late 14c., representen, "show, display, express; bring to mind by description," also "to symbolize, serve as a sign or symbol of (something else, something abstract); serve as the type or embodiment of;" also be a representative of" (the authority of another).
This is from Old French representer "present, show, portray" (12c.) and directly from Latin repraesentare "make present, set in view, show, exhibit, display," from re-, here perhaps an intensive prefix (see re-), + praesentare "to present," literally "to place before." Latin praesentare is from praesens, "present, at hand, in sight; immediate; prompt, instant; contemporary," itself from the present participle of the verb præesse "be before (someone or something), be at hand," from prae- "before" (see pre-) + esse "to be" (from PIE root *es- "to be").
Specifically in legal actions, "speak and act with authority on behalf of another by deputed right," by 1500. Also from c. 1500 as "describe as having a specified character or quality." The legislative sense "be accredited deputy for (a body of people) in a legislative assembly" is attested from 1650s.
The meaning "serve as a specimen or example of" is by 1858, at first usually passive (the Dead Rabbits were represented by, etc.). Related: Represented; representing.