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“Reading” Portraiture Guide for Educators
Portrait “reading” encourages the visual analysis of a piece of art as if it were a historical document.
Here at the National Portrait Gallery, we use the visual clues found in our objects (painting, photography, drawing, and sculpture) to learn about the individual featured in the artwork. Do you want your students to learn about John Brown? Your first inclina- tion might be to have them read something about Brown, and this is certainly a valid way for them to gain information. But we are asking that you turn that notion on its side and have students “read” a portrait prior to reading an essay or biography. This guide will encourage you and your students to look at the visual image first. Although you will want to supplement the visual reading with some actual reading, we are confi- dent that this new technique of “learning to look” will produce a richer—and possibly more memorable—examination of the individual.
This simple exercise revolves around asking students, “What do you see?” Below you will find some probing questions to familiarize students with the concept of “reading” portraits and some follow-up questions to ask after they have exhausted the looking exercise.
Use the “Learning to Look” strategies in this exercise to direct all conversations back to the object and to what the observations might say about the sitter’s life and the era in which that person lived.
Before asking the questions, define “portrait,” “sitter,” and “symbol” with your students. Portrait: A likeness or image of a person that is created by an artist. Sitter: The person or people who are in a portrait. Symbol: Something representing something else by association; objects, characters, or other concrete representations of an abstract idea, concept, or event.
Please note: As the facilitator of this activity, you will want to be well versed with the sitter’s identity and accomplishments, as well as what you want your students to take away from the exercise.
“Learning to Look” Strategies
Thirty-Second Look -
onds. Then have them turn away from the image. Conduct a conversation with students about what they saw.
What Do You See?
they see in the portrait, saying, “I see a . What do you see?” Each person must name the previous observations and add a new one: “I see a and a . What do you see?”
use and meaning of objects pictured in a portrait.
The Object Race
your students to find.
first to find all the objects listed on their object card.
piece contains a significant symbol. Give each student/pair of students a piece of the puzzle.
tell them to complete the puzzle.
Jumping into a Portrait (pre–K to third grade)
- tains a scene. Ask them where they would like to be in that portrait. Direct young people to use their imagination and “jump” into the portrait.
touch, smell, taste, hearing.
National Portrait Gallery
What am I thinking?
be thinking as he or she is sitting for the portrait.
What would you ask the sitter/ artist?
a question about the portrait, what would it be?”
ter and the artist.
What Do You Wonder?
you wonder about this portrait?”
other students to respond with their opinion.
Strike a Pose
pose like this sitter, to wear those clothes, and be in the setting of the portrait.
friend describing their portrait experience.
Compare and Contrast
have students compare and contrast them.
what purpose were each of the portraits created?
in a person’s life, discuss how the likeness of the in- dividual has changed and what occurred between the years of the portraits.
Questions to Ask While looking at a Portrait
Teacher: Be sure to elicit only visual observations with this question, rather than interpretations.)
us to determine that?
After you have exhausted “straight on” looking questions, consider these for follow-up, to expand the “reading” exercise.
What are the similarities and differences between a portrait and a written biography?
(These questions may need to be answered after students have read the label or as follow-up questions after you have supplied additional information.)
Who is the artist? Why is that significant?
is the significance of that?
What does the portrait say about American life during this era?
Image: Thomas Sully by Auguste Edouart (detail
“Reading” Portraiture at a Glance The two key elements to reading portraits are looking and analyzing.
Sitter Describe the sitter’s pose.
Symbols What objects are seen in the portrait?
Adjectives Use adjectives to describe sitter.
Clothing What clothing is the sitter wearing?
Medium What medium was used to create the portrait?
Setting What is the setting of the portrait?
Sitter Who is the sitter?
Symbols What do the objects tell us about the sitter?
Artist Who is the artist?
Date When was the por- trait created?
History What was going on in history when the por- trait was created?
Biography What is the sitter’s contribution to history?
Deborah Feingold Getty Historical Image Collection 01-01-1988
Caption: 1988: Close-up studio portrait of American choreographer and modern dancer Alvin Ailey holding his hands up to his temples. (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Getty Images) Keywords: colour; format portrait; male; The Stage; Choreographer; Personality; American; G2294/071
Copyright 2005 Getty Image, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Deborah Feingold. Alvin Ailey. Getty Images. 01 Jan 1988. eLibrary. Web. 15 Dec 2009.
Alvin Ailey Archive Photos 01-01-1968
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, featuring Alvin Ailey (R), perform at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968. Ailey was a choreographer noted for his fusion of classical style with freer form expression which altered the path of dance in the 1950s. dancers. choreographers. African Americans. dance. performances. performing. dancing. troops. groups. ensembles. companies. modern dance. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, featuring Alvin Ailey (R), perform at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968. Ailey was a choreographer noted for his fusion of classical style with freer form expression which altered the path of dance in the 1950s. Copyright Archive Photos
Alvin Ailey. Archive New Media. 01 Jan 1968. eLibrary. Web. 15 Dec 2009.
Ailey, Alvin http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC?vrsn=149&OP=contains&locID=va_s_007_ 0162&srchtp=name&ca=1&AI=U13003641&NA=alvin+ailey&ste=4&tbst=prp 12-15-2009
The choreographer Alvin Ailey was an important contributor to the American dance idiom of the latter part of the 20th century. His work includes Revelations (1960), set to traditional African American music; Flowers (1971), set to music by Pink Floyd and Janis Joplin; The Lark Ascending (1972), with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and For Bird—With Love (1984), a tribute to the great jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker.
The Bettmann Archive
Alvin Ailey, Jr., 1960.
Courtesy of Zachary Freyman
Ailey, Alvin, Jr.. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. Web. . 12-15-2009
Alvin Ailey By Ben Heine http://benheine.deviantart.com/art/Alvin-Ailey-Choreographer-91817322
(Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [LC-USZ62-114551])
Alvin Ailey by Carl Van Vechten, 1955 (LOC)
CALL NUMBER: LOT 12735, no. 9 [P&P] REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-USZ62-114550 (b&w film copy neg.) For publication information see "Carl Van Vechten Photographs (Lots 12735 and 12736)" (http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/079_vanv.html) MEDIUM