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National History Day: Stories of Triumph and Tragedy from the National Portrait Gallery

National History Day: Stories of Triumph and Tragedy from the National Portrait Gallery

By: Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian and Briana Zavadil White, Student and Teacher Programs Manager, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture. Our collection presents people of remarkable character and achievement. These Americans include artists, politicians, scientists, inventors, activists, and performers, who together form our national identity. They help us understand who we are, and remind us of what we can aspire to be. The three examples from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection that are highlighted in this article offer insight through history, art, and biography into the 2019 Triumph & Tragedy in History theme.

Teachers can use portraiture in the classroom as a springboard to launch deeper discussions about biography and our collective history. Students use the elements of portrayal—the visual clues found in our portraits—to learn about the individuals featured in each artwork. Portrait “reading” encourages the visual analysis of a piece of art, similar to dissecting a historical document. Close reading of portraiture will produce a rich and memorable investigation of both the individual depicted in the portrait—the sitter—as well as the artist who created the portrait.

Teachers can initiate the conversation by having students identify the various elements of portrayal in a portrait, using the questions below. 

Facial expression: Use adjectives to describe the sitter’s facial expression. What emotion(s) does this expression convey?

Pose: Describe the sitter’s pose. What is the artist trying to say about the sitter?

Clothing: What is the sitter wearing? What might the sitter’s clothing tell us about his or her profession, personality, social status, or place in history?

Hairstyle: Describe the sitter’s hairstyle. Why would hairstyle be an important element of the portrait?

Setting: What is the setting of the portrait? What might the setting tell us about the sitter? Consider whether the setting is real or imagined. 

Objects: What objects are featured in the portrait? Objects function as symbols. What might they tell us about the sitter?

Color: What is color conveying in this image? How does color set the tone and mood of the portrait?

Medium: What medium was used to create the portrait? Why is medium important as we read portraiture?

Scale: What effect does the size of this portrait have on the way we view the sitter?

 Artistic style: What does this artist’s particular style tell us about the sitter? 

Other questions to consider: How do we bring these elements together to tell the story of a sitter? Why was the portrait created? What purpose did it serve? What does the portrait say about American life at the time it was created?

Now let us see if we can put this into practice by taking a close look at portraits from three distinct time periods in the Portrait Gallery’s collection through the lens of triumph and tragedy: Sojourner Truth, The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and Richard and Mildred Loving. Consider this question as you read more about these individuals and portraits: How can we connect the image and the story of the figure(s) represented to the theme of Triumph & Tragedy in History?

Activism in Action: Sojourner Truth

As a black woman who was born into slavery, Sojourner Truth faced tragedy and overcame tremendous obstacles. Truth remains an icon in American culture for her resilience, spirituality, and activism. 

Isabella “Belle” Baumfree was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, in 1797. She lived a hard life as an enslaved person until the age of 30, when she was freed under the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1827. During her last year of enslavement, she joined the Methodist Church, experiencing a spiritual awakening. Accompanying her insights were visions from God; she heard him call her “Sojourner Truth” in 1843, and under that name she began what we would think of today as a career in giving speeches. Truth worked with other notable abolitionists, traveling the country to perform songs and give speeches about the importance of human rights. The first wave of the American woman suffrage movement went hand in hand with the abolitionist movement, and she soon advocated for equal suffrage for all women.

Read more about the life of Sojourner Truth in the full article, available here.

Sojourner Truth

Analysis Questions: Truth’s portrait is a carte de visite, a small photograph popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Research cartes de visite. How were they used during the Civil War era? 

Consider Truth’s story. What purpose might her carte de visite serve? Why might “I sell the shadow to support the substance” be printed on Truth’s carte de visite?

The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles: Idealism Thwarted by Politics

World War I: two million German soldiers killed, half a million German citizens dead from disease, a nation ravaged. How does one create a plan for a country to recover from war? That was the question the German government posed to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, asking him to arrange a general armistice after the Germans surrendered to the Allies. Because Wilson had previously drafted the Fourteen Points, a plan for achieving lasting peace in Europe, the Germans thought he could navigate the peace negotiations and treat them fairly. Unfortunately, though Wilson’s Fourteen Points served as the basis of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was treated harshly. Despite protests, the Germans were helpless. Rejecting the treaty could result in a continuation of the Allied blockade, revolutionary outbreaks, an Allied military advance, and empowerment of France over Germany.

Read more about the Treaty of Versailles in the full article, available here.

Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

Analysis Questions: President Wilson is seated at the table toward the right side of the painting. Why might his location be significant? What kinds of connections can we make to the meeting, its subsequent treaty, and this portrait? 

Create a class tableau of this historical record. Assign students to individuals present at the treaty negotiations. Research the participants, specifically looking at their beliefs as they relate to the treaty. Consider whether each individual was an idealist or pragmatist. Create the tableau. Each student should be prepared to present in two or three sentences his or her response to the treaty from the perspective of the assigned treaty participant. 

Divide your students into small groups representing England, France, the U.S., and Germany. Have students find those countries on a map of the world. Given what you know about the Treaty of Versailles, how does each country’s geographic location affect their views of the treaty?

Richard and Mildred Loving: Fighting for Family

Richard Perry Loving was born in 1933, in Caroline County, Virginia. A bricklayer, Richard loved music and drag racing cars. During a time rife with racial tension, he easily socialized with African Americans because his drag racing team was interracial. While listening to live “hillbilly” music, he met Mildred Delores Jeter, the sister of the musicians. Jeter was of African American and Cherokee descent, and Loving was white, so intermingling was practically forbidden. However, they became friends and eventually fell in love. In the spring of 1958, Mildred became pregnant, and they decided to marry.

Richard and Mildred Loving married in Washington, D.C., in order to evade Virginia’s miscegenation law, the Racial Integrity Act. After they returned to their home in Virginia, they were arrested in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. In January 1959, they pleaded guilty in a Virginia court, and the presiding judge, Leon Bazile, sentenced them each to a year in jail but suspended the sentence on condition that they leave the state and not return together for the next 25 years.

Read more about Richard and Mildred Loving in the full article, available here.

Richard and Mildred Loving

Analysis Questions: Utilizing the setting to frame your discussion, what is the significance of this portrait?

In the spring of 1965, Grey Villet was given an assignment with Life magazine to photograph the Lovings. At that point they were embroiled in a legal battle after their arrest for miscegenation in Virginia. Villet did not concern himself with those entanglements. Instead, he chose to seek out the literal heart of the matter: a love story. How do we see triumph in this photograph of the Lovings?

For more portraits related to the 2019 National History Day theme, please visit our Learning Lab collection, Triumph & Tragedy in History at the National Portrait Gallery.

The full version of this article was originally published in the 2019 National History Day: Triumph and Tragedy in History theme book, page 22, available via

Richard and Mildred Loving

Image: Richard and Mildred Loving (detail), by Grey Villet.
In 1963 Richard and Mildred Loving went to court to challenge the Virginia law that made their interracial marriage a crime. After marrying in Washington, D.C., in 1958, the couple returned to live in Virginia, where they were jailed for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act. The Lovings pleaded guilty but received suspended sentences, contingent upon their leaving the state and not returning together for twenty-five years. They moved to Washington but longed to be reunited with their families in Virginia. In 1963, with the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the couple sought to have their convictions and sentences set aside. When the trial judge in Virginia upheld the judgment against them and pronounced the Lovings guilty of “a most serious crime,” the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear their case. On June 12, 1967, the Court issued a unanimous opinion that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
National Portrait Gallery