Portraits Today and Yesterday

The day before you do this activity, ask your students to bring in family portraits/photographs or portraits of them and/or their siblings. These could also be their school photos.

In this activity, your students will think about the purpose(s) of portraits today, and then compare it to the role of portraits in the eighteenth century.

Have your students use this worksheet (PDF Download) to analyze their photos and the portraits from the Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough exhibition.

Split into pairs or small groups and ask them to think first about their own photos, following the worksheet to analyze different parts of the pictures.

Now project or hand out a few images of eighteenth-century portraits from the Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough exhibition. Gainsborough’s Mary, Countess Howe (ca. 1764), Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Miss Murray (1824–26), or Edwin Landseer’s The Hon. E. S. Russell and His Brother (1834) would be great choices. Each group should choose one and analyze it as they did their own photographs.

You may want to share with your students that, since photography had not yet been invented in the eighteenth century, portrait paintings were the way that families remembered their elders or celebrated a major event. In fact, portraits were usually commissioned (an artist was paid to paint someone’s likeness) at times like weddings or births—to commemorate a special occasion. Is this different or the same as today?

Have one person from each pair or group share with the whole class one similarity and one difference of portraits between the two time periods. How have our attitudes or methods of commemorating events changed or stayed the same since the eighteenth century?

Portraits Today and Yesterday Worksheet (PDF Worksheet)