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Uncovering America

Picturing America educator resource, National Endowment for the Humanities

George Catlin, Catlin’s Indian cartoons. Synopsis of the Author’s roamings in gathering the paintings enumerated in his Catalogue, [1972]

Richard H. Saunders, American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity (Lebanon, NH, 2016)

John Walker, Portraits: 5,000 Years (New York, 1983)

Shearer West, Portraiture (Oxford, 2004)

Faces of America: Portraits

A man with pale white skin sits and a man with light brown skin stands in front of a cave-like, rocky outcropping in this vertical portrait painting. The light-skinned man closer to us has dark brown hair, and the light falls more strongly on him. He sits propped on or against a rock with his body angled to our left, and he looks off into the distance in that direction. He wears a scarlet-red overcoat, a white waistcoat, and moccasins. What appears to be an animal skin painted on the underside with red, tan, and black geometric patterns is tied around his chest and falls over his left arm, on our right. With that hand, he holds a musket like a walking stick. He also holds a black cap ornamented with beads and feathers on his other knee. The man with brown skin stands in shadow behind the other man, to our left. His body faces us, and he looks at the seated man. A dark cloak encircles his shoulders and is gathered around his waist. A strap crosses his bare chest and the strap, bracelets, and a feathered headdress seem to be beaded. Large gold rings curve from his earlobes up over his ears. A puff of smoke emerges from the top of the long, painted stick he holds, suggesting  it is a pipe. He holds his left hand, on our right, at his chest, and points subtly to our left, perhaps to the landscape seen through a break in the rocky outcropping. There, in front of a waterfall in the distance, a small group of people with light brown skin gather around a camp fire in front of a tent-like structure.

Benjamin West, Colonel Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill), 1776, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.10

What is a portrait? What truths and questions does a portrait communicate?

What might a portrait express about the person portrayed? How does it reflect the sitter’s community, setting, family, or friends? What does the portrait reveal about the artist?

The basic fascination with capturing and studying images of ourselves and of others—for what they say about us, as individuals and as a people—is what makes portraiture so compelling.

For centuries, portraits have formed an important record of America’s people. When you think of the nation’s first president, the image that comes to mind is likely one created by portraitist Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Vaughan portrait), 1795. Gilbert captures a broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced, and serious president who eyes us directly, full of character and probity. We know America’s early colonists, leaders, politicians, merchants, and philosophers through their portraits. Very consciously, these individuals constructed, with artists, public memorials of how they wished to be remembered by future generations. They projected their personal qualities, such as prudence, leadership, and strength; their accomplishments, whether military, professional, or intellectual; and their social role or position, such as matriarch, landowner, or politician.

Access to portraits in colonial America and during the republic’s early years was limited. Portraits were available to very few, largely European colonists or immigrant Americans—those who could afford this costly luxury (and a home to place it in). Gradually, as the economy grew, an entrepreneurial class of often self-trained portraitists began to serve a growing middle class who wished to preserve their likenesses for personal, rather than public, reasons, such as to record their family lineage for posterity. Joshua Johnson, among the few African American artists practicing in the area of portraiture during the early 19th century, painted many such family documents, including Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs. Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, circa 1806. Its domestic setting (the subjects sit on a high-back sofa) and the intimacy and tenderness conveyed by mother and daughters distinguish it from Gilbert Stuart’s public portraiture.

From the 19th century onward, new technology, the expansion of the country, and vast social and political change spurred artists to embrace modern media, like photography, as well as novel approaches predicated on changes in the relationship between the artist and subject. This shifting dynamic is seen in two of George Catlin’s portraits of American Indians, The Female Eagle—Shawano, 1830, and Boy Chief - Ojibbeway, 1843. Catlin portrayed these individuals because of his personal interest in what he saw as the disappearance of Native culture and his drive to document it, rather than commercial motives. Meanwhile, the advent of photography introduced inexpensive prints that were traded and collected in the first photo albums. These included images of people of different social classes and portrayals of individuals who embodied certain ideals, such as a portrait of abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth, 1864. She included a caption for her portrait, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” indicating that she marketed her image in order to promote her beliefs.

Artists of the 20th century continued to extend the purposes of portraiture. James Van Der Zee opened a photography studio in Harlem and extensively documented the lives of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, yielding an important chronicle of the period, including Sisters of 1926. Other images, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, 1924, a photograph of the painter captured by her partner Alfred Stieglitz, reflect the American ethos of individualism. In Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett), 1907, painter George Bellows brought attention to the lives of marginalized street children in an era before child labor laws protected them. Compare Bellows’s work with that of John Singer Sargent’s Miss Beatrice Townsend, 1882, of a generation earlier; the two girls embody great contrasts in American society. Other artists chose to explore the properties of portraiture and perhaps the limitations of representation, such as Lee Miller in her Portrait of Space, near Siwa, Egypt, 1937.

The trajectory of experimentation continues as the boundaries of the genre of portraiture extend yet further. Contemporary portraits depict not only the visible signs of a person’s identity and appearance, but also reveal other ways in which we define ourselves: fitting in or being at odds, connections to place/home/community, and identification with work/civic/personal life. In his Working People series (1972–1987), photographer Milton Rogovin documents working-class people employed in trades and factories in rural America. Barkley Leonnard Hendricks and Andy Warhol explore fashion and self-presentation (George Jules Taylor, 1972, and two Warhol self-portraits of the 1980s) and the myriad ways in which identity and appearance may shift.

How we picture and understand ourselves through portraiture continues to evolve as artists and their sitters explore new forms and approaches to representation and identity.


“A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind.” —William James, 1890

“From long experience, I know that resemblance in a portrait is essential; but no fault will be found with the artist (at least by the sitter), if he improves the general appearance.” —Thomas Sully, Hints to Young Painters, 1873

“It will soon be. . .difficult to find a man who has not his likeness done by the sun. . . . the immortality of this generation is as sure, at least, as the duration of a metallic plate.” —Brother Jonathan (a 19th-century periodical based in New York) on the popularity of daguerreotype portraits, which were produced on metallic plates, 1843

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” —Richard Avedon, 1985

“Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.” —Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977