Detail of Holbein's painting The Ambassadors

"Holbein's portraiture remains unsurpassed for sureness and economy of statement, penetration into character, and a combined richness and purity of style." - Ellis Waterhouse

Information at a Glance

  • Evening Class
  • Tuesdays 18:00 - 20:00
  • 10 weeks: late July to September
  • 2 hours weekly online taught time
  • Tutor: Leslie Primo
  • Fees from £67 to £117
  • Official Course Title: 'Understanding Art'
  • Enrolment has now closed
Booking link

This course will examine the changing face of the portrait in art history from the 6th century, through to the early Medieval and Renaissance, moving in to the Baroque, then on to the 18th and 19th centuries, and finally ending in the present. Look at how and why its meaning and function have changed over the years and why artists are still drawn to this medium despite advent of photography.

Furthermore this course will explore some of the key portraits in art history and explore how the portrait’s meaning and function have changed since the Renaissance. We will explore whether a portrait has to convey an accurate likeness and how artists go about trying to convey “character”.

We will also examine how a self-portrait might differ from a portrait of other sitters: can we tell by the scrutiny of the gaze whether a portrait is a self-portrait? We will also consider why the portrait continues to endure in the present despite photography.

This 10-week course offers one 2-hour online session each week (20 contact hours). Class runs Tuesdays 18:00 - 20:00.

Course Information

Course Programme

Session 1 – Tues 28th July 2020: Early Portraiture and the need for Likeness: From the 6th to the 16th Century

This first lesson will look at early depictions from the 6th century, the impact of Christianity on portraiture and the conflicting ideologies in Christianity surrounding the use and alleged misuse of images.  This lesson will also examine the rise of the likeness portrait as opposed to the portrait and the need for likeness.  A variety of artists from Pisanello to Botticelli to Holbein, and Cranach will be used to demonstrate these ideas.

Session 2 – Tue 4th Aug 2020: The Rise and Fall of Botticelli: images of love & devotion

This lesson will concentrate of the work of Botticelli and his unique and very personal approach to the art of portraiture.  The lesson will start by looking at Botticelli’s origins and his close association with the first family of Florence – the Medici. The lesson will track Botticelli’s series of portraits of sitters both known and unknown, including those in the ‘Primavera’ and the ‘Venus Rising’, and examine what Botticelli’s motivation was in producing these numerous enigmatic portraits.

Session 3 – Tue 11th Aug 2020: Leonardo and the Art of Portraiture

This lecture will look exclusively at Leonardo’s fascination with portraits and Madonnas.  It would be constant throughout Leonardo’s life, something he returns to time and time again up to the end of his long life.    Indeed we are all aware of, and acquainted with the work and experimentation of Leonardo da Vinci in a wide-ranging field of the arts and beyond.  But the area of portraits and the challenge of the compositional grouping of the Madonna and Child held a particular interest and obsessive fascination for Leonardo from very early on in his career and throughout his life right up to the very end.  Beginning with his early life, this lecture will look at Leonard’s early use of the oil medium and his use of varied drawing mediums to achieve his results. This lecture will also look at Leonardo’s endless struggle with the Madonna and Child grouping and what that can tell us about our own Madonna of the Rocks and Cartoon.  And finally I will look at Leonard’s association with particular noble families, the interaction between these families and the female portraiture that was produced as a result of the associations with these families.  These aspects will be looked at in the context of workshop traditions, his associations with other artists and major commissions.

Session 4 – Tue 18th Aug 2020: Titian to Van Dyck: Portraiture from Renaissance to Baroque

This lesson will look at the new tradition of portraiture that began with Raphael, its origins and the emerging styles of this genre, drawing on Renaissance examples of portraiture such as Hans Holbein and Raphael.  These issues will ultimately be explored in a lecture that will span the ages including ancient Roman coins, and painting from 1350 – 1642, through the prism of two master portraitists who came to dominate this genre of painting, not only in their own countries, but throughout Europe - the Venetian Renaissance master Titian and the flamboyant Baroque master, Anthony van Dyck.

Session 5 – Tue 25th Aug 2020: Joseph Wright of Derby: Portraiture, Men & Art in the Age of the Lunar Society

This lesson will look at how the English painter Joseph Wright of Derby used portraiture in his work to depict a new industrial age of discovery.   Indeed Joseph Wright of Derby would be the one artist that would document this extraordinary era across these contradictory divides. This lesson will not only feature the portraiture works of Joseph Wright of Derby in this context, but also feature paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds - first President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West who would also later become a President of the Royal Academy, Nathaniel Dance, and those who were on the periphery of this club who were also achieving great things in this period, such as Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks.  In this lecture I shall, through the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby explore the lives, achievements, common interests and connections between a unique group of individuals from this period who either attended the Lunar Society or were associated with it; men such as, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Richard Arkwright, Joseph Wright of Derby and others.

Session 6 – Tue 1st Sept 2020: Joshua Reynolds and the Portrait of Omai: Celebrity and the Exotic in England

This lesson will concentrate on one iconic portrait and the context in which it came about.  In its time Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Omai became an emblematic and iconic image representing Britain at the very height of its imperial powers.  So this lesson will go on to look at Joshua Reynolds’s ideas regarding his self image, his influences and how this related to his image of Omai.  This will be followed by a look at what this portrait of Omai by Joshua Reynolds can tell us about 18th century English society, its perception or preconception of the Other or non-white European and how prevalent pseudo-scientific ideas in this period affected the way Omai was perceived and finally envisioned in Reynolds’s painting.  I will then look at what happened when Omai returned to the South Seas and impact of going back; can one ever go back what is the impact of returning?  Finally I will speak about the legacy of the image we call Omai, which has become an enigma in its own right.

