What Are the Different Types of Fine Art Portraiture?

Jennifer Voight
Jennifer Voight
Some fine art portraiture might include paintings done of someone's dog and cat.
Some fine art portraiture might include paintings done of someone's dog and cat.

Fine art portraiture can be classified by media, subject or historical era. In addition to these more traditional classifications, there are other, more modern ways to define fine art portraiture, such as environmental portraits, which can be classified by their treatment of the subject and surroundings. Art is a constantly evolving field that allows for continuous innovations and new developments that arise as quickly as artists can explore and bring them into expression. This constant change brings about new interpretations of fine art portraiture and how it captures the living subject.

Sculpture is a type of fine art portraiture.
Sculpture is a type of fine art portraiture.

One type of fine art portraiture might be described according to the medium used to create it, such as modern photographic portraits that capture subjects such as celebrities, members of royalty, infants and newly wedded couples. Historically, fine art portraits have been created using oil paint because it was easier to manipulate and it dries slowly enough that an artist has more open time in which to work on a specific effect. Portraits might even be created as sculpted pieces in marble or wood, effectively capturing active life in a non-living, unmoving medium, as in the sculpture of a warrior on a rearing horse.

The most popular subject of fine art portraiture is the human subject in all its possible poses and depictions. In ancient times, portraiture subjects were nearly always members of royalty or nobility. Modern depictions of ordinary people in their natural surroundings have become more commonplace. Some fine artists have expanded the definition of portraiture by specializing in photographic or painted portraits of pets so that animal lovers can have depictions of their dogs, cats, horses or other beloved animals.

One purpose of fine art portraiture is to commemorate an important occasion in the life of the subject. People might commission photographers or painters to create portraits of pregnant mothers, children on their birthdays or couples who are engaged to be married. Some European cultures even have longstanding traditions of taking portraits of departed loved ones in their caskets, surrounded by flowers.

Portrait subjects might be depicted in a variety of poses. Ancient civilizations commonly preserved images of certain members of royalty and nobility in bust sculptures of the head and shoulders. During the Renaissance, full-length portraits of nobles were commonly commissioned by the subjects themselves. Frequently, these depictions were strictly controlled by the person in the portrait to convey an air of authority or power. Some of these people even had the artist manipulate details to make them appear more attractive by minimizing unappealing facial features. In the Victorian era, miniature profiles of loved ones were popular ways to capture portraits of loved ones and remained so until the widespread use of photography.

Modern interpretations of fine art portraiture have given artists freedom in the ways that they can manipulate lighting, poses and surroundings to better express the nature of the subject. Environmental portraiture places the subject amid surroundings that make a statement about and describe the identity of the person. Frequently the environment is of equal or greater importance in comparison with the subject of the portrait. An example of this would be portrait artist Arnold Newman’s depiction of artist Man Ray in front of one of Ray’s paintings or pianist Igor Stravinsky with his piano.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - The thing is, photography is not a replacement for fine art. A good photographer is creating fine art with his or her work as well.

People do complain about the fact that art seems to be so different today than what they see in old museums, but back then there were rich people who would completely support an artist while they spent years on a single piece. Most artists simply cannot take the time to do that these days, because they can't afford it.


@Mor - One of the best things about the internet is that there is going to be a hundred different artists on it doing almost exactly what you want to see. I've seen some stunning art recently that was almost indistinguishable from fine art photography and it is often of people's faces.

The main difference seems to be that they are usually either digital, or done with a dry media, like pencils. Oils seem to be less popular, but I suspect that's because they are expensive and take a long time to use properly.


I love it when people do traditional fine art portraiture combined with modern subjects. It seems like realism has gone out of fashion when it comes to people, unfortunately. I see a lot of ultra realistic art that takes on subjects like water or plastics or scenes at night, which, admittedly, are very difficult and showcase the skill of the artist.

But there is very little that is as interesting to me as the human face, captured with the intention of faithfully recording it rather than glamorizing it. I guess since there are so many people photographing faces that people don't feel the need to paint them anymore.

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    • Some fine art portraiture might include paintings done of someone's dog and cat.
      By: jagodka
      Some fine art portraiture might include paintings done of someone's dog and cat.
    • Sculpture is a type of fine art portraiture.
      By: William Richardson
      Sculpture is a type of fine art portraiture.