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Family Portrait of Characterization

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Can you guess which family is unhappy and distant, and which one is close-knit and loving?
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When someone chances upon a family portrait in fiction, it usually says something about the subjects. Everything from the facial expressions to the Body Language to the staging to who was even invited to be in it to how, when, and where the portrait was created says something about the family dynamic.

There are several aspects characteristics of the portrait that can be used.

  • The expressions of the members:
    • The family looks happy:
      • May be used as irony — they might look good in the photo, but are the furthest thing from it in real life (see Photos Lie).
      • If the photo is older and the family is no longer that happy, characters will be wistful about it and long for the better times before someone's death, a falling-out, or the members growing apart. It can also be used to contextualize a villain as formerly a sweet kid.
      • Alternatively, the family really is that happy in the present. The walls of their home may be filled with happy photographs, emphasizing that it's a house full of love and laughter.
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    • The family looks serious or unhappy: A sign that the family was distant or dysfunctional.
  • The Body Language: "Proper" family portraits will usually have the family well-dressed and poised, often standing or sitting, and looking at least a little happy. If the photo deviates from this, it will be significant characterization-wise.
    • The postures are awkward: Might be a sign of distance or tension between members.
    • "Wackier" family members will stand out by being more informal.
  • Who is in the portrait to begin with:
    • The photo is full of people: Straightforwardly means that the extended family is large and tight-knit. It can also denote The Clan, which is big and notable, but not necessarily close.
    • Someone is deliberately excluded from the family photo: It means whoever's in charge of the photo didn't want this relative noted as part of the family, possibly contextualizing them as The Unfavorite or an embarrassment to the family legacy. See also Unperson. Alternatively, they have been Removed from the Picture.
  • The conditions of the portrait:
    • The portrait is huge or otherwise expensive (eg. the family hired a famous painter or photographer): Characterizes the family as high-status — they might be currently or formerly wealthy, narcissistic, have a Big Fancy House large enough to tastefully hold such a photo, or the family name is old and well-known. Compare Shrine to Self.
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    • The portrait is torn, damaged, or mutilated: Now this is a real sign of dysfunction — someone hated the family enough to physically destroy or vandalize a photo of them. May overlap with Symbolically Broken Object for when its ruined state represents the family's situation or relationships.
  • The lack of a family picture might also be notable. It could mean someone grew up alone without a family, isn't attached enough to them to have photos, or has otherwise lost all remembrances of them. The Picture Came with the Frame might be a humorous variant.

This trope goes beyond plain family photos; it can also cover individual photos put up on the walls of a home (for example, a disliked or disowned family member might not have any photos of them displayed, or the favorite child gets much more exposure than the others). It can also cover other ways of displaying the family heritage, such as a family tree or portraits of ancestors that line the hallways. What's important is how the family heritage is displayed and what the audience can infer about the characters from it.

Compare the Fatal Family Photo, which is a happy photograph that characterizes someone as a loving spouse, parent, or partner...before they're killed off. Such a family portrait may also be a Precious Photo. Compare also Former Friends Photo and Happier Home Movie.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Although the Elric brothers and their beloved mother look happy in their family portrait, their father Hohenheim's face is initially obscured by the light when the photo is seen. When his face in the portrait is shown, it's revealed that he was crying because he knew he had to leave to stop Father's plan. At the end of the manga, this is contrasted with Ed and Winry's family photos — although they are posed similarly, they and their two children are all smiles.
  • In Steamboy, a portrait of the Steam family is shown; Ray is shown hunched over in one corner looking unhappy and overshadowed by his father and grandfather.

