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  • Writer's pictureKim Sajet

Why is there so little diversity on the Google portrait-matching app?

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

Even while having fun with the Google portraiture-matching app, some people are noting a lack of diversity in their paired doppelgängers. Welcome to the challenges of traditional portraiture, which until the advent of photography, was primarily reserved for the socially elite.

The portrait was first developed to project—and protect—the political dominance of the crowned heads of Europe and their peers; in America and places not governed by monarchies, portraiture favored white men who could vote, own land and held the reins of power. Expensive to paint, sculpt and draw—especially by a leading artist—portraits were made to mark an important moment in a nation’s history or signal a family’s social superiority with the aim of attracting business, securing advantageous marriages, and preserving privileges. Portraits, unless created by truly exceptional artists whose works transcended issues of familial ties, were non-transferable. Who after all wants a portrait of someone else’s mother, even if she was a countess?

As a consequence, the museum collections of the Western World pre-1900 have a paucity of portraits of women who were not the daughters, wives, or mistresses of famous men, racial minorities, non-Christians, LBGTQ, and the visibly disabled. In the rare circumstances where such portraits exist, more often than not it was because someone noticed a person's exceptional beauty, exoticism, and/or physical abnormalities; or they had done something extraordinary to merit attention. The adage “well behaved women rarely make history,” has not just been true of women, but minorities in general who have had the temerity to rise—incredibly and improbably—above their perceived social station. In some cases the portraits remained forever anonymous, others forever notorious.

After the introduction and widespread access to photography in the mid-nineteenth century, people from all walks of life were able to have portraits of themselves. With the gradual acceptance of diversity and inclusion in our communities fought on the streets and in the courts, portraiture recognizing an individual's achievement has slowly made its way into museums. Even-so there is a great deal more work to be done in acknowledging the “presence of those absent” in history books and galleries of art.

Hopefully one positive outcome of the “selfie” culture and the Google portrait-matching app in particular, will be more pointed conversations about how communities can provide people with every opportunity to become successful, so that future generations will truly see themselves on the walls of our museums.

Yarrow Mamout by James Alexander Simpson, oil on canvas, 1822.

Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, District of Columbia Library

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