The Human Touch? What is the Value of the Artist/Sitter Relationship to Contemporary Portrait Painting

Awarding Institution

University of Newcastle

Date of Award


Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Humanities and Creative Arts

First Advisor

Dr Christian Messham-Muir

Second Advisor

Dr Richard Morris

Staff Classification



‘The re-emergence of all figurative art as progressive and groundbreaking’[1] since the last quarter of the twentieth century continues to manifest itself through portraits of individuals external to the artist as well as through the artist’s self-scrutiny, self-portraiture. In Western art, a portrait made by an artist of another person, the ‘sitter’, remains a unique artform in that its production is necessarily dependent on the co-operation and collaboration of both parties, often artist and non-artist; two divergent worlds coming together on which, nevertheless, an artwork relies.

The interest and cultural value afforded portraiture is evidenced through newly established twenty-first century portrait galleries, collections and prestigious portrait prizes, garnering huge public and media interest, impressive monetary awards, sponsorship and submissions from highly reputable and, often, high profile painters. This gives assurance to uncertainties concerning portraiture’s valued status as art[2], countering suggestions of marginalization within contemporary painting,[3] and affirming that ‘portraiture has held its own’ despite the turn away from it, generally, through twentieth century abstraction.[4] However, though ‘performance art, body art, video art, photographic manipulation and appropriation, along with other innovations…encouraged the return to figuration’,[5] the submission and acquisition protocols of both new and long-established portrait galleries and portrait prizes heavily demand the portrait be in the specific medium of paint. Furthermore they more often than not categorically stipulate the physical meeting between artist and sitter as mandatory for purposes of making the painted portrait. This research investigates the argument that the practice of painting, and that the painting is, at least partially, painted from life, appropriately serves the conveyance of shared experiences and observations made over a period of time shared between two parties; that a physical meeting, which can be described as human touch, is of significant value to the expression of the artist’s ideas, the practice of painting, and as a unique testimonial of both parties relationship for that period of time.

[1] Wendy Wick Reeves, (Ed.) Reflections/Refractions. Washington, DC. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press. 2009. 8.

[2] Joanna Woodall, ed. Portraiture: Facing the Subject .(Manchester, UK and New York, NY: Manchester University Press. 1997. Preface xiii.)

[3] Gabriel Badea-Paun. The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance. Holborn, London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Richard Ormond, Honorary Director of the National Maritime Museum, London, author of numerous works on Victorian art, and the complete catalogue raisonné of the works of John Singer Sargent, states in the forward to this book, page 11,’ Portraiture has been discarded in the story of modern painting. It is viewed as something conservative and old-fashioned, commercially oriented and not truly creative.’

[4] Marcia Pointon. Portrayal and the search for indentity. (London. Reaktion Books. 2013) 18.

[5] Reeves (Ed.), 8.

(Taken from thesis)


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Thesis. University of Newcastle.