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What Can Portraits Tell Us?


A portrait is not like a photograph, in that its goal is not merely to capture a moment as it really was. The goal of a portrait is to convey a message to the audience about the sitter. This lesson incorporates visual literacy skills that encourage students to properly analyze a portrait to uncover these messages and gain insights into the historical period of the portrait. These skills include the examination of setting, pose, clothing, accessories and symbols. In this lesson, students will examine three portraits: one of two children, and two portraits of political figures. In a teacher-led analysis of the "Portrait of Two Children," students will use specific details from the portrait to learn about the lives of the children. Then, they will use those same analysis skills to examine details in Peale's portrait of George Washington and Ramsay portrait of King George III and compare one to the other.


In this lesson, students:

  • Examine a painting, modeled by the teacher, to locate examples of setting/pose, clothing, accessories and symbols commonly found in formal portraiture of the eighteenth century.
  • Collaborate with another student to locate and explain examples of setting/pose, clothing, accessories and symbols in formal portraits of General George Washington and King George III.
  • Complete graphic organizers describing historically important details from these eighteenth century portraits.
  • Write a paragraph, assuming the role of an art critic, incorporating the skills of visual literacy that was modeled within the lesson.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • "Portrait of Two Children," attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1760
  • Portrait of George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1780
  • Portrait of George III, by the studio of Allan Ramsay, ca. 1770
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Portrait Comparison Venn Diagram


  1. Tell students that a portrait is not like a photograph, in that its goal is not merely to capture a moment as it really was. The goal of a portrait is to convey a message to the audience about the sitter. Introducing students to the concept of visual literacy and how it is used by historians and others to glean information and concepts from portraits, paintings, photos and other images. Tell students that they will act as detectives to discover what messages the painter is showing them about the sitter. Clues may include, but not be limited to, the general setting, natural or posed positioning of people (their "deportment"), their gaze, clothing, accessories, and any images or objects that are used as symbols to convey other information.
  2. Model this process for students by using "Portrait of Two Children" by guiding the students' visual perceptions of this painting as they fill in the graphic organizer web. Note these characteristics:
    • Setting/Pose: The children are pictured outdoors in a peaceful setting. They are standing stiffly and both look serene and serious. The portrait is capturing these children at this moment in their lives (the toy and the squirrel emphasize their youth), but also suggests the adults they will become. Ask students to imagine the negotiations between the artist and the subject (or the subject's parents). They would discuss the size of the portrait (also would it be full length, bust sized or just the face), what pose would be used, and also what the background might include (would it be the interior of the house or an imagined outdoor scene).
    • Clothing: In the eighteenth century, boys wore dresses until they were "breeched," dressed in breeches like adult men. This usually occurred around the time they were fully potty-trained. The child in blue in this painting is a boy. His gown is more masculine that that of the little girl in yellow, and cut more like a man's coat, with buttons down the front and buttoned cuffs. His shoes are more masculine than the girl's dainty slippers. His head is uncovered, whereas the girl wears a lace cap. The stiff shape of both children's bodies comes from wearing stays (eighteenth-century undergarments much like corsets), which were designed to give them good posture. The little girl will wear stays her whole life, but the little boy will stop around the time he is breeched.
    • Accessories: Tell students that "accessories" in this context means the props—the "stuff"—in the painting. The boy in blue is holding a squirrel. Outdoor animals as pets are always associated with boys rather than girls in portraits. The girl is holding a toy with a coral handle. Coral was often given to children as a talisman to ward off disease and death, but it was also a hardy, splinter-proof material for teethers. For a portrait of children, the "props" that were chosen to be included would largely be there to keep the child occupied while the artist worked on the portrait. Pets, toys, or food in a child's hand not only tells us about the child's interest but also what the parents considered to be the best bribe for good behavior!
    • Symbols of wealth: Only the wealthy could afford to have a portrait painted. This one is fairly large (approximately 41 x 50 inches). These children are displayed in fine clothing with lush details. The girl is holding a very finely detailed toy that is partly coral and partly silver, with tiny bells and a whistle on the top, and would have been expensive. The boy holds the squirrel on a fine silver chain.
  3. Put students in pairs. Each pair will work on either the portrait of George Washington or the portrait of King George III. Hand out the appropriate portrait and graphic organizer to each group.
  4. Tell students focusing on the portrait of George Washington that this portrait was painted soon after Washington defeated the British and their Hessian soldiers in the battle of Princeton. Tell the students focusing on the portrait of King George III that symbols of wealth can also convey power.
  5. After each pair has filled out their graphic organizer, match each pair to a pair who worked on the other painting (so each group of four has information for both paintings). Have each group of four fill out a Portrait Comparison Venn Diagram comparing the two portraits.
  6. Lead a class discussion on the details of, symbolism in, and comparison between the two paintings.
  7. As an evaluation, have each student select one of the three paintings. They will write a paragraph describing the painting for the Art Section of their student newspaper. Using their "visual literacy skills," students will analyze the painting of their choice with one or two sentences for each of the four areas: Setting and Pose, Clothing, Accessories, Symbols of Power in order to tell the story behind the image they have chosen.

Lesson Extensions

  • Students may do a self portrait in which they include the four areas of visual literacy to describe the important details of their own lives.
  • Students may bring in a photo of themselves, and using cut-outs from magazines or newspapers create a collage of these important details of their lives.
  • Invite the art teacher to co-teach the lesson with you to augment discussion of portraiture.
  • Colonial Williamsburg offers an interactive portrait analysis of the George Washington portrait online: Have students explore the painting and compare their analyses with that of Colonial Williamsburg curators.

This lesson was written by Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA, and Bill Neer, Baldwinsville, NY.