Until the invention of photography, depictions of people were the only way to record their appearance. Portraits have always been more than mere records, however, and are used to convey power, importance, virtue, wealth, beauty, or learning, among many other qualities. Portraits can be painted, sculpted or drawn, and can focus on the whole body of the subject or just the head, or can even crop out a portion of the face. They can seek to recreate a likeness with great accuracy, or they can experiment with abstraction and other styles of representation. The art of portraiture dates back at least 5,000 years, when it first emerged in the Fertile Crescent civilizations of Egypt, Sumer, and the Indus Valley.

In general, early portrait painting placed little emphasis on exact likeness, and most works were painted on objects other than cloth or skin, such as stone, clay, plaster, metal, wood, or mummy. Later, in Roman times, a higher degree of technical skill and realism was achieved, with the exception of the extremely stylized images of Terentius Neo and his wife (National Archaeological Museum, Naples). In the 17th century portrait painting reached its greatest height of achievement in Europe. At the same time, it shifted away from the objective and scientific approach of history painting and became more akin to a record of the great and good of society. Portrait painters like Jacques-Andre-Joseph Aved, Francois-Hubert Drouais and Louis-Michel Van Loo sought to portray their subjects in an idealized manner while retaining accuracy. Portrait sculpture also moved toward greater realism, as exemplified by the Kuba ruler Shamba Bolongongo’s carved mummy portraits.

During the American Revolution and early Republic, artists who specialized in portraiture served the wealthy members of a newly expanding middle class. They commissioned portraits for personal and familial reasons, such as recording their lineage. Joshua Johnson, one of the few African American portrait painters active at this period, created many such works. Portraiture became more popular with the introduction of photography, although portraitists still occupied a relatively minor position in the overall spectrum of art. Photographs often emphasized the face, with the rest of the body cropped out. This approach was popular with the newly affluent and urbanizing population in America, who wished to preserve their image for posterity. Artists today continue to experiment with portraiture, in both painting and photography.

A number of artists have returned to figuration in their work, such as Elizabeth Peyton, whose portraits of contemporary art-world figures and celebrities explore youth, fame, and beauty. Other artists have chosen to manipulate their photographs beyond the original likeness of the sitter, using techniques like dodging and burning in the darkroom or more recently, digital software such as Photoshop. These images are sometimes referred to as composite images. They can also be characterized by a style that is more expressive and less realistic, as in the work of Bill Wylie. These artistic choices make portraiture a fascinating area for exploration.