The Perceptual OriginalPortraits represent one of the oldest types of artifact that humans have created to record our physical appearance. To ancient writers such as Pliny, the art of painting itself grew out of this drive to produce likenesses of the people we hold dear. Pliny helped popularize a mythic account of the invention of painting, whereby the daughter of Butades of Corinth created a keepsake of her lover by tracing his shadow on the wall before he departed on a long journey. The physiognotrace testifies to the continuing importance of this drive, in that it works on broadly similar principles to those Pliny describes.
The question of what constitutes a good, useful, or accurate likeness of a human being continues to represent a thorny theoretical problem. For example, since some commentators have imagined that a photograph bears an unproblematic, one-to-one relationship to a person’s appearance at a single moment in time, it seems easy to assume that photographic portraits would stand as the perfect example of a good likeness.
However, many of these same commentators also argue that portrait painting allows artists to usefully diverge from a mere single moment of perception, thus offering a preferred means by which to preserve identity. As a synthetic assemblage of a number of different moments and expressions in the life of a face, the argument goes, the painting does not simply answer to any expression one could perceive instantaneously. Instead, because they are said to go beyond visual appearance, painted portraits could represent an even higher species of likeness. These efforts at recording identity, regardless of whether they confine themselves to single moments of perception or aim for a synthetic status relative to it, ultimately take their power from the fact they re-present perceptual data to the eyes of the viewer