestors for being outdated (Pointon 2001).

            As mentioned, the giving, receiving, and wearing of portrait miniatures was a part of fashionable social practice in 18th century Britain, one aspect of luxury which was characteristic of the nation for that period.  Miniatures could be mounted on a box, watch case, locket, or any object without disrupting the design of the container in which it was mounted.  However, the use of miniatures in this period was not a symbol of modesty.  Art historians of today maintain that ostentation governs the culture of miniatures in 18th century Britain.   The fashion for wearing miniatures was said to have been established when the Duchess of Kingston wore one when she was presented at court in 1769.   The Duchess wore the picture of the Electress of Saxony, expressing her loyalty thereto.  Thus, miniatures served as marks of private loyalty, whether to a husband, a father, or the Queen (Pointon 2001).

            Courtiers and the royal officials wore miniatures of their master.  In this it can be seen that one of the miniatures’ functions is for diplomatic purposes.  Women, wives in particular, wore images of their male kin, again emphasizing portraiture’s core function of kinship.   Miniatures were also symbols of private engagement, to show the world that a woman was engaged or betrothed to a particular male from a certain family (Pointon 2001).   Thus, another function of portraiture, through miniatures, can be said as to represent and symbolize loyalty and affection.

            Miniatures were regarded in the traditions of jewelry, and as such had great value in the domain of commerce.   The Ladies of Britain wore their miniature as great jewels, and have done more for this branch of portraiture than for all branches of painting put together (Gwynn 1766).  Theft of a miniature, and the subsequent sale thereof, was considered akin to selling the body of the lady to whom such miniature belonged to (Pointon 2001).

            Another important function that 18th century portraiture played in Britain was its expression of the societal attitude towards children.  During this period, extraordinary social change was deemed to have led to a transformation in the society’s attitudes towards children.  The study of British portraiture of children provides for an exploration on how and why artists during this period began to portray children in new ways in their paintings.   Childhood began to be valued as a distinct and important phase in human life and development.  This led to the growing popularity of “child portraits” during the 18th century, and this later evolved into a distinct genre of British art.   Often, child portraits showed the natural energy and spirit of children, depicting children in outdoor settings where they could be seen as products of nature.  This was in contrast to the formal conventions of portraiture which dated back to the Renaissance and continued to have a strong influence on adult portraiture in the early 18th century.   The depiction of children in portraits showed life and movement in the paintings, and are still perceived today as an important source of historical details on what life was like for children during the 18th century, as well as the evolving ideas about childhood (Abbot Hall Art Gallery 2005).

            Small-scale portraits also served distinct functions.   They provided intimacy and privacy for the owners within the personal spaces of those who purchased them.  They were displayed in print rooms, extra-illustrated books and miniature cabinets.  Print rooms were a fashionable form of 18th century interior decoration.  Portrait prints and drawings were also often placed in albums or in extra-illustrated books.   Portrait miniatures, as mentioned earlier, were worn as jewelry, but could also be hung individually on walls or arranged in groups on display cabinets or miniature cabinets which were popular at that time.  Apart from providing the owners a linkage with their ancestors, miniature cabinets in the 18th century were also maintained by collectors to showed prized miniatures steeped with historical or artistic value.  Small-scale portraits during the 18th century served to show notions of beauty and nationalism, celebrate fame or notoriety, express sentiment, or make historical or literary allusions.   In other words, collectors or owners did not necessarily have a connection with the sitter or subject of the small-scale portraits.   For instance, portraits of David Garrick, a famous actor of that period, and respected members of British aristocratic society, such as the Duke of Marlborough, hero of the Battle of Blenheim, were widely collected during this period (Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens 2003).

            Lastly, portraiture also served as conversation pieces, particularly with reference to pictures commissioned by families or friends to depict themselves in paintings as sharing common activities such as hunts, meals, or musical parties.   These portraits served as views of daily life during this period (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., “Tour: British Conversation” 2006)

Society or social portraiture, of whom Gainsborough was considered the master, served to capture not only the sitter’s likeness, but his or her refined sensibilities.   Gainsborough’s portraits were staged projections of a public persona, wherein the sitter, similar to today’s movie star spread in a magazine, was presented in his or her most perfect state.   This can be seen in portraits such as “The Morning Walk” depicting Mr. and Mrs. William Hallet by Gainsborough (Sherman 2003).


            The main function of portraiture in Britain during the 18th century was to represent wealth and luxury among British elite.  Miniatures, as a minor branch of portraiture, nevertheless had important social functions as they conveyed diplomatic purposes, loyalty to one’s master or family, and affection by those who wore or gave them.   Portraiture, particularly family-portraits, also functioned as reinforcement of kinship and family obligations.  They allowed the people of 18th century Britain to pay tribute to their ancestors and families by keeping these portraits within the family and in their homes.  Child portraits also served as relevant historical sources in understanding societal attitudes towards children in the 18th century, and the changes in these attitudes – as when childhood began to be perceived as an important aspect of human life and development.  Small-scale portraits also served to portray notions of beauty and nationalism, celebrate fame or notoriety, express sentiment, or make historical or literary allusions.   Portraits also served as marks of fame, wherein noted public persona were portrayed in their most perfect state.


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