National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Modern Portraits in Photography

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Like other traditional artistic genres, portraiture was radically transformed with the advent of modern art. Before the 1800s, portraits typically depicted a sitter's external likeness; they also indicated his or her standing in society through clothing, setting, or the choice of surrounding objects. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, many artists rejected surface impressions. They argued that to reveal a person's character, one needed to show normally invisible elements such as mood or state of mind. Furthermore, artists wanted to address the unnatural space of art—flat canvases, self-contained chunks of wood or stone—as much as the natural space of the sitter. From the 1890s onward unnatural colors, distorted physical features, and abstract or nonrealistic settings became hallmarks of portraiture in advanced painting and sculpture.

Photographers transformed the scope of portraiture as well, beginning soon after the invention of the medium in 1839. Small, inexpensive photographs, such as tintypes or cartes-de-visite, catered to a broadly held desire for individual likenesses, expanding the clientele for portraits from affluent elites to middle-class multitudes. Nor were people interested in seeing or owning just their own portrait. Studios such as the firm of Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, established in Boston in 1843, or the Parisian salon opened in the 1850s by Nadar (Gaspar-Félix Tournachon), vied to photograph famous sitters, whose portraits were then sold or reproduced in print for mass distribution. Wide circulation of these portraits created the thoroughly modern phenomenon of stardom, bestowing upon images of politicians, actors, and even bohemian intellectuals, such as the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, the status of icon.

In the early twentieth century, artistically ambitious photographers drew inspiration both from advanced vanguard art and commercial portrait photography.

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