Using Portraiture as a Primary Source

By: Christine Clancy

On Sunday December 1st, participants in the Philadelphia Writing Project’s 2018 Invitational Summer Institute as well as other teacher consultants  gathered for a workshop on Portraiture as a Primary Source. The event was held at the Portrait Gallery of the 2nd Bank of the United States (pictured below). Participants were treated to a private showing of “People of Independence.” This exhibit primarily composed of over 150 portraits mostly by Charles Wilson Peale, who painted key figures during the period of American Revolution.  These portraits were once displayed in a museum Peale founded which was housed on the second floor of Independence Hall. The museum inspired by European Cabinets of Curiosity  was one of the first in the U.S.  Today, visitors can see these portraits for free.

Portrait Gallery of the 2nd Bank of the United States

Park Ranger Renee Albertolli and educator Amanda Schear guided participants in several activities that they could use with their own students when using portraits as primary sources.  The first portrait they showed us was one of Mary White Morris wife of Robert Morris, a wealthy and influential figure in Philadelphia during the time of the American Revolution. Renee and Amanda guided our investigation into this portrait by following these steps:

  1. Gathering Information: We were invited to look at the portrait for 3 seconds. (For adults, three seconds is enough, for children I would suggest giving more time).  They then asked recall questions such as: What did you see? What did you notice? A teacher could even ask follow-up questions to see how much the students were able to absorb of the portrait. For example, does she have a hat? Are their statues in the painting? Is she holding something in her hand? What is she holding in her hand?
  2. Interpreting: Once students have looked at the portrait and identified what they see, invite them to go deeper and ask, “What does it all mean?”

For Example: A branch from a greenhouse where she grows oranges… She must be a wealthy woman.

Renee informed us that primary sources weren’t and aren’t necessarily factual, rather they provide us with information of the time.  One element of this painting that wasn’t entirely accurate was Mary’s face.  Upon glancing at other paintings, we realized that Mary’s face looked very similar to women in other portraits on display.  The purpose of this painting was not to to give a 100% accurate description of her physical features, but rather to display her status and prestige.  The painting highlighted that she was a woman of means with elegant clothing, an orange leaf in a climate incapable of sustaining tropical fruits and a property with statues and green space.  The elements in this portrait combined as more of a symbolic representation of a woman of status and economic means. As we continued to investigate the portrait of Mary White Morris, we learned more about her life.  It was not as easy as the portrait might suggest. Mary’s husband Robert was sent to debtor’s prison, leaving Mary with the responsibility of managing finances as well as raising their seven children. This portrait represented a period of Mary’s life and her privilege but it was not the whole story.

Portraits are important primary source because they teach us about values and virtues that people found important.  Throughout the morning, Renee and Amanda led us through several different protocols and ways we could guided our own students in looking at portraits. We analyzed portraits that were never meant to be displayed in museums, as well as those that commissioned as political statements to be shown in public places. We talked about the differences between public and private portraits.  

3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Portraits can represent people’s aspirations: What hopes does the artist or the person commissioning the piece have?
  2. ) Portraits can be altered after the fact.  How might paintings have been changed over time? How does this change the message being communicated?
  3. Looking at portraits requires discernment and interrogation. What is factual? What has been idealized?

Applying this workshop to our Classrooms

Renee and Amanda led participants in a discussion of how we could apply the use of portraiture to our own classrooms.  We began to reflect on the following questions:

  1. How are we and our students being portrayed (or portraying ourselves) in social media?
  2. If we designed our own museum, what artifacts would be included? How would we memorialize our experiences?
  3. How do we learn the stories that were never told in historical records? This gallery had few representations of people other than wealthy and influential white men.

Additional Resources:*%26db%3Dexhibt%26dir%3DCR%20INDE

Christine Clancy is a 5th grade teacher ELA in Philadelphia, currently at the Francis Scott Key School. Christine has served as a classroom teacher, ESOL teacher and district level administrator over the course of her 10 years with the School District of Philadelphia.


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