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What Does a Portrait Show?

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

What does a portrait reveal about a person? In the August Grab the Mic Newsletter, Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds reflects on what it means to create and post an image of oneself. The topic is likely to be relatable to many students, who frequently post pictures of themselves and their friends online. But you can also use this article to reinforce valuable lessons related to primary source analysis.

In the newsletter, Reynolds explains why he is not comfortable having his picture taken; one reason is that the photos often do not match how he views himself.

… in that moment I realized why posed photos have always felt strange to me. Perhaps, posing for pictures feels weird because I don’t live a posed life. Sometimes I want to smile. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel like slouching and slumping. Other times I feel like a puffy-chested chickenhawk. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Who feels like a photo can’t capture a person who’s not … captured.”

Invite students to read Reynolds’ full article and reflect on his observations regarding personal portraits. Do students think photographs of themselves accurately represent who they are? What about photographs of family or friends?  Do they think different photos of themselves might show different sides of their lives or personalities? And does the audience for the photo play a role in what side of themselves they show?

Next, encourage students to apply similar thinking to the study of historical primary sources. This Presidential Portraits gallery offers one set to explore, though there are many portraits in the Library’s collections. As students examine one or several items, here are some ways to focus their analysis:

  • Reflect on the extent to which a portrait does or does not illustrate the subject’s personality or the intent of the creator. What about the president is being communicated in the portrait and what details support this view? Why do students think the portrait was created? Who was the intended audience?

Warren Harding, 1920

Official Portrait of President George W. Bush. Eric Draper, 2003
  • Compare and contrast two portraits that appear to have different tones, such as these portraits of Warren Harding and George W. Bush. To what extent are the differences in tone the result of different personalities? What are other possible factors, such as conventions of the time? How could students investigate further?

Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Gardner, 1863

Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Gardner, 1863
  • Compare and contrast different portraits of the same president, for example, this head and shoulders portrait of Lincoln and one showing Lincoln leaning on a book. (Hint: An easy way to find additional portraits is to scroll down the item’s page to the “More…Like This” section.) How do the two photos show different qualities of the same man? Why might Gardner have taken such different photographs?

Finally, encourage students to draw generalizations from their analysis of portraits. To what degree is it possible to know what a historical figure was like by examining his or her portrait? And what additional inquiries might students pursue to obtain a more nuanced view of the person?

Comments (2)

  1. Michael,thank you for connecting the Jason Reynolds article to the analysis of portraits we can find in the Library’s collections. I have for some time now encouraged participants in my PD classes to use portraits to teach history and English. Your blog gives me another way to engage adolescents in the lives of past heroes and heroines. They will totally relate to Jason Reynolds thoughts about posing for portraits and do the many ways you suggest we analyze portraits.

    One pre-service teacher in my class last fall suggested a Portrait Inquiry lesson in which she used the official portraits of Martha Washington and Michelle Obama. The essential question for the lesson was: “How do portraits of these two First Ladies represent the changes in American society since the birth of our nation?” Another student in the same class used the Michelle Obama portrait and asked his students to look for irony in its symbolism.

    I am going to add this blog as assigned reading the next time I teach portrait analysis!

  2. Some people do not like to have their photo taken because the believe it steals part of their souls or spirits.

    I often wonder why portrait in the early part of the 20th century always show the subjects without smiles.

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