Learning to Look

Discover how to “read” artworks and learn engaging strategies for connecting more deeply with history, biography and portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Abraham Lincoln (1887) by George Peter Alexander HealySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery tells the story of the United States by portraying people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture. Portraits reveal insights into history, biography, and identity.

Anais Nin (c. 1932) by Natashia TroubetskoiaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

At the museum, we closely engage with the portraits by finding and exploring the visual clues within them. Visual reading strategies, which we refer to as the Elements of Portrayal, can help us learn more about both the sitter and the artist.

Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside (1864) by Christian SchusseleSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In this story, you will discover how to spot visual clues in artworks, and then analyze them, similar to how you might dissect a primary historical document. Applying close reading skills to portraiture can provide you with a rich and memorable exploration of the Portrait Gallery’s collection.

Thomas Sully (1843) by Auguste EdouartSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Key Terms

Before learning about the Elements of Portrayal, here are some key terms about portraiture and their definitions. 

Mary Cassatt (c. 1880-1884) by Edgar DegasSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Portrait

A likeness or image of a person created by an artist.

George Catlin (1849) by William FiskSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Artist

A person who creates art.

Whitehurst Daguerrean Galleries advertisement (c. 1853) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sitter

The person or subject represented in a portrait.

Thomas Moran's palette by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Medium

The materials used to make art. At the Portrait Gallery, our curatorial department is determined by medium. The following are some examples found in our collection.

Ira Aldridge as Othello (c. 1830) by Henry Perronet BriggsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Paintings can be made of oil paint, acrylic, gouache, or other materials.

Bring U.S. Together. Vote Chisholm 1972, Unbought and Unbossed (1972) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Our Prints and Drawings department acquire artworks often found on paper such as charcoal, pastel, watercolor, ink, or printed as posters or engravings.

Amelia Earhart (1937) by Underwood & UnderwoodSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Photography encompasses daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, gelatin silver prints, and digital prints.

Charlotte Cushman (1853) by Shakespeare Wood, 1827 - 1886Original Source: See this work of art on the National Portrait Gallery website

Our Painting and Sculpture department acquire three-dimensional artworks called sculptures. They can be made from martials such as marble, clay, terra cotta, wood, or metal.

Excerpt from A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez (2018) by Hugo CrosthwaiteSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

We also acquire Time-based media art or TBMA. TBMA has a specific duration and includes film, video, digital, audio, or computer-based works.

Edward O. Wilson (2006) by Jennie SummerallSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Elements of Portrayal 

The ten Elements of Portrayal provide the foundation by which we engage with art at the Portrait Gallery. Brought together, they help tell the story of the sitter or sitters in a portrait.  

Look at the painting of E.O. Wilson by Jennie Summerall. Spend thirty seconds letting your eyes wander from top to bottom, side to side, and all around the portrait.

Facial expression

The look or perceived movement of the muscles on someone’s face. The facial expression can help identify the sitter’s emotion(s) and provide us with clues about their thoughts and feelings.

What emotions do you see in E. O. Wilson’s face? How do you think he feels about having bugs crawling around—and even on—him?

Pose

The way a sitter’s body is positioned helps us understand what the artist is trying to tell us about the subject. Some people might want to run away from so many bugs, but Wilson holds still. How is he posed? Why do you think he is kneeling down?

Clothing

Apparel may tell us about who a person is, their occupation, their personality, their economic or social status, or the era in which they lived. Notice Wilson’s rolled up sleeves and boots. What do you think he does for a living?

Hairstyle

The way a sitter wears their hair, including the color and style can offer hints about their age and when they may have lived. How old do you think Wilson is here? What do you see that makes you say so?

Setting
The surroundings or place in which a portrait is located. Real or imagined, the setting can provide context or hints about a sitter’s story. Imagine you could jump into this setting. Would it be warm or cold? Would the air feel humid or dry? Notice the sunlight around him and the bright colors of green in the plants. Why do you think the artist painted Wilson in nature, instead of in a laboratory or in an office?

Objects

Objects often function as clues that provide information about the sitter. They can help us discern the sitter’s profession, their accomplishments, or highlight other aspects of a sitter’s story. In this portrait, the clues are bugs. Why do you think the artist included so many species?

Observe the ant crawling on Wilson’s finger. Why do you think the artist included that detail? How does it affect your interpretation of the portrait as a whole?

Color

Various hues can set the tone, mood, or overall feeling. Color can help the artist convey their message about the sitter. Why do you think the artist, Jennie Summerall, chose such vibrant colors to portray Wilson?

Medium

The materials used to create a piece of art. Some popular media for portraiture include painting, charcoal, clay, wood, marble, photography, and video. What materials do you think were used to create this portrait? And why might the type of materials used be important?

Scale

The relative size of extent of something. The size of the portrait or the size of the sitter within the portrait (how much space they take up) can often influence the way in which we perceive the sitter. Consider the size of the portrait, which is almost five feet tall by almost four feet wide! Look at the scale of the bugs and how much bigger they appear on the portrait than in real life.

Artistic style

The personal technique(s) and medium that an artist uses to create a portrait. Often, the artist’s style can give us clues about who the sitter is or when the portrait was created. Why do you think Summerall created a realistic portrait of Wilson?

Since his childhood, E. O. Wilson wanted to be an entomologist, or a scientist who studies insects. He wrote, “Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine.” He has dedicated his life to studying ants and the connection between human and ant behavior.



A childhood accident left Wilson blind in one eye, which led him to observe things from up close. He said, “Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece.” Artist Jennie Summerall posed Wilson in a setting reminiscent of the landscape on Lignum Vitae Key in Florida, which Wilson helped preserve.

Thomas Alva Edison (1890) by Abraham Archibald AndersonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Use the Elements of Portrayal in conjunction with biography to illuminate the sitter’s story. The National Portrait Gallery invites you to try your hand at reading other portraits in the collection.

Credits: Story

Edward O. Wilson by Jennie Summerall, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
© Jennie Summerall

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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