Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

What Presidential Portraits Reveal

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


What Presidential Portraits Reveal: 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.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Examine a variety of historical portraits

Begin by explaining that in this lesson students will examine a variety of historical portraits in order to learn what this familiar genre of art can contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the past. To guide their study, have students create a Portrait Analysis Worksheet based on the "Photograph Analysis Worksheet" available through EDSITEment at the Digital Classroom website of the National Archives and Records Administration. At the website's homepage, click "Document Analysis Worksheets” under the heading “Resources” and click Photograph. Discuss with students what questions they would add to adapt this worksheet for the study of portraits. For example: Who created the portrait? When was it produced? Is it a life-portrait or based on an image of the subject? How has it been preserved and displayed? What do you know about the person portrayed in the portrait? What is the person wearing? What is his or her facial expression? What is the backdrop or setting of the portrait? When you have produced your worksheet, provide copies to all members of the class.

Activity 2. Review Presidential portraits from three different historical eras

Have students look first at Presidential portraits from three different historical eras in order to investigate how styles of portraiture have changed and what these changes suggest about changing social attitudes. Portraits of all the Presidents are available through EDSITEment at the National Portrait Gallery website; click "Collections" at the website's homepage, then click Hall of Presidents then “Portraits in the Hall of Presidents” and use the menu in the lefthand frame to view the collection. Three portraits that offer interesting points of comparison are those of George Washington (based on a 1793 original), Grover Cleveland (painted in 1899), and George Bush (painted in 1995).

  • Have students work individually or in groups to analyze these three portraits using their worksheets and the background on each president available at the National Portrait Gallery website. In a class discussion, compare their responses to selected sections of the worksheet. For example, how would they describe the President's facial expression in each portrait?
  • Help students compare the impressions created by these portraits. How is the President posed in each portrait? What does the pose suggest about his character? his political stature? What background has the artist selected for each portrait? What does this setting suggest about the President's place in American society? the nature of his work? the scene of his accomplishments? What is the President wearing in each portrait? What do his clothes suggest about his personality? his self-image? his public role? How has the artist used lighting and color in each portrait? What emotional atmosphere do these elements convey? What do they suggest about the President's temperament? his inner life? his sense of purpose? Have students summarize the impression created by each Presidential portrait in a paragraph.
  • Suggest to students that in these three portraits we can see not only what the President looked like but also what the Presidency looked like to Americans at three periods in our history. Remind them that each portrait was created for public display as a memorial of both the man and his time in office. Help students analyze the portraits from this point of view by noticing first how each artist frames the President. Is he near the viewer or far away? Shown in full figure or in close up? Does he fill the frame or seem part of a larger scene? Have students discuss how these aspects of each portrait establish a relationship between the viewer and the President. What other elements contribute to this relationship? Have students comment on the direction of each President's gaze, his "body language," and the angle from which we view him (e.g., looking up, looking down, etc.). What can we infer from such details about the way Americans regarded the Presidency during these three historical periods?
  • Conclude this part of the lesson by having students suggest how an historian might verify the historical accuracy of the interpretation of these portraits. What other primary sources could reveal how Americans viewed the Presidency at different times in our past?
Activity 3. Details that "tell a story"

Turn next to portraits that "tell a story" about the person portrayed through details in the portrait itself or through details about the portrait that have been uncovered by art historians. Several portraits that lend themselves to this kind of study can be found in the "Age of Revolution" collection at the National Portrait Gallery website accessible through EDSITEment. Click "Collections" at the website's homepage, then select "18th Century.”

