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Exploring Identity: How can portraiture conceal or reveal?

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Language Arts And English +4 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old), Post-Secondary, Adults

What is identity? How is it constructed? These activities investigate how portraits can conceal or reveal aspects of identity. How does the artist choose to portray an individual? How does the sitter choose to be shown?

This collection includes a three-part activity that can be modified by choosing to spend more or less time sharing out as a group. It begins with a discussion about identity, using the Chalk Talk Thinking Routine and a comparison of two portraits to further push students' thinking on how portraiture can both conceal and reveal aspects of identity. In the next parts of the activity, students are able to choose from a variety of portraits for individual reflection and then come together as a group to discuss a larger work to about culture and identity. Several Project Zero Thinking Routines can be used to stimulate and record thinking. 

Part I: Chalk Talk and comparing portraits

Students participate in the Chalk Talk Thinking Routine using the questions provided. A quick gallery walk where students circulate and read all responses can allow the class to get a feel for the many (or singular) perspective(s) of identity. Using the See-Think-Wonder Thinking Routine, students compare and contrast two portraits: LL Cool J by Kehinde Wiley and John D. Rockefeller by John Singer Sargent. Students can share with a neighbor and then out to the larger group or simply share out as a large group depending on class size, etc. 


Part II: Portraiture and Identity

Using the Individual Exploration of Portraiture worksheet, students can choose one image from the fifteen provided and spend some time exploring their selected portrait. Students can be given 5-10 minutes to interact with their chosen image. Using one of Roger Shimomura’s portraits, students will use the Unveiling Stories Thinking Routine to better understand the many layers to this work of art. Again, students can share out in pairs first or simply share out to the whole group depending on class size, etc.


Part III: Returning to chosen portrait and final reflection

Students will once again return to their selected portrait and complete the "second look" section of the Individual Exploration of Portraiture worksheet. A final reflection about identity and portraiture can be completed either as a group or individually using the I Used to think…; But Now I Think… Thinking Routine.


John D. Rockefeller, Sr by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (Collection of Senator and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, IV)

Fly Girl

National Museum of African American History and Culture

I Am a Man

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Peter (A Young English Girl)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Three young Paiutes

National Anthropological Archives

Jewish Grandmother, Ellis Island

Archives of American Art

Portrait of Mnonja

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mrs. John McCluney

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Room and Board

Catalog of American Portraits

The Naked Man

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Little Girl with Doll

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Una, Lady Troubridge

Smithsonian American Art Museum


Smithsonian American Art Museum

For Delia

Catalog of American Portraits

Shimomura Crossing the Delaware

National Portrait Gallery