Portraiture in Fine Art

Based on Estonian Private Collections



The exhibition Portraiture in Fine Art. Based on Estonian Private Collections poses and (hopefully) answers several questions: Why should anyone collect portraits in this day and age? What kind of portraits are collected and what do these say to the viewer? Is it even possible to take modern portraiture seriously?


The exhibition focuses on people – people as they are portrayed in works of art, people who paint portraits, and people who collect portraiture – and examines changes in portraiture through time. And at the core of it all is the invisible viewer of the exhibition, through the eyes of whom a new world is born each time, and new answers are given to new questions.


Portraiture is one of the oldest art genres, and has always been functionally connected to memory, power, status and emotions. The official portrait of a ruler either signified the presence of authority, or faithful submission to authority; a gallery of portraits of one’s ancestors stressed or constructed the dignity of the family; a military man in a dashing uniform, or a statesman decorated with medals, was an inseparable part of the rituals of a class-oriented society; a portrait of a loved one served as a reminder; a self-portrait could be a manifestation of the soul-searching of the author. The image of a man could also be a generalised symbol of a phenomenon or idea.


The human being is a difficult subject: the artist not only has to take into account the subject’s appearance and his own artistic nature, but also the expectations and values of the model and of the whole society. Due to this, portraits not only describe the persons in them, but the culture of the era as a whole. In this exhibition, the displayed works of art also say something about their current owners, their preferences and interests.


However, all this still does not answer the question of why people nowadays collect old portraits that have no personal relation to them. At first glance, this desire to surround oneself with pictures of strangers might be hard to comprehend. When you get to know the collectors a bit better, several reasons emerge for their acquisitions. First, it has to be mentioned that, in most cases, portraits form a certain, and not the most extensive, part of collections, and in such cases the name of the artist is often the motivating factor (any work of art by a famous or preferred artist is a valued addition to the collection). The second reason is aesthetic – the quality of the painting, even if the author is unknown, the skill of the master, can capture the collector’s attention. Some people collect portraits of certain groups of people: soldiers, children, composers, actors and so on. And finally, I would like to mention the most dedicated type of collector, for whom the personal relationship to the portrait is of utmost importance. The image has to affect you, and then it can become your friend and companion, possibly even your alter ego.


The exhibition displays portraits from different private collections, and their owners have had various motives for the acquisitions. The curator has based her choice on the artistic quality of the works of art and, in some cases, on the meaning of the painting to its owner. As none of the portrait collections on display are integral in themselves, the portraits have been grouped by type. One of the categories comprises official portraits, artists’ self-portraits and images of creative people. A separate group is dedicated to generalised portraits, in which the type or idea recorded is more important than the actual person depicted. In numerous portraits of women, the viewer can observe the evolution of ideals of beauty and the (male) artist’s attitude towards the model from the early 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. Works of art which are of great significance to the collector or impressed the curator have been provided with stories that help the viewer better understand the collector or creator of the portrait, the model or the era.

Aleksandra Murre

Curator, Kadriorg Art Museum