Representation an Aesthetics of the Human Face in Portraiture

Daniel Graham, Pamela M. Pallett, Ming Meng, Helmut Leder

How do representations of the face in portraits relate to the natural face, and how does the aesthetics of portraits relate to the aesthetics of faces in photographs? Here we investigate these questions with regard to the frontal face. Frontal faces are of particular interest because they are by far the most commonly studied type of face image in psychology, yet frontal portraits have been little studied by psychologists. Using behavioral and statistical tests, we show that artistic representations of frontal female faces have representational properties that broadly match those of the natural face, but we also find properties unique to artworks. We report that, as with frontal faces, frontal portraits show norm-based coding properties with respect to preference: averaged portraits become more attractive in proportion to the number of portraits averaged together. However, averaged photographs of faces are preferred to averaged portraits, suggesting that faces in portraits and photographed faces show basic differences in aesthetics. Consistent with this notion, we found that average face width and height ratios in an extended sample of frontal female portraits were significantly different from those for photographed faces. This indicates that portraits on average are not faithful representations of the typical structure of the face. In a behavioral experiment where we manipulated the structural ratios in portraits, we found that the preferred width and height ratios were significantly different from those preferred in photographed faces, and that the preferred ratios for portraits were closer to the average ratios of the portrait sample. We evaluate a variety of possible causes of the observed differences. We conclude that despite the demonstrated differences between artistic representations and natural faces, fundamental properties of natural faces are preserved in artistic representations of the face.

Department of Cognition, Emotion, and Methods in Psychology
External organisation(s)
Ohio State University, Dartmouth College
Art and Perception
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
501026 Psychology of perception
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