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Art Through Time: A Global View

Portraits Compare: What Does “likeness” Mean?

Memorial Head

Memorial Head
Artist / Origin: Akan artist, Twifo region, Hemang city, Ghana
Region: Africa
Date: 17th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Terracotta, roots, quartz fragments
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: approx. 8 in. (20.24 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Artist / Origin: Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Region: Europe
Date: 1906
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 39 3/8 in. (100 cm.), W: 32 in. (81.3 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946 © 2009 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What does “likeness” mean?

The notion that likeness means an accurate representation of individual facial features in a realistic mode is an idea that is very much rooted in Western European tradition and one that did not gain widespread currency until the Renaissance. In their own ways, both the terracotta portrait head and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein demand that we reconsider what a likeness might be, and in the process, question our assumptions about what portraiture is.

Questions to Consider

  • Neither the terracotta head nor Gertrude Stein offers a likeness in the expected sense. Do you think “likeness” is a useful term for talking about these images? Why or why not?
  • Given that these images do not precisely replicate the physical features of their subjects, do you think they qualify as “portraits”? In what sense?
  • What does each of these images suggest about the function(s) it was intended to fulfill in its original context? How do you think that function has changed over time?

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Art Through Time: A Global View

Credits

Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2