  • Have students work in groups, giving each group one of the following portraits to analyze using the worksheet and the background on each portrait provided at the National Portrait Gallery website: Horatio Gates, Henry Laurens, William Moultrie, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Patience Wright. Have each group report its findings to the class.
  • Discuss as a class the significance of such details as:
    • The interplay of storm clouds and sunlight in the portrait of Horatio Gates, which some have seen as an allusion to his military career, clouded by a disastrous loss at the Battle of Camden two years before the portrait was made. Is this "reading too much" into the portrait? What broader interpretation might account for the artist's decision to show Gates against a stormy background?
    • The luxurious setting and governmental papers in the portrait of Henry Laurens, whom the artist calls "President of the American Congress." How do such details serve to "tell the story" of his political career? Point out to students that this portrait was made in 1782, the same year that Laurens emerged from a British prison too weak to participate in negotiating a final end to the Revolutionary War. Is this part of his story reflected in the portrait? Should we assume that the artist added health and vigor to his subject? Notice also the creation of a suggested stage in the setting of this portrait. Can one take this as a subtle indication that Laurens has played a leading part in the drama of his times?
    • The Charleston fortifications shown (very indistinctly) in the background of the William Moultrie portrait, and the star added to his uniform. How does the inclusion of such "biographical" details compare with the more symbolic storytelling of the Gates and Laurens portraits? What kind of reading do they invite? What do they suggest about the person portrayed and his sense of his own story? To what extent do such details reduce the portrait to a kind of resumé?
    • The painted-over uniform in the portrait of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. To what extent does this simply update the original portrait, which showed Pinckney in the British colors (i.e., red coat) of the Charleston militia, a pre-Revolutionary unit. To what extent does it demonstrate the strength of Pinckney's allegiance to the newly formed United States? (Remind students that many military leaders of the American Revolution had served, like Pinckney, in colonial militias that were loyal to the Crown.) What would motivate Pinckney to repaint his portrait in this way: embarrassment? anger? honor? Could one read this detail as an indication that Pinckney was a "turncoat"? Why or why not?
    • The depiction of Patience Wright's unusual method of fashioning wax likenesses. Would it be possible to understand the significance of this detail if it were not explained in the caption to the portrait? To what extent does it add a touch of "real life" to her portrait? To what extent does it place her in a posture which the average viewer might only find confusing? How does this attempt to tell the person's story compare with the more symbolic or biographical techniques seen in the other portraits of this collection?
  • After students have presented their reports, discuss how an historian might use the "storytelling" details found in a portrait. To what extent might they be a source of historical fact? Can one interpret such details without already knowing the facts they allude to? To what extent might they cast additional light on the character of the persons portrayed? Can one assume that Laurens wanted the alliance he had presided over included in his portrait? that Moultrie wanted himself portrayed with the fortifications he had defended in the background? Might an historian infer that such details allude to what these men saw as most significant in their lives?
  • Conclude this part of the lesson by having students consider the preparations they make to have their own portraits made, for example, by the school photographer. What "story" do they aim to tell about themselves through the clothes they wear, the way they style their hair, the expressions they assume? Have students consider the range of storytelling techniques they have seen in portrait painting and write a description of the portrait they would have an artist make of them. What symbolic details would they include? what biographical items? what emblems of their beliefs and accomplishments? What sort of setting would they choose? What would they be doing in the portrait? Have students read their self-portraits to the class.
Activity 4. Portraits that express a specific point of view

Turn finally to portraits that express a specific point of view toward the person portrayed or that make a statement about their subject.

  • Caricature is an obvious use of portraiture to express a point of view. For examples, see the political cartoons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt collected at The New Deal Network website on EDSITEment. At the website's homepage, click "TVA: Electricity for All," then select "The TVA in Cartoons." For a range of representations of Roosevelt, click "In His Mind's Eye," which presents FDR as a visionary; "Franklin's Successful Experiment," which compares Roosevelt weathering a constitutional storm with Benjamin Franklin's famous kite-flying experiment; and "At the Snow White House," which borrows imagery from the then-new Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to show Roosevelt in political difficulties. (There is also a lesson plan on political cartoons at The New Deal Network website, which draws on this collection. Click "Classroom Resources" on the website's homepage, then select "Lesson Plans" and click "TVA: Electricity for All" for a link to "Lesson 1: Political Cartoons and the TVA."
  • Monuments also stretch the conventions of portraiture to make a statement about their subject. The heroic statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial offers an example which can be accessed through EDSITEment at the Digital Classroom website of the National Archives and Records Administration. Click "Teaching with Documents" at the website's homepage, then scroll down to the heading “The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)” and click "The Unfinished Lincoln Memorial" for a lesson plan.
Activity 5. Analyze images

