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Uncovering America

Image Set
Faces of America: Portraits

Expanded Image Set

Picturing America educator resource, National Endowment for the Humanities

George Catlin, Catlin’s Indian cartoonsSynopsis 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: Reading Visual Cues in Portraits | Activity

Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, George Jules Taylor, 19721972

Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, George Jules Taylor, 1972, oil on canvas, William C. Whitney Foundation, 1973.19.2

Portraits can embody a surprising number of qualities that range from the impersonal and public (status, profession, or group identity) to very individual characteristics (appearance, expression, or gender). Artists and their sitters use portraits to convey a particular impression, such as turning your “good side” to the camera, trying to appear serious, or focusing attention on a particular social issue.

Choose several portraits from the image set or Pinterest board. Discuss what you think the people pictured are trying to say about themselves and who they are through their portraits.

Research and select several contemporary images of public figures. These could be celebrities, politicians, or activists, to name a few examples. What do you think each person is trying to communicate through his or her self-presentation? Can you find another likeness of that same person that either supports your image or contradicts it?

Faces of America: Respond and Relate | Activity

Examine the image set. Try to place the works in chronological order. Discuss the ways in which you can see the art of portraying people changing over time. Think about who is pictured and how they are represented.

Faces of America: We Are Family | Activity

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1938-1941

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1938-1941, gelatin silver print, Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello, 1988.56.44

Milton Rogovin, Doris McKinney with Her Two Sons, Republic Steel (Working People series), 1987

Milton Rogovin, Doris McKinney with Her Two Sons, Republic Steel (Working People series), 1987, gelatin silver print, Gift of Dr. J. Patrick and Patricia A. Kennedy, 2011.145.57

Joshua Johnson, Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs. Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, c. 1806

Joshua Johnson, Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs. Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, c. 1806, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase through the gifts of William Wilson Corcoran, Elizabeth Donner Norment, Francis Biddle, Erich Cohn, Hardinge Scholle and the William A. Clark Fund), 2014.136.146

Find images of families (however you define “family”) in the image set. Explore what the portraits tell you about the relationships among the sitters and who they are. Examine the qualities of the individuals, but also how people are grouped together (posed or unposed); the setting in which they are placed (inside or outside, home or work); and the objects, if any, in the pictures. Why are the artist’s choices important?

You can perform this exercise with different groupings of sitters: women, men, children, and people of color, for instance.

Faces of America: Explore Portable Portraits | Activity

Smartphones allow us to keep images of ourselves, friends, and family within reach of us so that we can look at them or show them to others anytime. This is not a new idea. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists painted portable miniature portraits that the owner (or wearer) could keep close in a similar way. These small likenesses were considered fine art—they were commissioned just like large portraits, and therefore were only available to people who could afford the expense. You can see images of a woman wearing portrait miniatures and an artist painting one on the associated Pinterest board.

Another form of portable portrait was the carte-de-visite, which means “calling card” in French. It was invented in France in the 1850s and found its way to the United States quickly. Bearing your portrait, as well as your name and address, cartes-de-visite were the first inexpensive, mainstream form of photography. They supplanted the popular, but more expensive, daguerreotypes (see Augustus Washington’s Portrait of a Woman in this set), which were also sometimes carried as personal mementos. A craze in calling cards consumed Americans in the early 1860s: people traded them, compiled albums, and even collected images of celebrities and notable personages, like Sojourner Truth, who sold cartes-de-visite to raise money.

Consider the functions of these two kinds of portable portraits alongside the ones on your phone now. Respond and discuss:

  • What is each kind of picture for—miniatures, calling cards, and pictures on your phone?
  • What is its value (personal, commercial, monetary) and why?

Faces of America: Alternative Portraits | Activity

These pictures may be different from what you would normally think of as a portrait. How and why are they different? In what ways can they still be defined as portraits?

Faces of America: Showing Yourself | Activity

Pictures capture the dimensions that each person expresses in different combinations and in distinct ways. This activity is designed to explore the ways you present yourself in various situations.

Collect five pictures of yourself in scenarios from daily life—think about the different settings, occasions, and people with whom these moments are recorded. Print out the images or create a slideshow on your phone or computer. Do you think that one picture is closer to who you are than the others? Did any of the images show you something unexpected about yourself?