Art explainer: expressing identity through portraiture

Our identity is what makes each of us unique. It can be a huge, complex concept, which goes beyond physical appearance. Look at how artists express identity through their art by exploring a range portraits, old and new, from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. Explore the different ways artists have created portraits that express something about their sitters, and consider the sitter’s role in communicating their sense of self.


  • Expressing identity through portraiture

    Identity: ‘the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that make people who they are’.

    Our identity is what makes each of us unique.

    When an artist is creating a portrait, they are often thinking about how to express the identity of the person in the portrait – their sitter.

    Or how to express their own identity, if it’s a self-portrait.

    The creative process is often a collaboration between the artist and the sitter.

    Together, they will create an image that expresses something about the sitter and how they want to be seen.

    This means more than just mirroring what a person looks like.

    Portraits can communicate different characteristics and beliefs, such as this one of the activist Malala Yousafzai.

    Or a portrait may express someone’s gender identity, such as this portrait of Chevalier d’Eon.

    Portraits may express identity in different ways, including the sitter’s clothing and hairstyle.

    Or their accessories and the way they pose, like in this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which shows her as a wealthy and powerful queen.

    Portraiture can also be used to express elements of people’s cultural identity, such as their nationality, ethnicity or heritage.

    The fabric in the background of this portrait of Yinka Shonibare has a long and complex history and is popular in many African homes, helping to reflect his British and West African cultural identities.

    And portraiture allows people to express their multi-faceted identities in different ways.

    This self-portrait, by Everlyn Nicodemus, includes multiple faces to show different elements of her identity. For example, as an artist, a writer and a wife.

    Sometimes portraits can explore a person’s identity in unexpected ways, such as in this abstract portrait of the musician David Bowie, who was known as the ‘chameleon of pop’ because of his ever-changing appearance.

    Next time you look at a portrait, think about how the artist and the sitter have used pose, expression, clothing, props, background and location to tell a story about their own or their sitter’s identity.

    Think about all the portraits you’ve seen in this film.

    What do you think they’re expressing about the sitter and how they might want to be seen?

    Did you feel a connection with any of them?

    How would you want your identity to be expressed in a portrait?

Learning objectives

  1. Explore the concept of identity in portraiture.
  1. Examine portraits and the creative decisions behind them.
  1. Become inspired to analyse portraits.

Watch and discuss

  1. Which portraits from the film did you most relate to? Why?
  1. What are some of the ways artists can show a person’s identity in a portrait?
  1. What ideas might you use in your next artwork?