In the Harry Potter universe, the people in photos (at least some) not only move, but can talk to people, can leave the frame and go elsewhere, and can talk to people from different pictures. These images of people have opinions and interact with flesh people.

Just how self-aware are the people in pictures? I seem to recall picture-Dumbledore seemed to be able to do more than people in other pictures. Are some picture-people more intelligent or "complete" than others? Just how intelligent and capable of original thought are picture-people in the Harry Potter universe?


3 Answers 3


JK Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival August 15, 2004:

Q:All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?

JKR: That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death.


And from Tales of Beedle the Bard:

Wizarding photographs and portraits move and (in the case of the latter) talk just like their subjects. Other rare objects, such as the Mirror of Erised, may also reveal more than a static image of a lost loved one. Ghosts are transparent, moving, talking and thinking versions of wizards and witches who wished, for whatever reason, to remain on earth. JKR

Tales of Beedle the Bard - Page 134 - Collector's Edition

This implies to me that portraits are not "thinkers," while ghosts retain their ability to think as they did when they were alive.

That said, Phineas Nigellus seems to have quite a lot of depth to him for a portrait, and is able to plan, spy on the trio (Forest of Dean in Deathly Hallows) and report information back to Snape, act autonomously (going to his portrait at Grimmauld Place to verify Sirius's death in Order of the Phoenix), and like or dislike people on a case-by-case basis.

If I recall correctly, Dumbledore mostly slept while in his portrait and held a few cursory conversations with Snape and Harry respectively. He seemed to lack his in-life brilliance and acumen. Anyhow, JKR answers the question of how intelligent and capable of original thought individuals in the portraits possess.

  • So they're sort of pictures of the personality, too -- kind of like a shadow cast by the person's character and most of the actions are more reactions and habits?
    – Tango
    Dec 30, 2011 at 7:26
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    That's what it seems to imply, yes. They retain certain personal characteristics that they replay. Phineas Nigellus is the only portrait that seems to break this mold. :) Dec 30, 2011 at 7:58
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    Although there might not be any canonical backing for this, it's probably not entirely impossible that the ghost Phineas Nigellus is essentially "haunting" his own portrait, as his actions seem more like those of a ghost than those of a portrait. Dec 30, 2011 at 9:07
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    This implies that it's not the same if a wizard is painted or photographed, and the image being displayed in a room to which he has little or no connection, or in a room where he spent most of his life and is strongly connected to, emotionally or otherwise.
    – vsz
    Dec 30, 2011 at 13:32
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    I recall Sir Caddoggan being pretty near sentient as well. Not quite up to par with Phineas Nigellus, but way better than, say Sirius' mother. Oct 11, 2012 at 0:52

Focusing on the last part of your question, "Just how intelligent and capable of original thought are picture-people in the Harry Potter universe?"

There is a Pottermore article about this, titled Hogwarts Portraits.

Hogwarts portraits are able to talk and move around from picture to picture. They behave like their subjects. However, the degree to which they can interact with the people looking at them depends not on the skill of the painter, but on the power of the witch or wizard painted.

When a magical portrait is taken, the witch or wizard artist will naturally use enchantments to ensure that the painting will be able to move in the usual way. The portrait will be able to use some of the subject’s favourite phrases and imitate their general demeanour. Thus, Sir Cadogan’s portrait is forever challenging people to a fight, falling off its horse and behaving in a fairly unbalanced way, which is how the subject appeared to the poor wizard who had to paint him, while the portrait of the Fat Lady continues to indulge her love of good food, drink and tip-top security long after her living model passed away.

However, neither of these portraits would be capable of having a particularly in-depth discussion about more complex aspects of their lives: they are literally and metaphorically two-dimensional. They are only representations of the living subjects as seen by the artist.

Some magical portraits are capable of considerably more interaction with the living world. Traditionally, a headmaster or headmistress is painted before their death. Once the portrait is completed, the headmaster or headmistress in question keeps it under lock and key, regularly visiting it in its cupboard (if so desired) to teach it to act and behave exactly like themselves, and imparting all kinds of useful memories and pieces of knowledge that may then be shared through the centuries with their successors in office.


Portraits are best characterised as semi-sentient. That being said, they don't represent the entirety of the person's personality or a full accounting of their memories, at least according to Hogwarts Headmistress McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

It would also appear, at least by implication, that Headmaster portraits may be marginally more sentient than normal magical portraits.

HARRY: His portrait. We spoke. He said some things which made sense —

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: Dumbledore is dead, Harry. And I’ve told you before, portraits don’t represent even half of their subjects.

HARRY: He said love had blinded me.

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: A head teacher’s portrait is a memoir. It is supposed to be a support mechanism for the decisions I have to make. But I was advised as I took this job to not mistake the painting for the person. And you would be well-advised to do the same.

  • This doesn't answer the question. (The question was about if portraits are self aware, not if they are sentient.)
    – ibid
    Aug 1, 2016 at 23:10
  • @ibid - I was largely focusing on the wording of the question, not just the title; "Just how intelligent and capable of original thought are picture-people in the Harry Potter universe?"
    – Valorum
    Aug 1, 2016 at 23:11
  • Than why hasn't anyone quoted the Pottermore article yet?
    – ibid
    Aug 1, 2016 at 23:15
  • @ibid - Dunno. Good find though.
    – Valorum
    Aug 1, 2016 at 23:22

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