Circa 1900: An Art and Humanities Resource

Art Social Studies | Grade 6

Face Off: Exploring History with Portraits

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Warm Up

Studio Procedure


People have been capturing their own images long before the selfie came along, through self-portraits as well as through portraits drawn or painted by a separate artist. Sometimes, the artist knew the person depicted in the portrait and sometimes the sitter was little more than a stranger. By studying portraits, viewers are given insight into the lives of the sitter and the artist, as well as a glimpse into the moment in time from which the subjects came. Portrait study can help connect us to history in new and exciting ways.


  1. Learn about people and their place in history by observing and creating portraits.
  2. Observe and discuss portraits from the past to discover clues about the artist, the sitter, and the time in which they lived. 
  3. Interview a person and research an important event from their life.
  4. Create a portrait of a person interviewed.


  • PowerPoint presentation
  • Copies of related artworks
  • Pencil Paper Various art supplies depending on student choice

Related Artwork

Divide students into pairs and assign one the role of sitter and one the role of artist. Give artist 2 minutes to sketch partner. After time is up, have students switch roles. Give each partner the opportunity to share with each other once both have been the artist and the sitter. Discuss the following questions:

  • As the artist, what were you thinking?
  • As the sitter, what were you thinking?
  • Which role was more difficult?
  • What might have made things easier?
  1. Display Portrait of Madame H.M. Barzun by Albert Gleizes. Model and facilitate discussion with students about the portrait using the following questions:
    • What do you see in this portrait?
    • How do you think the portrait was created? What medium did the artist use? Did they create the piece quickly or slowly?
    • What do you notice about the sitter? How are they positioned? Where are they looking? What is their emotion? What are they wearing? Are they holding anything? Are they identified? Why or why not?
    • What do you notice about the background? Is it inside or outside? Does it look staged? Are there any objects that stand out? Is there anything missing?
    • What do you know about the artist? Do they know the sitter? Did they create the portrait early or late in their career?
    • Consider this portrait’s context. Based on all the things we see, what do we know about this person and this moment in history? What questions does this portrait create for you about this moment in history? What else can we investigate?
  2. Divide students into small groups, assigning each a different portrait from the list of related artworks. Students recreate the discussion process in their own groups.


  1. Assign students to find a person to interview.
  2. After conducting their interview, students write a short biography based on the interview and any additional research they might uncover about an event/events from the individual’s life.
  3. Students then create a portrait of the person they interviewed that reflects their life or a specific event from their life in a medium of the student’s choice (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.).
  4. Students can present their artwork and the biography they wrote to the class.

This resource is made possible in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.