Abstract Portraits - Reconciling the Figurative and its Opposite

January 6, 2017

Confronting particular challenges, abstract portraits exist in the world between high representation and high symbolism. The two phenomena which best describe the nature of abstract portraits are the following - the ability to see faces everywhere known as pareidolia and the ability to imprint values and emotions onto a person’s face known as empathy. The two describe the end points on the long line defining this form of creativity[1]. Unlike the arena of hyper-realistic portrait art, and images which attempt to showcase the likeness of its sitters and subject matter, abstract portraits leave the door to personal interpretation and reflections of the audience very much open.

acrylic media white/ black portrait by hinzufügen. original canvas media works for your home
Left: Paul Klee - Senecio. Image via wallpaper.com / Right: Robert Delaunay - Portrait of Madame Heim. Image via pinterest.com

What Defines the Nature of Abstract Portraits?

In the 16th-century, Italian painters and sculptors defined one of the most important art canons, which the avant-garde and the abstract portraits creatives managed to rebel against. The two broke the idea of the hierarchy of subject matter that the masters of the past defined. Placing historical scenes, which included both the historical paintings and the mythological, often allegorical images as the most respectable subject matter, the masters placed portrait art as the second most valuable form of art. In the classical sense, this form of art production was usually defined as the highly realistic image of a human, most often depicted from the head to about the middle of the torso. Usually, the images needed to reflect the status of the sitter, his/her nobility, and placement in the society, and in extreme cases, the ideas of magic in art. Apart from the human face, portrait art also included the entire human body, and even mythological figures, spiritual or fictional characters, and animals.

In contrast to such ideas, abstract portrait needed to incorporate two faculties to receive its definition. First, it needed to utilize the concept of portraiture in some way, and secondly, it needed to be an example of abstract art. As such, the painting needed to deal with the realm of ideas, or at least, avoid a purely objective or representational approach to reality.[2] Across an array of art disciplines, the abstract portrait can be a painting and drawing, but also a photograph, sculpture, installation, or even performance, which on a symbolical level incorporates the authors' or sitters’ qualities or defining trademarks.

like our  original mixed oil canvas portrait. white oil or acrylic paint was used for this portrait
Joan Miro - Head of a Woman. Image via pinterest.com

The Challenges and Obstacles of of an Abstract Portrait

From an interpretive standpoint, what can be most difficult and sometimes most controversial about appreciating abstract portraits, is that they are inherently personal. Demanding from its public deeper and more profound contemplations, abstract portraits are more difficult to define than other forms of non-representational depictions of reality. In comparison to geometric abstraction or monochromatic paintings, which can be analyzed and interpreted solely according to formal qualities, the ideas of rhythm in art, or of the symbolism of the visual language, the non- representation in dealing with the human form engages the viewer to also reflect upon their own identity and personal viewpoints. Apart from the fact that in order to attempt to master the hidden messages which such works of art hold one is required to turn towards oneself, such images also reflect the thoughts of the artist which created it. Depending on the color choice, the application of the paint, or incorporation of various symbols, the relationship between the work and its sitter could also be read ‘in-between the lines’.

mixed media
Left: Pablo Picasso - The Dream. Image via paintingandframe.com / Right: Willem de Kooning - Woman. Image via ideelart.com

Famous Authors Who Mastered Abstraction in Portraiture Paintings

The two most celebrated names who have created over hundreds of abstract portraits are Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning. Picasso’s preoccupation with the creation of a new aesthetic language, which helped to shape both analytic and synthetic Cubism, was also put to use in numerous portrait paintings the author created.[3] In most cases focused on the depiction of the female nude or of the human face, his images, such as the celebrated The Dream, distort the human form to the mere play of color and surfaces. Such an image is defined as a representation of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter. Understood as a controversial image due to the fact that many people see a phallus in the head of the figure, the painting raises various questions, such as whether or not the image reflects their relationship, or is it a mere erotic painting which shows us something about ourselves.

Similarly, when one attempts to address the abstract female portraits created by de Kooning, one is not merely focused on the gestural quality or the energy as in his landscape or other abstract paintings. A new vocabulary which attempts to interpret a deeper meaning of color, of shapes, and of the reason behind such an abstraction are discussed.

The most direct way to interpret abstract portraits is to follow the path of ideas they inspire. As such, they will not only reflect on the relationship between the artist and his subject but would also indicate the turn towards oneself. This is usually the case with most examples of abstraction in art, but since the abstraction attacks the shell we all share, the pure revolutionary understanding of one’s life and one’s identity is not far behind.

  Editors’ Tip: Portraiture (Oxford History of Art)

The author of the book Shearer West uncovers intriguing aspects of portraiture-a genre that has often been seen as purely representational, featuring examples from African tribes to Renaissance princes, and from "stars" such as David and Victoria Beckham to everyday people. West examines the many meanings and uses of portraits throughout the ages and includes a wide range of names from Botticelli to Picasso, and Hans Holbein to Frida Kahlo. In the process, she reveals the faces of the past in an exciting new way. Beautifully illustrated throughout, this book is a unique and accessible introduction to the history of portraiture.


  1. Calatrava, A., Abstract Portraits, Quim Nola, 2003
  2. Fer, B.,On Abstract Art, Yale University Press, 1997
  3. Schneider, N.,The Portrait, Taschen, 2002

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Willem de Kooning – Painting, detail. Image via pinterest.com

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