What Presidential Portraits Reveal

This lesson is designed to help students recognize that portraits, whether paintings or photographs, can tell us more about people of the past than just what they looked like. Students first compare portraits of three Presidents of the United States to note how changes in style can reflect changing social attitudes, in this case changing American attitudes toward the Presidency. Next they examine portraits of Americans from the Revolutionary War era in order to learn how portraits can tell a person's story, both through details of the portrait itself and through evidence of why it was produced or (in some cases) how it has been altered. Finally, students consider how portraits can be manipulated to express a specific point of view, examining caricatures, monuments, and artworks that turn the representation of individuals into statements about what they stand for. To conclude the lesson, students gather portraits from their own homes and prepare a report explaining what these items might tell a future historian about life in our times.

Guiding Questions

No guiding questions provided.

Learning Objectives

To gain experience in working with portraits as a source of historical evidence.

To consider the part that interpretation plays in drawing evidence from historical portraits.

To examine uses of portraiture that comment on the significance of an individual.

To explore the potential historical significance of portraits made today.