Programs & Exhibitions
Illustrious Heads: Portrait Prints as History
November 22, 2010 - September 7, 2011
curated by Cynthia Roman
Engraved "heads," or portrait prints, in close alliance with literary history and biography, carried substantial power as expressions of political and social preoccupations in eighteenth-century England. Published for both book illustration and independent issue, with and without text, portrait prints recorded and articulated a national past that was conceived as the "portraiture" of illustrious historical persons—a visual and literary representation of a sequence of notable individuals—rather than as a narrative representation of a series of significant political, diplomatic, or military events. Additionally, straight portraits—and increasingly caricatures—of contemporary persons played a vital role in negotiating topical political and social issues and documenting the surrounding discourse for posterity. The prints selected for this exhibition suggest the variety of portrait and caricature publications and present some of the diverse ways in which they were considered as repositories of history, biography, and anecdote. The exhibition also explores the engagement of eighteenth-century audiences with questions of sitter classification, authenticity, provenance, and scarcity.