We tend to think of public relations as a modern invention, but the desire for self-promotion is hardly new. In the days before the news release and the photo call, the most effective means of image control was the painted portrait.
In the early 16th century, a format of portraiture developed that was stunning in its impact, showing subjects life-size, full-length and standing. The scale was unprecedented in secular art, being previously reserved for depictions of God and the saints. It was also the most expensive form of self-promotion that money could buy. Such a portrait conferred instant status.
Originally the preserve of monarchy and of the high nobility, the full-length portrait was later adopted by those a little lower down the social scale. But they all used the format to communicate who they were — or who they would like to be.
In the exhibition “High Society,” running through June 3, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has gathered almost 40 magnificent full-length portraits from the 16th to the 20th centuries by the leading artists of their day. The paintings offer a fascinating insight into the messages that the great and the good sought to convey about themselves.
The Habsburg emperor Charles V popularized the full-length portrait for the Europe’s ruling elites in the 16th century. Fully aware of its religious origins, he was effectively declaring himself God’s representative on Earth. He had five such portraits made during the 1530s to be hung in palaces across his vast territories, which included the Holy Roman Empire in Europe and the Spanish Empire that stretched to Asia and the Americas. He was evidently eager to make sure his subjects absorbed the powerful message.
“It was all about propaganda and PR,” said Jonathan Bikker, the curator of the Rijksmuseum exhibition. “I think that’s why the monarchy and the high nobility had such a strong hold on that format. They made it associated with them and them alone.”
The nobility would often use the full-length portrait to celebrate the union of two influential families. Such was the case with Henry IV, duke of Saxony, and his bride, Catherine of Mecklenburg, whose 1514 portraits by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder were opulently adorned in the colors of their coats of arms. The continuation of a powerful dynasty could also be emphasized by the inclusion of children.
The association of the nobility attracted the Dutch bourgeoisie to the format in the 17th century. Having gained wealth and power, they used their portraits to claim a comparable importance.
肖像畫（portrait painting或portraiture）是繪畫的一個類型（genre），原本主要以大人物（the great and the good）為描繪對象，後來有越來越多中產階級委託人（client）央請畫家為家人或同儕繪製。
肖像畫人物的呈現方式包括：全身入畫（full length）、半身（half length）、頭部與肩膀（bust）、僅描繪頭部、臉部略偏向一側（three-quarter view）或臉部正面（full face）。被描繪者可以穿衣或裸體，站著、坐著、斜倚著（recline）甚至騎在馬背上。
偶爾會有委託人或其家人對成品不滿意，要求畫家修飾（retouch）或重畫（do it over）或根本不付酬勞。
要畫出成功的肖像畫，必須掌握人體解剖學（human anatomy），熟知骨骼與組織結構。熟練的畫家知道人臉左右不對稱（asymmetrical ），畫出來的左右臉會有些微不同，達文西著名的肖像畫「蒙娜麗莎」即為一例。