People in Art


The portrait had a particular significance before photography as a means of recording a likeness of an individual.   However, it also functioned to convey status, indicating wealth, power, culture and learning.


Our clearest idea of how people saw themselves – or wished to be seen – in the Middle Ages comes from tomb sculpture. From the early thirteenth century it was not uncommon for the tombs of the wealthy to be decorated with life-sized effigies. The effigies are not actual likenesses, but rather they are designed to demonstrate the high status of the deceased during life; showing civilian men in armour, women in their finest gowns and headdresses, and ecclesiastics in full vestments.

Sometimes the sides of tombs were also decorated with heraldry and figures designed to demonstrate the status and faith of the deceased. The person’s devoutness was demonstrated by the inclusion of depictions of various saints or Apostles. Particular saints may have been included because the deceased had a devotion to them, or to remind the living to say specific prayers, such as the Apostles’ Creed, over the grave.


The earliest surviving true portraits, which contain a likeness of the sitter, date to the sixteenth century. Demonstration of status remained key and was projected in various ways: through the environment in which the subject was shown, the landscape, architecture, furniture and objects surrounding them. Typically, sitters were shown in their most fashionable and expensive clothing, and often also with ‘props’ that signified their role in society, their learning, or some other aspect of their standing or character they wished to convey.

Portrait sculptures of significant figures in history and politics have often been monumentalised in public sculpture, particularly since the eighteenth century. From the late nineteenth century, increasing attention was paid to representing suitable Irish candidates, like Daniel O’Connell.

The development of photography in the nineteenth century led to concerns that portraiture would become obsolete and, while it has undoubtedly had an impact, the decline of the aristocracy in the nineteenth century was arguably at least as significant a factor. Both developments released the portrait from certain constraints, however, and there has been a general shift of focus from likeness and status, towards a sense of the underlying character of the sitter. One of the most extraordinary ideas for a ‘portrait’ is by Brian O’Doherty (aka Patrick Ireland) of the ground-breaking artist, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). O’Doherty used his medical training to make an electrocardiogram of the older artist, and the artwork shows the repeated graphic output of the pulsing heartbeat, thereby capturing not only an unusal ‘likeness’, but suggesting that his ‘heart’ lives on.

previousPrevious - Mythology
Next - Genre, narrative and allegorynext