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Reading Portraits: Analyzing Art as a Primary Source

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence, and Briana Zavadil White, Student and Teacher Programs Manager at the National Portrait Gallery. Briana’s “Learning to Look with the National Portrait Gallery” summer teacher institute inspired this post.

You may have seen a portrait of a famous individual used alongside a title slide of a presentation or accompanying a list of facts about that person. In classrooms, portraits are often used as window dressing to history, a face to put with a name, event, or date, but portraits can tell students much more.

The strategy of reading portraiture encourages the visual analysis of a piece of art, similar to closely reading a document. The visual clues found in portraiture may be decoded to learn about the individual featured in the artwork. To get started, select visually complex images that include objects and a compelling setting.

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. Cornelius Tiebout and Rembrandt Peale, 1801
Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. Cornelius Tiebout and
Rembrandt Peale, 1801

Cornelius Tiebout’s 1801 engraving of Thomas Jefferson, one of two engravings vying at the time to be the first full-length portrait of the new president, is an example of a richly engaging portrait. Tiebout based the engraving of Jefferson’s head on the 1800 Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson. He envisioned the rest, inspired by the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

To support students, identify visual elements that they can analyze to learn more about the portrait and Thomas Jefferson. For example, alongside Jefferson, Tiebout prominently displays a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, books, a globe, and a single-disc electrostatic generator. Students can use the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to record their thinking. Ask questions that encourage observation and reflection on the visual elements.

  • What is Thomas Jefferson’s pose? Why do you think he is holding the document in one hand and pointing to it with the other?
  • Describe the setting of the portrait. Is Jefferson indoors or outdoors? What makes you say that? Does it remind you of a place you have seen before? If so, where?
  • Objects in portraits are symbols, and the artist has included them to say something about the sitter. What objects do you see in Jefferson’s portrait? What might they say about Jefferson?

Defining a portrait as any likeness of a person or persons, and not simply a bust portrait with an indistinct background, broadens the options for teachers and students to analyze portraits and apply these strategies. To deepen student engagement, use these and other strategies.

  • In Jumping In, students envision themselves jumping into the portrait. First ask them where they have put themselves in the portrait. Add questions related to the five senses. Direct conversation back to the portrait and what the observations might say about the sitter’s life and the era in which that person lived.
  • In the Strike a Pose strategy, students pose like the sitter in the portrait. Ask them to consider what it feels like to pose like this sitter, to wear those clothes, and to be in the setting of the portrait.
  • The What Would You Ask strategy encourages questions. Students focus their questions on what they would ask the sitter or artist. Crafting questions between the sitter and artist in an imagined conversation encourages students to immerse themselves in the moment the portrait was created.

What other engaging portraits within the collections of the Library of Congress could your students analyze?

Comments (2)

  1. I do a similar lesson using Norman Rockwell’s illustrations to help students with story summarizing and inference. They are given a few minutes to study the illustration, then they have to tell its story using the someone…did…but…so format. If pertinent details were missed, I use targeted questions to encourage a deeper understanding. I also use photos from the Holocaust in an ecphrastic poetry writing unit (poem of direct address). The three additional strategies listed in the article sound like terrific, intriguing additions to improve my current lesson plans.

  2. Another lesson idea uses this strategy to compare a painting of King George III with George Washington.

    Ask students to notice and think about Why did the painter choose to show George Washington in a suit, standing by a table with books, and a globe while King George is in full royal regalia.

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