In this lesson, students learn to distinguish portraits from other forms of art and develop their own criteria for analyzing portraits.

1. What is a portrait?

The teacher first introduces portraiture as an art form by showing both examples and non-examples such as landscapes and still-life art forms. The teacher facilitates the discussion by asking students to describe what is unique about a portrait, and the class contributes to a list of those characteristics on the board or chart paper. The teacher can also solicit student input about prior experiences at museums or special exhibits.

2. Why do artists paint portraits?

The teacher brainstorms with the students why artists create portraits and uses different examples of portraits with possible stories associated with them.

The teacher might show a well-known portrait like that of George Washington. The portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (The Lansdowne portrait) will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until June 16, 2002. The teacher begins the discussion with students about what they know about Washington from the portrait.

From the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Web site: (

George Washington brought the gift of his cast-iron character to the turbulence of early American life. "This Vesuvius of a man," as a biographer described him, who was threatened always by the eruption of his own fierce irritability, achieved a serene and compelling dignity of presence that portraitists transformed into the very image of republican majesty.
In 1796, when Gilbert Stuart painted this portrait of presidential calm, he falsified the moment but caught the mood of the age. Washington, who had been the nation's unanimous choice for commander of the army, for President of the Constitutional Convention, and twice for President of the United States, was at the moment harassed, in his last full year in office, by the opposing claims of the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, and by the controversy surrounding John Jay's treaty with Great Britain. Stuart, however, portrayed the Washington who endured to become the symbol of national permanence above the squabble of politics.
Gilbert Stuart painted this celebrated "Lansdowne" portrait in his Germantown, Pennsylvania, studio in 1796. It was commissioned by William Bingham, United States senator from Pennsylvania, and his wife, for the Earl of Shelburne, later Marquis of Lansdowne, who had defended the rebellious colonies in Parliament.

Resources for this portrait:

3. What questions can I answer?

As the teacher asks the questions below, he/she can write the questions on the board so that these same questions may be used to develop a list of criteria for students to use for the next lessons.

These discussion questions can be altered or added to, or merely used as a springboard for class discussion.

Questions might include:


  • Who is the person in the portrait?
  • How old is the person?
  • Can you tell when the person lived?
  • Does anything that the person is wearing give you any clues? (Clothing, jewelry, makeup, hat, etc.)
  • Besides the person himself/herself, are there any other objects in the portrait that give the viewer any clues? (objects that the person is holding, objects that are in the background, props such as chairs, tables, etc.)
  • Does the way the person is standing or sitting tell you anything about them?

When, where and why

  • What does the picture tell you about the time that the subject lived?
  • Can you guess what country it was painted in?
  • Can you guess whom it was painted for?
  • Do you think this is a self-portrait?
  • What makes this portrait unique?

Feelings and Emotions

  • How does the portrait make you feel?
  • Are you interested in the portrait?
  • Do you like the way the artist has arranged the picture?
  • Do you like the way the artist has shown details?
  • Can you predict if a male or female artist created this portrait?
  • How do you think the artist felt about the person he/she painted?
  • How do you think the person in the picture is feeling or what is their mood? How can you tell?

Set Up

  • How has the artist arranged the portrait?
  • Do you think the person posed for this portrait?
  • Where is the person looking (at the viewer, away, at something else)?
  • If there is more than one person in the picture, are they touching? What could this mean?
  • What does the background and the objects in the background of the picture tell us?
  • How much space has the artist left around the person and how is it used?
  • What view of the person is pictured?
    • 3/4 view
    • full frontal
    • profile
    • full body

Style of the Portrait:

  • Is the portrait realistic (looks absolutely real) or is it abstract (the artist was thinking about something real, but altered the visual reality of the subject in some way).

Art Elements: Shape, Line and Space

  • What shapes can you see in this portrait?
  • Are the lines in the portrait straight or curved?
  • How often does the artist repeat certain colors or shapes within the portrait

4. What questions can I ask?

The students and teacher then select questions from this list of questions to develop into a set of criteria that will be used to analyze and understand the portraits in the following lessons. Criteria can be recorded individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.

One way to incorporate technology into this activity is to choose a student to record the criteria in a computer program such as Microsoft Word on a computer attached to a projector or television monitor so that the entire class can see it as it is being developed. The document can then be saved to disks for small group activities or emailed to students.