    Arts 
  • The Norman Rockwell painting "Gillis Family Heritage" displays a series of paintings and photographs, showing a series of Identical Grandsons in different military uniforms from the Revolutionary War to WWII, showing a family history of military service.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Lilo & Stitch Lilo has a Precious Photo of her family before her parents died in a car crash. In the present she's aggressive and resentful about their deaths. By the end of the film she has tacked on a photo of Stitch, signifying his inclusion in her "ohana" and her slowly growing new family.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • All My Loved Ones: David gets a camera from his uncle and they take many photos at his birthday party. One of them is shown and there are his parents, his sister Hedvika, aunt Angelika and uncle Marcel, uncles Sam and Leo and his best friend Sosha. David holds a huge birthday cake. They are very tight and look happy in the picture. The film is narrated by old David who is the only one from their family who survived WWII.
  • In Gattaca, Vincent rips himself out of the family portrait when he runs away.
  • Uncle Buck: The title character is the Black Sheep of his family, who only reluctantly call him to cover in an emergency. He's mostly a goofy Manchild, but has a moment of quiet sadness when he sees that he's been removed from his brother's wedding photo.
  • In one scene of Welcome to the Dollhouse, a portrait of the Wiener family where they are posed properly (if with an artificial air) is shown. In the background we can hear Dawn arguing with her parents; in contrast to their well-dressed selves in the portrait, they are dressed in gaudy clothes.

    Literature 
  • Harry Potter:
    • Family tree variation with the House of Black. 12 Grimmauld Place hosts a lovely, intricate tapestry where the names Black family members are magically cataloged...but if you're considered a blood traitor (ie. someone who associates with Muggles) or otherwise disowned, your name is blasted off the tree. Definitely fitting for a clan of pureblood supremacists.
    • The Dursleys don't keep any photos of Harry in their home. One of the books mentions this detail when building up to their abuse and neglect of him.
  • Wings of Fire: Clearsight sees a portrait drawn by Whiteout of her family - her parents, Arctic and Foeslayer, and her brother Darkstalker, where they all look happy, showing her overly idealistic views of her family (given how messed-up it is and how cruel Arctic is). It also has them all drawn in shades of blue that make them look more related than they look in real life, downplaying how her parents are from different tribes and all of the conflict that has caused.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Jane Eyre (2006):
    • The first episode of the miniseries starts with Jane's foster family (her aunt and cousins) being painted for a family portrait. Jane is excluded.
    • The miniseries bookends with Jane's family sitting outside of their house being portrayed. Jane wants Adele who is her husband's ward in the picture.
  • Malcolm in the Middle: at a family reunion Hal's relatives mislead The Unfavorite Lois when she asks where to find a pair of dress shoes; this lets the family get their group picture taken without her.
  • In Maniac the Milgrims excluded their Black Sheep son Owen from a family portrait.
  • Modern Family: The episode "Family Portrait" features Claire trying to get the titular large mixed family together for a posed portrait. Her perfectionism starts to annoy their father, however, which results in a mud fight that stains their clean white outfits. In the end, they just take a series of fun photos that are truer to the family's wacky spirit instead of trying to get in a "proper" family shot, which Claire admits that she likes more.
  • In the first episode of The Politician, James mentions that famous photographer Annie Leibovitz took Peyton's wealthy family's Christmas photo, and notes it as one reason he's not considered an "accessible" presidential candidate.
  • In one episode of Schitt's Creek the Roses receive an oversized family portrait from when they were still very rich. Although the painting makes them look like the ideal uppercrust Nuclear Family (and the size characterizes them as narcissistic and uppercrust), it also reminds them that they were more distant then (Alexis didn't even show up and they painted her face over a body double) and that they created a much happier and healthier dynamic after they lost all their money.
  • In the first episode of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes notes the missing face in the cabbie's family picture and deduces since the cabbie ripped the face out, he must have left his wife instead of his wife leaving him.
  • In The Umbrella Academy (2019), patriarch Sir Reginald disallowed Vanya from joining the official family portrait because she had no powers and thus didn't officially partake in superheroics with the rest of her adoptive siblings. This is one of the flashbacks that establishes her as The Unfavorite.

