Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture


Historically, portraiture’s authority has rested on its ability to offer an enduring and tangible impression of a human subject. Indeed, both classical and Christian mythologies stress the powerful presence of portraits: the beautiful youth Narcissus met his demise after being mesmerized by his own reflection in a pool of water while the veil that St. Veronica used to wipe Christ’s face on Mount Cavalry became a venerated relic said to bear the true likeness of Christ.

Much of the power ascribed to portraiture has depended on the artist’s ability to vividly capture the nuances and peculiarities of a person’s physical appearance and character. Portraits were deemed successful when the image resembled the original to such a degree that the person represented appeared to be momentarily present before the viewer’s eyes.

Towards the end of the 19thcentury, portraiture underwent a change as photography assumed the painted portrait’s imitative function and modernist aesthetics challenged traditional emphasis on naturalistic representation. Turning away from the pursuit of life-like depictions, artists relied on abstraction, repetition and other techniques to engage with the idea of personal identity—how it is constructed and event whether it possible to represent it.

Critical approaches to portraiture observe that portraits are by definition always of and about someone but who this person is and how he/she is perceived depends on number of factors. In addition to being a product of a sitter’s sense of how they would like to be represented, the artist’s perception of the sitter, and the viewer’s interpretation of the finished product, portraits are informed by the social and historical values and beliefs that frame these very perceptions.

The exhibition Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture will feature 20th century examples of portraits that address these changes in the perceived nature of personal identity and its representation. Portraits feature celebrities and historical figures whose public roles question the traditional function of portraiture. Andy Warhol’s Liz Taylor for example appears to be more about how a person becomes an image than an accurate representation of the person “behind” the portrait. Caricatures similarly dismantle the notion that portraits reveal some hidden essence of an individual by fixing features in a mask and reducing an individual to a type. The various portraits of America’s former presidents remind us that we often remember people not as they were but as they appeared to be through images.

Culled from the Figge’s collection as well as significant loans from private collections and the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the portraits in this exhibition serve as a reminder of portraiture’s continuing importance as an artistic genre.

Sponsored by





Don Decker and Andy Trasowech


This exhibition is on view through February 17, 2013.

Tours of Picturing Identity will be offered every Sunday at 1:30, January 27th thru February 17th.


Companion Event

Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture Curator Lecture
7 pm Thursday February 7, 2013
Presenter: Rima Girnius, PhD

Join exhibition curator Rima Girnius for an introduction in the gallery.

Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture


Historically, portraiture’s authority has rested on its ability to offer an enduring and tangible impression of a human subject. Indeed, both classical and Christian mythologies stress the powerful presence of portraits: the beautiful youth Narcissus met his demise after being mesmerized by his own reflection in a pool of water while the veil that St. Veronica used to wipe Christ’s face on Mount Cavalry became a venerated relic said to bear the true likeness of Christ.

Much of the power ascribed to portraiture has depended on the artist’s ability to vividly capture the nuances and peculiarities of a person’s physical appearance and character. Portraits were deemed successful when the image resembled the original to such a degree that the person represented appeared to be momentarily present before the viewer’s eyes.

Towards the end of the 19thcentury, portraiture underwent a change as photography assumed the painted portrait’s imitative function and modernist aesthetics challenged traditional emphasis on naturalistic representation. Turning away from the pursuit of life-like depictions, artists relied on abstraction, repetition and other techniques to engage with the idea of personal identity—how it is constructed and event whether it possible to represent it.

Critical approaches to portraiture observe that portraits are by definition always of and about someone but who this person is and how he/she is perceived depends on number of factors. In addition to being a product of a sitter’s sense of how they would like to be represented, the artist’s perception of the sitter, and the viewer’s interpretation of the finished product, portraits are informed by the social and historical values and beliefs that frame these very perceptions.

The exhibition Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture will feature 20th century examples of portraits that address these changes in the perceived nature of personal identity and its representation. Portraits feature celebrities and historical figures whose public roles question the traditional function of portraiture. Andy Warhol’s Liz Taylor for example appears to be more about how a person becomes an image than an accurate representation of the person “behind” the portrait. Caricatures similarly dismantle the notion that portraits reveal some hidden essence of an individual by fixing features in a mask and reducing an individual to a type. The various portraits of America’s former presidents remind us that we often remember people not as they were but as they appeared to be through images.

Culled from the Figge’s collection as well as significant loans from private collections and the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the portraits in this exhibition serve as a reminder of portraiture’s continuing importance as an artistic genre.

Sponsored by





Don Decker and Andy Trasowech


This exhibition is on view through February 17, 2013.

Tours of Picturing Identity will be offered every Sunday at 1:30, January 27th thru February 17th.


Companion Event

Picturing Identity: The Allure of Portraiture Curator Lecture
7 pm Thursday February 7, 2013
Presenter: Rima Girnius, PhD

Join exhibition curator Rima Girnius for an introduction in the gallery.