Portraits (Grades 3–8)


Portraits reveal a great deal about the sitter, the artist, and the cultural context in which they were created. The Albany Institute’s rich portrait collection allows students to learn about history and material culture through body language, clothing, setting, and accessories.

What's Included:

This lesson plan includes a 30-minute pre-visit introduction to portraits, and a two-part activity in which students plan (30 minutes) and create (60 minutes) original portraits of people in the news.

A glossary of portraiture terms and resources for further reading are also provided.

New York State Standards:

Grades 3­–8

The Visual Arts:          

  • Creating, Performing, and Participating in the Arts
  • Knowing and Using Materials and Resources
  • Responding to and Analyzing Works of Art
  • Understanding the Cultural Dimensions of Art

Social Studies:              

  • History of United States and New York
  • Geography

English Language Arts:            

  • Reading: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
  • Writing: Text Types and Purposes
  • Speaking and Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration


Students will:

  • Learn how to define a portrait
  • Look carefully; then analyze what they see and describe their conclusions verbally
  • Interpret visual details of the subject including body language, pose, and facial expression; and analyze symbolic details and history
  • Investigate and conduct independent research on a subject of interest
  • Use research findings to design and create a portrait that provides visual clues about the subject and his/her culture


A portrait is a representation of a person. It may closely resemble the person, or may have been altered for artistic or other reasons (such as to flatter the person being represented.) The person in a portrait is called the sitter, although he or she is not necessarily seated. A portrait may show one individual or many.

Artists choose how to show the sitter, selecting the view (such as a frontal view or profile, and whether the entire body is shown), pose (how the body is arranged), and style. Artists also decide on a background, which may be scenic, such as a landscape or a building’s interior, or simply a solid color behind the figure.

Furthermore, portraits are not always oil painted on canvas. A wide variety of mediums (or materials) have been used for portraiture, from photographs, buttons, t-shirts, and mugs to decorative arts, pencil sketches, and beyond.  

The purpose of the portrait often influences the execution of the portrait. For example, a family heirloom may be of fine quality and include references to the family name and coat of arms. A portrait for a loved one may be a miniature, have a softer style, and contain references to love. A politician might prefer a mug or button that could be used for campaigning.

Analyzing portraiture can be like playing detective—you interpret the clues and learn a lot about the sitter’s identity. Three elements of a portrait—what the sitter is wearing, his/her surroundings, and any props near the sitter—often provide clues about the sitter’s world: his or her name, family background, status, interests, role, and personality.

Portraits have been used for hundreds of years to show what people looked like. Painted and drawn portraits preserved a person’s likeness as a photograph does, and these portraits were kept as a family heirlooms, tributes, and works of art.

You can learn a good deal about history and society from portraiture. Body language and facial expressions give you information about the sitter’s mood and personality. Clothing reflects the styles of the time as well as the place the sitter lived. Props may reveal the sitter’s occupation and abilities, but also societal values. The setting also provides clues; for example, architecture may represent the home of the sitter or popular contemporary styles.

Web Resources:

Eyes on Art ozline.com/webquests/art2/index.html: a learning-to-look curriculum
Inside Art eduweb.com/insideart/tour2.html: art games
Portrait Detectives liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/nof/portraits/: an interactive introduction to the analysis of portraits and paintings for school children


Background: The portion of the painting that is in the distance and farthest from the viewer; often found at the top of the painting
Body language: The gestures, poses, movements, and expressions that a person uses to communicate
Foreground: The portion of the painting that is closest to the viewer; often found at the bottom of the painting
Frontal view: A head-on view of the sitter, when the sitter directly faces the viewer; this pose often gives the viewer more information about the sitter than does the profile view
: A self-taught painter who painted portraits. From the Latin limm, which means to illuminate, to draw, or outline in sharp detail
: A representation of a real person. From the Latin protrahere, which means to portray
: How the artist has positioned the sitter in the portrait (for example, in profile)
: A side view of the sitter
: Objects included in the portrait, which often have symbolic meaning. (for example, corn necklace)
: A portrait that an artist paints of himself or herself
: What surrounds the sitter in the painting; the stage for the scene
: A smoky-looking atmospheric effect created by blurring outlines; one of the elements used by Leonardo da Vinci and later artists to portray atmospheric perspective
: The person in the portrait (though he or she is not necessarily sitting)


For Younger Students
King, Penny and Clare Roundhill. Portraits. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1996.

Richardson, Joy. Looking at Faces in Art. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Rohmer, Harriet, ed. Just Like Me: Stories and Self-Portraits by Fourteen Artists. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1997.

Rowland-Warne, L. Costume. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 1992.

Van Wie, Nancy Ann. Mystery at the White House: A President is Missing! Max’s Publications, 1998.

Waldman, Neil. The Starry Night. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 1999.

Bedaux, Jan Baptist and Rudi Ekkart, eds. Pride and Joy: Children’s Portraits in the Netherlands, 1500–1700. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

De Salvo, Donna. Face Value: American Portraits. Southampton: The Parrish Art Museum, 1995.

Fisher, Leonard Everett. The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.

Livingstone, Margaret. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.

McPherson, Heather. The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth Century France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Pointon, Marcia. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wilkinson, Philip. Faces. Ed. Alison Cole. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 2000.

Woodall, Joanna, ed. Portraiture: Facing the Subject. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Woods-Marsden, Joanna. Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Hall, James A. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1979.

Smith Pierce, James. From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.