    Video Games 
  • Mega Man Legends: It's blink and you'll miss it, but Teisel's introductory scene after defeating Bon Bonne shows a massive portrait on one wall of his room, depicting a younger Teisel with his parents. From their formal wear and posture it could be implied that the Bonnes had a much more opulent past before something lead Teisel into the pirating business (presumably the parents passing away).
  • Life Is Strange:
    • Kate's family photo shows them as a Proper Family, with all of them sharply dressed in black and white. Max dubs it "the All-American Zombie Family".
    • The photos in Chloe's house show her relationship with her family. In one photo, she is happy with her parents Joyce and William. In another one, Joyce looks happy with David, Joyce's new husband after William died, but Chloe is unhappy.
    • There is one photo of a child Nathan with his father Sean. Sean has a broad smile, while Nathan is crying. This emphasizes Nathan's family background as his Freudian Excuse for being the bully he is.
  • Life Is Strange: Before the Storm:
    • There are several old photos of Chloe being happy with her father William, who'd died a few years ago. One of them is tucked in the drawer. Chloe is not happy that her mother would forget William so fast for her new boyfriend, David.
    • Rachel's family photos emphasize the contrast between Chloe's and Rachel's family. One picture shows them travelling to Paris, something Chloe could never even dream to do. Rachel's is also seemingly a happy family, but her father's dark secret coming to the surface is just about to ruin it.
  • As What Remains of Edith Finch is about the history of the Finch family, there are naturally several pictures scattered around the house that add to the atmosphere about how they lived their lives. Also, after each family member's death, Edie painted a portrait of them on a piece of wood that shows something of their story. After the sequence of said characters, Edith makes a copy of them into her own notebook.

    Web Animation 
  • In RWBY, a portrait in the Schnee family's mansion from several years prior shows Jacques Schnee's wife and daughters looking sad/unhappy (in the present day, his wife is an alcoholic because of him, and his daughters Winter and Weiss have both made efforts to escape his emotionally abusive hold over them). Whitley (his son, whom he favors), on the other hand, is smiling.

    Western Animation 
  • Bojack Horseman: The Horsemans were not a functional family unit. After BoJack was born, his parents Beatrice and Butterscotch couldn't hide their distaste for the situation from the photographers. However, in pictures dating prior to his birth they looked like a happy couple.
    • The Sugarman's - BoJack's maternal grandparents - are a happy family until Crackerjack's death, but were given a specific instruction when posing.
      Photographer: All right folks, this is for posterity, so don't forget to look faraway sad!
  • Castlevania (2017): Dracula's mansion holds an old family portrait from when his wife Lisa was still alive and their son Adrian/Alucard was just a baby, signifying (among other things) how much he cared for his wife, and contrasting the current state of his relationship with Alucard.
  • The Legend of Korra: The photo Mako and Bolin have of their family. Not only does its existence show that they had two loving parents before they ended up orphaned, but it also emphasizes their contrasting personalities — outgoing and extroverted Bolin is fidgeting, while the serious and introverted Mako is posing properly.
  • The Loud House episode "Picture Perfect" has Lincoln trying to get a tidy family photo of him, his sisters, and the pets, but the impatient sisters act as they usually would when the camera takes to long to shoot. The end result is the picture depicting the unwinding chaos that are the Loud Siblings.
  • In Miraculous Ladybug, the Agreste family portrait shows their dynamic perfectly. Although it looks beautiful you can see both Adrien and Gabriel aren't looking at each other or interacting at all, Adrien doesn't even seem to be happy but is just doing what his dad told him too. We later see another, happier portrait of the family this time with Missing Mom Emilie.
  • The Simpsons
    • The Tracey Ullman Show short "Family Portrait" has the Simpsons' attempts at taking a family portrait be ruined, usually by Homer's incompetence or Bart making faces. The final portrait shows Homer strangling Bart, Marge taken aback, and Lisa and Maggie making faces at the camera. Fitting for a wacky sitcom family.
    • "And Maggie Makes Three" begins with the kids noticing that there are no pictures of Maggie in the family album. Homer tells the story of how he had to give up his dream job of running a bowling alley when Maggie was born and beg for his job back at the power plant. The photos of Maggie are all in Homer's work station where he needs the most cheering up; they cover up a sign that reads "Don't forget, you're here forever" so that it reads "Do it for her".

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