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Portraits as propaganda

December 29, 2021

Art & Soul blog by Stella Tooth British artist

It was interesting on holiday this year to visit the Illfracombe Museum in north Devon and to learn from the 'Faces of War' exhibition how photographic portraits of men serving at the front in WWI had been used as recruitment propaganda.

Emil Sokolov discovered, as part of his History MA at the University of Exeter, that exhibiting the donated photographs in Illfracombe persuaded young men and women that volunteering was a way of serving the town - and of making it proud. 170 men from the town who went to fight never came back.

Letter to headmaster Illfracombe school by frontline soldier WWI

It's only since the First World War - when striking images and simple slogans were used in political posters - that propaganda (meaning propagation of a particular practise or doctrine) has come to hold political - and negative - connotations.  

Royal portraiture 

Yet art has constantly proved an effective way of promoting propaganda, as images present a clearer message than words. 

In Britain, for instance, Royal portraiture is a centuries old tradition - an artfully curated image meant to promote and aggrandise the subject, not unlike today's selfie. They allow monarchs to not only record their likeness, but shape their image as a ruler. 

In the past painted portraits were the privilege of the powerful with portraiture in western art beginning with the ancient Egyptians’ stylised profile portraits and continuing under the Greeks to the Romans.

Around the 1500s the powerful started to turn towards the viewer and display more of their clothes and surroundings, symbolic objects, and then their homes, land and wealth.

Pictures of the entire royal family are designed to show the security of the dynastic line.

Art vs propaganda

Although both art and propaganda are forms of visual communication, their aims are completely different. Great art explores the mysteries of human experience. Propaganda seeks to influence an intellectual decision. 

Commissioning a portrait

In Skylark Galleries we have a number of portrait artists working in various media. We aim to:

  • celebrate your, or the subject's, story
  • connect with you emotionally
  • projects your image through time

To find out about commissioning a portrait by Jo Hodgen, Vivien Phelan, Claire Thorogood or Stella Tooth  click here.

Skylark Galleries prides itself on providing original art direct from the artists. 

Blogging bio of Art & Soul Stella Tooth artist



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