Sheldon Museum of Art



Face to Face

Date of this Version



Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, September 1988- April 1989


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 1989 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


Among the various types of artistic expression, portraits are probably considered the most approachable by the greatest number of people. And yet, upon closer consideration, it is evident that no amount of scrutiny on the part of the artist, or the viewer, can deliver the portrait from a fundamental limbo resulting from its dual referential and aesthetic functions. The portrait partakes of a variety of truths, but never resides within anyone verity. The philosophical debate about the nature of likeness has raged since the time of Plato, and remains unresolved.

The motivations and limitations of portraiture have changed over the course of history. During the Renaissance, portraits were used not only to record historical personages, but also to advertise the role of the subject. The sitter typically sought to be portrayed as if "from nature," a request which required the artist to achieve a "true likeness." But Renaissance verisimilitude was acceptable only in an idealized form, thus Renaissance portraits typically achieve a balance between the classical ideal and actuality. Artists sought this balance in different ways, some accentuating the real, some the ideal. Thus, while facial imperfections and idiosyncrasies are faithfully recorded, an idealistic veneer is also apparent.

During the seventeenth century, portraiture more directly embraced the mind of the subject. Artists were fascinated with the details of costume and peculiarities of character. Also, dramatic lighting was used to promote the importance of the sitter to the viewer. Typically, the subject would directly encounter the viewer with a steady gaze. Sometimes an arm or hand would drape over a foreground windowsill or ledge. Thus the subject's proximity to the picture plane made the subject appear to enter the viewer's space. The Baroque portrait style was perhaps the most influential type, and remains the dominant traditional approach to likeness.