Have students work in groups to analyze these images using their Portrait Analysis Worksheets. To sharpen their appreciation of the FDR caricatures, provide them also with the "Cartoon Analysis Worksheet" available through EDSITEment at the Digital Classroom website of the National Archives and Records Administration. (Click Cartoon analysis worksheet in the box to the right—either the PDF or HTML format.) When they have completed their analyses, compare their impressions and interpretations of these images.

  • Discuss the use of symbolism and allusion to add a specific note of significance to these portraits.
    • What does FDR's pose in the cartoon, "In His Mind's Eye," symbolize? What images of American history does it allude to? What is the implication of the visual pun in the cartoon "Franklin's Successful Experiment"? What does the cartoon say about FDR's relationship to Benjamin Franklin? How does the symbolism in these two supportive cartoons differ from that in the critical "At the Snow White House"? What is implied by showing FDR and his New Deal program as Disney characters?
    • >Contrast the everyday vocabulary of these cartoon symbols with the classical symbols used in the statue of Lincoln. What is implied by placing Lincoln among emblems of ancient Roman power? What other symbols does the sculptor use to characterize his subject? How do Lincoln's hands -- one a fist, the other open -- lend significance to this portrait?
    • Compare the symbolic details in these portraits with the "telling details" that appear in the portraits from the Age of Revolution. Which are comments on the meaning of the individual portrayed? Which are comments on the life of the individual? How can we distinguish these two uses of significant detail? What kind of historical evidence can each provide?
  • Close this part of the lesson by having students reconsider the question of American attitudes toward the Presidency in light of this last set of Presidential portraits.
    • What is the viewer's relationship to FDR as portrayed in the political cartoons? Is it significant that he is shown in full-figure and with no indication of the disability that forced him to use a wheelchair? What does the elimination of that historical fact suggest about what these cartoonists (and their audience) want to see in their president? (On this point, you might remind students that FDR and his aides also worked hard to keep his physical disability as inconspicuous as possible.)
    • What is the viewer's relationship to Lincoln as portrayed at the Lincoln Memorial? Does this gigantic statue seem remote, imposing, domineering? What impression of Lincoln does the sculptor convey by showing him seated yet elevated on a pedestal? by showing him in ordinary 19th-century clothing yet surrounded by classic symbols of power? In what sense do these seeming contradictions in the portrait achieve balance?
    • Consider finally the degree to which these portraits can be regarded as reflecting popular attitudes toward the Presidency. Were they created for the same purpose as the portraits examined at the start of this lesson? To what extent do they aim for a consensus view of their subject and to what extent do they express the particular views of the artist? What kind of evidence about historical attitudes toward the Presidency could they provide?
Activity 6. Research personal portrait collections

Conclude this lesson by asking students to research the portrait collections in their own homes, which are most likely made up of snapshots of family members. Have each student select a set of at least three portraits for analysis -- for example, portraits of fathers over three generations, graduation portraits, baby portraits, portraits of the family pet. Have students use their Portrait Analysis Sheet to examine their portraits and explore some of the issues raised in this lesson: how portraits convey an attitude toward their subject, how they tell a story about their subject, how they express a point of view about their subject. Have each student prepare a report or exhibit interpreting the portraits they have collected to produce a chapter of family history.

Extending The Lesson

Complement this study of portraits as historical documents with an introduction to some of the artistic traditions that have influenced portraiture, drawing on the resources of the Detroit Institute of Arts website on EDSITEment. The collection of Colonial Portraits at this website, for example, can provide a useful aesthetic context for the "Age of Revolution" portraits found on the National Portrait Gallery website. At the Detroit Institute of Arts website homepage, click "Collections" at the top, then select "American Art" and select “Colonial Art” at the top.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis