Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

What is a Portrait?

We can find portraits in most stately homes, museums and art galleries, as well as in our own homes. Portraits can be paintings, drawings, sculptures or photographs which record our changing identity and aspirations. In earlier times, many people would have had only one portrait painted in their lifetime, if at all, so artists were selected with great care and expectations were high.


Portrait showing head and shoulders of a man with a moustache and short grey hair. He wears a white shirt with a dark blue jacket and stands against a bright orange background.
Portrait of a Man, by William Ramsden Brealey

 Portraits are artistic representations of people. They can be created in any media, from traditional oil paintings, to photographs, sculpture and even mixed media. Portraits can show part figures, usually showing the sitter's head and shoulders, but they can also depict the whole figure. They can also illustrate more than one person, in a group portrait.


When making a portrait the artist aims to show the sitter's appearance as well as some elements of their character. Portraits often relate to a message, which the artist or person who commissioned the work wished to relay, such as the beauty of a daughter being wooed by a king, or the wealth and power of a monarch.