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A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Most early representations that are clearly intended to show an individual are of rulers, and tend to follow idealizing artistic conventions, rather than the individual features of the subject's body, though when there is no other evidence as to the ruler's appearance the degree of idealization can be hard to assess. Nonetheless, many subjects, such as Akhenaten and some other Egyptian pharaohs, can be recognised by their distinctive features. The 28 surviving rather small statues of Gudea, ruler of Lagash in Sumeria between c. 2144 - 2124 BC, show a consistent appearance with some individuality.

Some of the earliest surviving painted portraits of people, who were not rulers, are the Greco-Roman funeral portraits that survived in the dry climate of Egypt's Fayum district. These are almost the only paintings from the classical world that have survived, apart from frescos, though many sculptures survive, and portraits on coins. Although the appearance of the figures differs considerably, they are considerably idealized, and all show relatively young people, making it uncertain whether they were painted from life.

The art of the portrait flourished in Ancient Greek and especially Roman sculpture, where sitters demanded individualized and realistic portraits, even unflattering ones. During the 4th century, the portrait began to retreat in favor of an idealized symbol of what that person looked like. (Compare the portraits of Roman Emperors Constantine I and Theodosius I at their entries.) In the Europe of the Early Middle Ages representations of individuals are mostly generalized. True portraits of the outward appearance of individuals re-emerged in the late Middle Ages, in tomb monuments, donor portraits, miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and then panel paintings.

Moche culture of Peru was one of the few ancient civilizations which produced portraits. These works accurately represent anatomical features in great detail. The individuals portrayed would have been recognizable without the need for other symbols or a written reference to their names. The individuals portrayed were members of the ruling elite, priests, warriors and even distinguished artisans. They were represented during several stages of their lives. The faces of gods were also depicted. To date, no portraits of women have been found. There is particular emphasis on the representation of the details of headdresses, hairstyles, body adornment and face painting.

One of the best-known portraits in the Western world is Leonardo da Vinci's painting titled Mona Lisa, which is a painting of Lisa del Giocondo. What has been claimed as the world's oldest known portrait was found in 2006 in the Vilhonneur grotto near Angoulême and is thought to be 27,000 years old.

 

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