Activity: Portrait Investigations

Activity: Portrait Investigations - Body

Provide students with a variety of portraits, such as those shown below. Explain to students that they will have time to study each of these portraits in more detail and will be able to learn more about each person. Introduce each image with the person’s name and provide the background information available. Then divide the class into small groups to conduct individual investigations of each of the sitters.

Portrait Investigation Questions:

  • The sitter (the person in the portrait): Who do you think this person might be? What are some visual clues that help you know more about who they are or what they did in their life? What might they do for a living? What is their personality like? What might the objects in the portrait mean or represent? When did they live? What might the story be in this image? What is the experience of the person in the image?
  • The artist: What is the sitter's relationship with the portrait artist? Can you tell anything about the artist from how they created the painting?
  • Society: What year do you think this was painted? How do you know? What was it like in that era? What is going on in the world at this time? Why might someone have their portrait painted in that era?
  • You: Who does this portrait remind you of? What emotions does it evoke? What questions would you like to ask the artist and the sitter? What more do you want to know?
  • Even when presented with the same portrait, different people might interpret it in different ways. Have the student groups share their interpretations and include their evidence. How are their interpretations similar? How are they different?

Resources to use:

  • Map of the United States (ca. 1830)
  • Additional classroom resources to look for key events in American history from the Early Republic Period, roughly 1780-1850: this might include text books, encyclopedia, websites, etc.

Albert G. Gilman was born January 23, 1806 and died December 14, 1871 in Mount Vernon, Maine. The town of Mt. Vernon was founded in 1792 and most of its residents had come from New Hampshire starting as early as 1774. Gilman attended Wesleyan Seminary (later named Kents Hill school) in nearby Readfield. He was twenty-four years old in 1831 when this portrait was painted. Albert Gilman was a schoolteacher. He served as a teacher for over twenty-five years and was elected “selectmen” for the town for many years. He was a “public speaker of note and highly esteemed for his fine character” Albert and his wife Rachael were married in 1838 and had six children.

As a school teacher, Gilman probably made about $12 a month. A “half bust” portrait like this one probably cost about $25.

The portrait was painted by A. Ellis. We don’t know much about this artist, but we do know that they were actively painting in and around parts of Maine and southeastern New Hampshire between 1820-1830. There are fifteen portraits associated with this artist.

Fielding video of Albert Gilman painting

Watch this video to hear Jonathan Fielding describe the painting of Albert Gilman.

March 1, 1820. Henry Sayward was probably around three years old when this painting was completed. He may have been the only son of Joseph Sayward and Lydia Philpot, but the Sayward family was very large and he probably grew up among many cousins in and around the area of Alfred, Maine. His father, Joseph, served as the town sheriff for many years.

Henry eventually moved to Dover, New Hampshire and was part of the Niles and Co. Express railroad company. He died there in 1901.

Silhouette portraits of Samuel and Elvira Fish were possibly made by the so-called "Puffy Sleeve Artist" in Massachusetts around 1830. Samuel Fish Jr. was born in Athol, Massachusetts, October 25, 1809. He was the eighth of eleven children. He married Elvira Brown and the couple lived for many years in Athol, Massachusetts. According to historical records for Athol, Samuel worked for years as a superintendent at one of the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester, New Hampshire. He died January 16, 1863 in Athol, Massachusetts. His widow Elvira lived until December 12, 1896 and is also listed in the death records for Athol. This pair of portraits may have been made to commemorate their marriage.