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Portraits: Why do we love them?

Art Lovers | 2 May 2019

By Mandy McGuire


The ultimate proof that we love the human face can be seen on Facebook, Instagram and in the rise of the Instagram “influencer”. We have been in love with our own image probably since the first persons looked into a glassy pool and saw themselves looking back. We are also terribly voyeuristic, and we adore a good sticky-beak at other countenances, be it on the screen or on the wall in a fancy frame.

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Georgia Maq… by JESKA VALK (Portia Geach Finalist 2018)

Before the invention of the camera, portraits of the wealthy kept many a struggling artist in pocket money. The famous Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, painted portraits of the aristocracy (he was the official Court painter) to fund his secret anarchy art such as the devastating images of the atrocities of war following the Napoleonic invasion.

Guy by ANNE MIDDLETON (2018 Archibald Prize Finalist)

Even Leonardo da Vinci relied on portraiture to make a decent wage. Next time you’re checking out The Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris (get in line!) take note of the landscape behind the sitter. That was Mr Da Vinci entertaining himself with landscape while completing his paid commission.

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Apparently, The Mona Lisa is “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”(John Litchfield, 2005). When it was valued in 2015, it was estimated as being worth 582 million dollars. That is conservative. Imagine if it went to auction.

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2017 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize WinnerThe Lunar Savant (Portrait of McLean Edwards) by TIM STORRIER

In Australia, big art prizes like The Archibald, The Doug Moran and the The Portia Geach Memorial are testament to our love of the painted portrait. In 2017, just under 150,000 visitors paid $18 each to see the Archibald at Art Gallery, NSW. The only other exhibition to come close to these numbers was the fabulous 2017 Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition, also dominated by portraiture.

The 2017 Archibald Prize WinnerAgatha Gothe-Snape by MITCH CAIRNS

Most Australians know about the Archibald Wynne and Sulman Prize; it has become almost as iconic as the Melbourne Cup (dare I say it). Every year, The Archibald attracts numerous entrants including many new artists, and nearly always a bit of controversy.This year was no different. ‘Hrmmph!’ they said, ‘Call that a portrait?’ The old guard of artists were very ‘look-down-their-noses’ at the younger Mitch Cairns and his so called Matisse-esk portrait of his wife and artist, Agatha Gothe-Snape. The Archibald thrives on the attention. Probably the most historic bit of hysteria was over William Dobell’s portrait in 1943, of the artist, Joshua Smith.

Archibald Prize Winner 1943Mr Joshua Smith by WILLIAM DOBELL

The controversy was around the idea that Dobell’s painting was a caricature rather than a portrait. Dobell himself said, “I use an element of distortion in order to make the portrait more like the subject than he is himself” (Scott Bevan, 2014, The Sydney Morning Herald

Embrace by TAMARA ARMSTRONG (Michelle Law – Writer, Playwright & Actor)

Today everyone is a photographer, and everyone has umpteen images of them self on file. So why does the portrait still hold our gaze? I guess it as Dobell said. We want the artist to reveal the hidden, to expose the truth of the sitter. Who are they really? We, in turn, secretly want that to happen to us. We want the artist to reveal the true self away from the mirror and the smart phone. We may not feel totally comfortable with it, but we want to know who we really are.

Cropped Monique Close Up


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About the author:

Mandy McGuire, visual artist, freelance writer, and curator, has been an art educator for 25 years. She was Director of Mangkaja Arts in the Kimberley from 2006 until 2008, during which time she contributed essays to a number of publications pertaining to Australian Aboriginal art.


Lichfield, John (1 April 2005). “The Moving of the Mona Lisa”. The Independent. Archived from the original on 9 November 2016


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