Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

How to Read an Object

Connecting to People through Portraits

Like a photograph, a portrait represents a picture of a person. However, a portrait doesn’t capture a single moment in time; instead, it is the artist’s impression of what they see in the person they are painting. A portrait balances the artist’s perspective and what the person sitting for the portrait (the sitter) would like to show the rest of the world about who they are. What can we learn about the artist, the sitter, society, and ourselves by the clues the artist has given us?

Image of portraits of children displayed on a wall with a sculpture of a young girl placed in front of them.

Photography © 2020 Fredrik Nilsen

Something that students may observe in portraits from this era is that the image doesn’t look very realistic to them and perhaps looks different than other portraits they may have seen.The artists represented in the Fielding Collection are primarily self-taught or learned alongside others who may have had some formal training. They were not academically taught in an art school but did possess artistic skill. Unlike the formally trained artists of the time, such as John Singleton Copley or Gilbert Stuart, these “limners” or artisans, as they are now more frequently called, often traveled from place to place to earn a living painting portraits rather than establishing a studio in an urban setting. Works by these artists generally look flattened or planar, without the sense of realism and shading seen in more realistic portraits. They often have more rigid lines and frequently follow a limited color palette. But even like the more formal studio portraitists, many of the artisans had standard poses, props, and costumes that they used for their portraits.

To best “read” a portrait, it helps to know about the sitter’s identity and their accomplishments, and the contextual information about the portrait itself. This can be a lot harder to do because we don’t always have all the information we need.

Of all the stories an object can tell, how would you decide which stories are the most important?

Object Explorations and Activities