11 Mar

Representations of Political Power

Constructing power

In the course of history, power has always had one of the most important roles in arts and cultural products. The methods of framing and visually constructing power have been carefully created and developed. Even though we might think that the ancient Egyptians and Greeks had more naive ways of representing the idea of power, this is quite false. Even back in ancient times, artists had developed specific mechanisms to express the power of the leaders of their time.

It is of great interest to notice how power has usually been conveyed through some specific and consequent means.  Specific gestures, colors, clothes, objects and references constitute universal symbols of power in Western art. Upon a certain investigation in visual representations of power, one notices that artists usually mix two or three of these elements to express the strength of a leader.

Strong charcters have been for the most part of arts history real historic figures, but as the arts developed, more and more fictional characters have become ideals of power.


Gestures and poses

The Tetrarchs, Venice, around 330. Embrace is a symbol of trust.


Rubens, Philip II, 1628. Riding a horse is a strong symbol of power.


Augustus of Prima Porta, 20-17 B.C in an orator pose.




Francois Andre Vincent, Belisarius, 1777. The painting features a piece of cloth in a royal color.


The throne of Tutankhamon, 158 – 1349 B.C. is made of wood and covered in gold.


Otto III, Xth century. The purple garment is a symbol of power, as purple was vey hard to produce.




Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Maximilian I, 1519. Maximilian is wearing a silk garment decorated with mink fur, a sign of wealth.


Anthonis Mor, Portrait of Philip II in arms,1557. His body armor is a strong symbol of military power, implying an ability to be in control.


Jean Clouet, Portrait of Francis I, King of France, aprox. 1525. Notice the sartorial details: the hat, the embroidery and the jewelry were all reserved for the king.




Diego Velázquez, Filip IV, dressed in armor with a lion, 1652- 1654. The scepter is a symbol of power.


Rubens, Philip II, 1628. Victory offers a crown, a royal symbol.


Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701. The monarch is surrounded by symbolic objects: the scepter and the hand of justice.




Diego Velázquez, Filip IV, dressed in armor with a lion. The lion is a reference to power ready to take action.


Augustus of Prima Porta, 20-17 B.C. Augustus is barefoot, a reference to the heroes and gods and the god Eros (down left) is a reference to the fact that Venus is one of his ancestors.


El Greco, St. Louis, King of France, 1586. The lily found at the top of the scepter is a symbol of belonging to the Royal House of France.



Power today

Pete Souza, Official portrait of the 44th US President Barack Obama, 2009.
Barack Obama is represented as a double of the flag, which is placed parallel to him and which is also found on his tie and lapel pin.


James Bond here portrayed by Daniel Craig in 2005, is one of the main images of modern fictional power. Bond expresses his power through the balance between his relaxed, yet tense pose, complimented by objects (the gun – a symbol of military power of the West)and clothes (an expensive evening suit and a luxury watch, symbols of economic strength).


Photographer Platon took this Portrait of the Russian President in 2014, who is presented from a lower angle, making him extremely dominant in a relaxed pose in this recent portrait.


Power is something that covers many aspects of life, which is why artists throughout history have made sure that they utilize these in specific manners to convey the strength of a political leader. With the development of the visual arts, the ways in which we convey power will continue to develop, but they will still be build on the old structures.




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