The Design of Portraiture to Regulate Social Power and Hierarchies

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Portraiture commissioned for print was predominantly a preserve of the wealthy, with the majority of editions from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century generated for an elitist demographic—that of kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents, and other heads-of-state. Its publishing and distribution by the ruling classes over these three centuries left a wealth of material that is loaded with signifiers and presentation modes designed to express and promote systems of hierarchy and control. Over a similar period, and in contrast to the depiction of the ruling elite, are portraits of slaves and workers. These prints produced as reportage documents, or for satirical commentary, also offer insights into the demographics of class, race, and the design structures that underpin the portrait’s semiotic content. This article will compare portraits for their ability to function as mechanisms for the regulating of power, to reinforce hierarchies of control. In summary, the legacy of the portrait and the influence it has had on contemporary society will be explored, asking whether similar power mechanisms still operate, and why particular characteristics have been retained.