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Portrayal and the Search for Identity

We are surrounded with portraits: from the cipher-like portrait of a president on a bank note to security pass photos; from images of politicians in the media to Facebook; from galleries exhibiting Titian or Leonardo to contemporary art deploying the self-image, as with Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman. In antiquity portraiture was of major importance in the exercise of power. Today it remains not only a part of everyday life, but also a crucial way for artists to define themselves in relation to their environment and their contemporaries. 
In Portrayal and the Search for Identity, Marcia Pointon investigates how we view and understand portraiture as a genre and how portraits function as artworks within social and political networks. Likeness is never a straightforward matter, as we rarely have the subject of a portrait as a point of comparison. Featuring familiar canonical works and little-known portraits, Portrayal seeks to unsettle notions of portraiture as an art of convention, a reassuring reflection of social realities. Pointon invites readers to consider how identity is produced pictorially and where likeness is registered apart from in a face. In exploring these issues, she addresses wide-ranging problems such as the construction of masculinity in dress, representations of slaves, and self-portraiture in relation to mortality.

272 pages | 45 color plates, 55 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Art: Art--General Studies

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“‘Portraiture is a slippery and seductive art; it encourages us to feel that then is now and now is then.’ This statement by Pointon encapsulates the intentions of her fascinating scholarly foray into the nature of this genre, and its functions in societies past and present. . . . A well-illustrated volume that makes a significant contribution to art criticism and theory. Highly recommended.”


 “Marcia Pointon turns her attention to 18th-century teens, slaves and male costume, questioning the relationship between portraiture and power. A final chapter on self-portraiture, with examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, brings this learned yet accessible volume up to the present day.”

Art Quarterly

 “Even while deciphering the meanings of language, sign and image, she never loses sight of the actuality of the portrait, whether painted, engraved, sculpted or photographed. It is refreshing to witness a conceptual art historian keeping her eye resolutely on the ball: the portrait as a physical artifact is never taken for granted, and is constantly questioned as to how it was made and how it functioned.”


 “Portrayal and the Search for Identity is a compelling study by one of the foremost scholars writing on portraiture. Marcia Pointon draws upon a remarkable range of historical examples and methodological approaches to produce a book of great originality and sophistication. It addresses important current issues in the field and will be invaluable not only to historians and art historians but to critics, curators and artists.”

Peter Funnell, Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London

 “This book breaks new ground in the field of portrait studies. Marcia Pointon re-frames our understanding of the meanings and functions of portraiture, both modern and historical. She deftly encourages the reader to extend the boundaries of traditional art history, engaging with thorny issues of identity, surveillance, gender and cultural politics in her persuasive analysis of ‘what do portraits do?’ Well-known works by for example, Thomas Lawrence, Jeff Koons and Sam Taylor Wood are explored alongside the less well charted territory of portraits of slavery, adolescence and death. Insights drawn from visual culture, philosophy, anthropology, gender studies and fashion history inform this innovative study, constantly reminding the reader that portraiture is a ‘slippery and seductive art.’”

Gill Perry, The Open University

“There are few historians of British art who have not been inspired by [Pointon’s] nimble imagination, unexpected visual analysis and deep intellectual engagement with her textual and visual sources past and present. Her latest collection of essays on portraiture will not disappoint her admirers. . . . Her accrued wisdom on the topic of portraiture is scattered throughout the book in a number of passages that provide fresh insights and welcome observations.”

Shearer West | Burlington Magazine

Table of Contents


1. Portrait, Fact and Fiction
2. Slavery and the Possibilities of Portraiture
3. Adolescence, Sexuality and Colour in Portraiture: Sir Thomas Lawrence
4. Accessories in Portraits: Stockings, Buttons and the Construction of Masculinity in the Eighteenth Century
5. The Skull in the Studio

Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements

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