Teacher's Guide Introduction


What happened to portraiture in the twentieth century?

The exhibition Eye Contact explores the changing role of portraiture in the twentieth century. According to Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, "'eye contact' implies a bold, contemporary engagement between one person and another but also a different, often challenging relationship between a work of art and its audience."

Pachter continues, "Two concepts shape our understanding of the portrait: 'likeness' and 'essence.'" In the nineteenth century, artists captured their subjects through the presentation of as close a physical likeness as possible. In the twentieth century, artists turned to more psychological approaches to capture character, personality, and essence. They dug deep to discover the underpinning of the sitter and presented those discoveries in new and exciting ways. Twentieth-century portraiture looks different from what preceded it. It is drawn out in abstract, bold, witty, and sometimes haunting impressions. As artists probed beyond physical likeness, searching for the inner essence of the sitter, they employed effects such as distortion, stylization, flattened space, or a simplified, abbreviated line to suggest emotional or physiological nuances about the sitter. What an eyeful!

We invite you and your students to establish "eye contact" with the sitters in this exhibition and revel in the vitality of twentieth-century portraiture.