As you may know, I started teaching in the classroom again (art instruction to grades 6-9). Overall, it is going very well. It is so so great to see the aha moments in person again! It’s been a while since I was in the classroom because I spent the past 5 years teaching online. While I love both “spaces,” I couldn’t see my students’ faces when I taught online, and it’s so much fun to see someone’s eyes light up when an idea clicks!
To start the year with my middle school students, I opened a discussion of The Two Fridas. The kids ate that up! They loved the painting and coming up with ideas. We actually spent nearly an entire class period on that painting. You can learn a lot about Frida from that artwork, but what happens when you see a portrait without so many clues to start from?
Enter Alice Vanderbilt Shepard by John Singer Sargent.
My students are starting the year with a self-portrait project, and one day as a warm-up, we looked at this painting together. My question to them was: “What can you tell about this girl based on what you see in the portrait?” It’s amazing what you can discover with some close looking.
We talked about how she’s young, wealthy, and very pretty, but she also looks sick and uncomfortable. Her pale skin, redness of her eyes and cheeks, and watery eyes give that sense that something is wrong. We discussed her posture and practiced sitting like her. It’s awkward and painful to sit like she is.
The students noticed that she almost looks forced to sit there against her will, and that the slightest hint of a smile on her face shows us those mixed emotions.
Alice Vanderbilt Shepard injured her back when she was younger when she climbed and then fell from tree in spite of her father’s opposition, so he punished her by not calling the doctor (eek!). She also spent much of her youth sick and bedridden.
It’s so cool that we can detect so many clues to her life just by looking at a portrait that we might normally walk by at a museum.
Leading students in looking closely at portraits helps them connect to the real person: when they lived, how they lived, where they lived, what social status they held, even their health and their temperament. This activity, which can be applied to portraits and photographs from anywhere in the world, encourages not only paying attention to detail but making larger connections – global thinking, in a portrait!
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