Artsy for Education
Resources for discovering and learning about art online

Lesson Plan #1: The Portrait

We’re very excited to present Artsy’s first lesson plan, created in response to educators’ requests for such content and to continue to fulfill our mission of providing access to the art world to anyone with an Internet connection. Hopefully this lesson (and future lessons) will inform the work of art teachers at the high school and college levels. 

Part I: Historical Foundations and a Definition

(This lesson plan is ideally for a high school art class and could be used for a few periods or an entire week, depending on the format of the class. Additionally, while at this point the lesson is set up generally as a discussion, more active learning could be a part of various aspects. The goal of this assignment is to increase students' familiarity with 1) The diverse ways in which portraits can be created and understood, 2) Iconic works of art and 3) Contemporary artists who might be unknown to them.)

To begin with, ask your students to say what images come to mind when they hear the term “Portrait” and then make a collected list of the examples. They might mention the Mona Lisa, a picture they painted of their family member, something that was just posted on Instagram or a “selfie” they have on their mobile phone.

Then lead them towards a definition of what a portrait has historically been understood as: “a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.” (Source: Oxford English Dictionary.) Acknowledge that there are other forms of portraits, such as group portraits, portraits of couples and families as well as self-portraits, but explain you’ll be focusing on the individual portrait, which has historically been implied by just saying “portrait.” Next, show them a few important historical examples of portraits:

Attributed to Thutmose, Queen Nefertiti, ca. 1350 B.C.
Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, ca. 1409
Raphael, Count Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-1515
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, 1806
Michelangelo Buonarroti, David, 1501-1504  

While keeping these works in front of your students, introduce some terms to evaluate them by, such as realism, mimesis, ideal or icon. Then think about raising other questions, such as whether portraits have to be of real individuals or if a portrait has to be made from real life? Also ask who is being depicted. Are they famous people or people without power? Make a list of the terms you would use to describe such subjects, and to think about the function of portraiture, such as: persons of significance; commissions; royalty; religious figures; historic conventions; symbols of power and privilege.


Part II: Abstraction and the Portrait

Show your students Picasso's La Rêve [The Dream] (1932) or Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905). Ask them what might be different about these works from the previous set. For example, compare the brushwork of Vermeer to Matisse as well as the use of color, perspective and proportions used by Picasso.

Follow this up by asking students if they know what Abstract Art is. Arrive at a general definition. Use Artsy’s definition (cited above) as a general jumping-off point. Present the different ways in which abstract art since Impressionism dealt with the portrait differently from historical works. Some suggested artists to discuss:

Henri Matisse
Pablo Picasso
Egon Schiele
Oskar Kokoschka
Jean Arp
Andy Warhol
Chuck Close

Possibly discuss some "extremes" of abstract portraiture. Ask when a picture of a person is no longer a portrait. Is this portrait without a face by Pablo Picasso still a portrait? Can you make a portrait out of a pile of candy, as is suggested by this work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres?


Part III: Photography and the Portrait

Show some contemporary photographic portraits—since photography is now the major means through which portraits are now made. Some suggestions:

Thomas Ruff
Alec Soth
Inez and Vinoodh
Mickalene Thomas
Catherine Opie
Mike Brodie
Pieter Hugo
Katy Grannan
Hendrik Kerstens
Zanele Muholi
Helen van Meene

Ask your students who is being depicted in works by these artists compared to the historical portraits. Discuss the ways in which photography has greatly opened up access to portraiture, especially now, when so many people have access to a camera. Compare contemporary photographic portraits to discuss the various ways of making a portrait with a camera. Bring up the question of whether photography offers as many options to the portraitist as painting. Possibly discuss photoshop and its capabilities. Also potentially bring up the differences in poses and the timing of a photograph—the candid versus the highly-posed,

As a final step, open up the lesson to show how Individual Portraits are just one of various types of portraiture. Explain how they can be family portraits, group portraits, couples, self-portraits and even animal portraits! Explore them on Artsy:

Animal Portrait
Contemporary Portrait Painting
Contemporary Portrait Photography
Contemporary Realist Portraiture
Group Portraits
Group of Portraits
Individual Portraits
Portraits
Portraits without a Face
Self-Portraits

Assignment: Create Three Different Portraits

Ask your students to think about all of the different works you have discussed in class and seen on Artsy and to create three portraits, in styles as different as possible from each other. (Students can pick the subjects of their portraits but ideally they will not be self-portraits, so they can have practice with a subject/sitter. You might want to have students pair up.) Encourage students to use different kinds of media or—if they are using a camera—to be inventive with how they present themselves, i.e. they could use costumes or Photoshop. When presenting the finished works, ask students to compare and contrast them (and potentially think about what categories they might fall into) in order to continue to use the various terminology of the lesson and more broadly, to help the students continue to think critically about the images.

Share article