Session 7 – Mon 7th Sept 2020: Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) and England’s obsession with Portraiture

This lesson will look at Britain’s obsession with art of portraiture and how it consumed artists in Britain through the experience of the reputation the artist Angelica Kauffmann.  Although she was born in Switzerland, Kauffmann went on to become a great British Neo-Classical artist, with a reputation equal to her male contemporaries in an age that rarely recognised women in this field.

This lesson will not only look at her training and early paintings, but also the influence on Kauffman of Italian painting and the great Renaissance masters, not to mention Dutch painting.  The lecture will also chart Kauffman’s rise to fame on the Continent, along with her association with the most famous figures of the age including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 –1832) and Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) to name but a few.

Session 8 – Tue 15th Sept 2020: Invention and Re-Invention: Gauguin’s Portraits and the Myth of Paradise

This lesson will look at Gauguin’s almost obsessive use of the format of self-portraiture to control and manipulate his own self-identity; to in effect re-invent himself.  Over the course of this lesson we will look at a variety of Gauguin self-portraits where he appears in many guises in an attempt to determine what message Gauguin is trying to relay to his audience. The lesson will mostly look at his time in Tahiti and thus also feature Tahitian portrait too. 

Session 9 – Tue 22nd Sept 2020: Re-Invention of the Self: The Art and Artifice of the Self-Portrait

When is a portrait a portrait and when is it not a portrait?  This lesson will take a general look at the Art and Artifice of the Portrait & Self-Portrait mostly from the tradition of Northern portrait painting.  Looking at the many portraits of known and unknown figures this lesson will look at what possible use these portraits were and their possible meaning to those who commissioned them.  What were the sitters trying to tell those who viewed these portraits about themselves, what image did they want to portray?  To this end this lesson will look at the works ranging from Jan van Eyck to Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden to Albrecht Durer, through to Vermeer Anthony van Dyck and Rubens.

Session 10 – Tue 29th Sept 2020: The Passage of Time: Portraiture in Life & Death From the Middle Ages to the Modern Age

This final lesson will look at one of the oldest and most enduring preoccupations of the artist - mortality and legacy.  Talking us from Medieval through to Renaissance, and on to Rembrandt’s obsession with his own image, including looking at the work of the painters of modernity - Manet and the Impressionists, and finally through to the contemporary artists; looking at works by Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, to this end this final lesson will examine the parallels between artists’ practice in the past and the present and why they have a continued preoccupation with mortality.

Additional Reading and Credit Information

To be added

About Your Tutor

Photograph of Leslie Primo

Your tutor for this course will be Leslie Primo. Leslie is a highly experienced and well-known art historian who has appeared on television & radio and who has also lectured at organisations including the National Gallery in London and Wallace Collection.

You can read more about your tutor at: Leslie Primo's website

Twitter: artfirstprimo     

Blog: artfirstprimo

Course Fees and Rate Categories

HoursWeeksStandard RateInternal RateAssociate Rate
20  10  £117 £67 £90
All fee rates quoted are for the whole course.
Term dates 1

Fee Categories and Discounts

Standard Rate

  • Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.

Internal Rate

  • Applies to current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors).
  • Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should email evening before completing the online enrolment form.

Associate Rate

  • Students (non-Imperial College)
  • Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
  • City & Guilds College Association members
  • Members of the Friends of Imperial College
  • Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
  • NHS staff (other than Imperial NHS Trust staff)
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
  • Harrods staff
  • Historic Royal Palaces staff
  • Natural History Museum staff
  • Science Museum staff
  • South London Botanical Institute Members
  • Victoria and Albert Museum staff
  • Royal Geographical Society staff
  • Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
  • Santander Bank staff (Imperial College Walkway branch only)
  • Austrian Cultural Forum staff
  • Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
  • Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
  • Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
  • Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
  • Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)

Late enrolment

It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.

Applicable terms & conditions

Please read these before enrolling on any course.

Term Dates

HoursWeeksAutumn termSpring termSummer termSummer term
 20  10 n/a n/a n/a w/c 27 Jul - w/c 28 Sept 2020 (10 weeks)

Enrolment Process

Web enrolment starts 29 June

Enrolment and payment run through the Imperial College eStore. Please click on the blue booking link on the relevant course page noting below instructions:

  • Our rate categories are explained on the course page and your applicable rate category must be selected on the eStore
  • First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
  • The booking process involves entering payment details after your course choice and applicant details are collected via an in-built questionnnaire
  • The following email notifications are sent:
What is sentWhen is it sentWhat does it contain
1. Payment confirmation Is sent instantaneously following submission of your online application
  • This is a receipt for your payment and includes payment date, order number and course title
  • Confirmation of your place on your chosen course will follow later
2. Enrolment confirmation Is sent within 10 working daysPlease treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received
  • Re-confirms your course choice
  • Shows your course's term dates
  • Confirms the day and time of your course
3. Programme information Is usually sent on Friday late afternoon the week before term starts
  • Contains joining instructions for your course, incl. tutor contact details
If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756

Certificate of Attendance

Our adult education evening and daytime classes do not offer academic credits, but we do offer an attendance certificate to those learners who attend at least 80% of the taught sessions. Eligible learners receive their certificate by email after the end of the course.

Any Questions?

Questions regarding the content and teaching of this course should be sent to the course tutor, Leslie Primo at

If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.