Portraits: Nineteenth Century
History, Characteristics of 19th-Century Romantic, Realist, Impressionist, Symbolist Portraits.

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Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1820)
by realist Theodore Gericault.

See: Definition and meaning of Art.

19th Century Portrait Paintings


Art During the Nineteenth Century
Academic Portraiture

Further Resources

• For the greatest portrait painters, see: Best Portrait Artists.
• For a list of the Top 50 Portraits, see: Greatest Portrait Paintings.
• For more about the different types of painting, see: Painting Genres.

Portrait of Mrs. Collman (1865)
National Portrait Gallery, London.
By Alfred Stevens. See also:
English Figurative Painting.

Head of a Capri Girl (1878)
Private Collection. By the American
Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

For Expressionist portraiture,
see: Expressionist portraits.
See also: Portraits by Picasso,
and 20th Century portrait artists.

Art During The Nineteenth Century

Fine art painting during the nineteenth century was influenced by several factors. First, the Industrial Revolution began to create a class of wealthy businessmen, a number of whom became art collectors or contributed to the endowment of art museums and galleries. This in turn allowed more artists to take up painting full-time, and led to the establishment of numerous art groups and artist colonies (eg. Pont-Aven). It also led to the emergence of fashionable styles of art, the most famous of which was Impressionism - a style marked by loose brushwork and non-natural colours. Second, the arrival of photography during the 1830s - while initially helpful to artists - signalled the death-knell of portrait art, which duly became far less popular by 1900. Fortunately, the worldwide proliferation during the 19th century of mass circulation newspapers and inexpensive books stimulated demand for illustration and other forms of graphic art, although even this was unable to halt the decline of the professional portrait painter. The era of the great Society portraitist - like John Singer Sargent - was drawing to a close. By the end of World War I (1918), it would be over. Nonetheless, for the 19th century at least, portraiture was still one of the few ways for a professional artist to earn a living. NOTE: For an explanation of 19th century portraits, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Portrait art in the nineteenth century encompassed several different styles, each reflecting part of the cultural jigsaw of the period.

The style of Romanticism attracted artists who wanted to liberate art from old fashioned values; the Academic style of art was embraced by those who favoured the cultural status quo - in England, this included followers of Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Meantime, on the Continent, Romanticism quickly gave way to Realism, a style which reflected the new Industrial Revolution and its effects on rural communities. Later in the century, Romanticism and Realism (in effect) combined to create French Impressionism. Although the aesthetics of this new style of painting were best expressed in landscape painting, a number of Impressionist painters produced some outstanding portraits. From about 1885 onwards, the Romantic impulse found expression in the Symbolism movement, which endured until the outbreak of war, in 1914. Romanticism was but one of the new forms of Post-Impressionism that flourished in the final two decades of the century.

Portrait of a Woman (1885)
Private Collection. By the great
American Impressionist painter
William Merritt Chase.

For a guide to the different forms
of fine and applied arts,
please see: TYPES OF ART.

Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899)
Petit Palais, Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. By Cezanne.


Romantic art stood for self-expression, and favoured a dramatic, emotional and heroic style. Evocative treatment of light, vigorous brush strokes and inspirational content were other hallmarks of Romantic portraiture. The Spanish artist Goya began as a Neoclassicist but turned towards Romanticism in portraits such as: The Nude Maja (La maja desnuda) (1800), and the extraordinary Saturn Devouring His Son (1821). In France, Theodore Gericault was celebrated for his pictures of mental patients, such as: Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1819) and Portrait of a Woman Addicted to Gambling (1822), while Eugene Delacroix, the leader of French Romanticism, used bold colours and a dashing style which echoed Old Masters like the Venetian colourist Titian and the great Baroque portraitist Rubens. In England, Romantic artists included members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose works are exemplified by the portraits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti such as Lady Lillith (1868) and Proserpine (1882), as well as those of Edward Burne-Jones. Three other notable English portrait painters of the Victorian era were the Symbolist artist GF Watts, the more classical Alfred Stevens and the Romantic royal painter Edwin Landseer (1802-73).


Realism: Realist-Style Portraiture

Realist artists depicted a variety of ordinary people in undramatic settings, often using a restricted subtle palette of subdued colours. The American expatriate James McNeill Whistler painted numerous such works, including: Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871). In France, the leader of the Realism school was Gustave Courbet, one of the first artists to build up a thick impasto of pigment with a palette knife. His genre-portraits included: The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory (1855). Meanwhile, the farmer's son Jean-Francois Millet focused on rural life in his series of genre-portraits, such as: The Sower (1850) and Man with a Hoe (1862).

Honore Daumier, incidentally one of the greatest exponents of caricature art, created numerous portraits (in the form of drawing, watercolours and prints) of French men and women living under a corrupt regime. His figure drawing and figure painting demonstrates a mastery of facial expressions. In Germany, probably the three finest portrait painters included the society portraitists Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904) and Max Liebermann (1847-1935), as well as Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), who was famous for his dispassionate portraiture of rural people and peasant genre scenes. In Russia, the great Russian realist portrait artist Ilya Repin painted Dukes, writers and peasants.

Academic Portraiture

Harking back to Neoclassicism and the Renaissance, Academic painting declined throughout the nineteenth century. Five of its top exponents were (1) J.A.D. Ingres - whose greatest works included Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832) and Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856); (2) Edgar Degas who painted The Bellelli Family (1858-67); (3) John Singer Sargent, whose masterpieces included The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Portrait of Madame X; (4) Thomas Eakins, and (5) the great Russian genius Ivan Kramskoy (Portrait of a Young Woman, 1882, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).


The most famous Impressionist portraits include works by:

• Edouard Manet
Olympia (1863) Musee d'Orsay.
Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) Musee d'Orsay.
Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872) Musee d'Orsay.
• Auguste Renoir
Young Boy with a Cat (1868) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
La Loge (1874) Courtauld Institute.
Portrait of Madame Charpentier and Her Children (1879) Met Museum, NY.
• Claude Monet
Woman in a Green Dress (1866) Kunsthalle, Bremen.
La Japonaise (1879) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
• Edgar Degas
Portraits at the Bourse (1878) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Absinthe (1878) Musee d'Orsay.
Valentin Serov
Girl with Peaches (1887) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Portrait of Isaac Levitan (1893) Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Post-Impressionism is an umbrella term for a number of differing styles that followed Impressionism during the 1880s, including Neo-Impressionism, Les Nabis and early forms of Expressionism. Post-Impressionist painters noted for their portraiture include:

• Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1890) EG Buhrle Foundation, Zurich.
Man Smoking a Pipe (1890-2) Hermitage, St Petersburg.
Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5) Musee d'Orsay.
Lady in Blue
(1900) Hermitage, St Petersburg.
Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) J.Paul Getty Museum.
• Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
Madonna (1895) National Gallery Oslo.
• Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)
Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) Private Collection.
• Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
Brooding Woman (1891) Worcester Art Museum.


Symbolist painters rejected direct, literal representation in favour of suggestion and inference. A forerunner of expressionism, Symbolism was essentially a subjective, emotional style opposed to naturalist Impressionism. Important Symbolist portrait painters include: Odilon Redon (Lady with Wildflowers, 1895-1900, Hermitage, St Petersburg; Femme Voilee, 1899, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo.) and Fernand Khnopff (I lock My Door Upon Myself, 1891, Neue Pinakothek, Munich).

The next article covers Impressionist Portraits.

• For more about 19th century portraiture, see: Homepage.

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