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ARTplay: Thinking About Portraits

By Marianne Ruggiero
Coordinator of Family Programs at The RISD Museum

Note: The images of artwork from The RISD Museum collection will remain on the Kidoinfo website for only 3 months as requested by the Museum. Although the images have been removed, kids may still enjoy doing some of the following projects.

Have you ever created a “portrait,” or picture of someone that you know? What type of art materials did you use? Crayons, clay, maybe even a digital camera? In the days before cameras, which can produce an instant portrait, artists often made paintings of people. These painted portraits could take days, even months, to complete. People often had to pose for long periods of time. The completed portrait was usually given a place of honor in the home of the “sitter” (person who posed for the portrait), just as you might put a framed photograph of yourself or a family member in a special place in your own home.

How can you tell that these portraits were painted long ago? Compare the portraits and decide how they are alike. How are they different? Just like today, people who posed for portraits centuries ago dressed in their best clothes. Kids’ clothes, back then, were miniature versions of those worn by their parents. Think of yourself wearing the clothes worn by the children in the paintings. Would it be hard to play dressed like this?

Look at the family portrait. The Dad is pointing to a statue of his father. The statue carries the words “He lived and died without reproach.” This means that the Dad’s father was a very good man who never did anything wrong. The Dad tells his children to follow in the steps of their grandfather. Are the kids listening well to his words?

Now take a look at the portrait of the man in blue. Describe his expression. Is he happy, sad, worried? Or is it hard to tell? We don’t know the identity of this man, but it’s thought that he may have lived in New York, and perhaps had served in the American Revolutionary War. At that time African Americans made up 20 percent of the country’s population. Half of the African American population was free — like the man in the portrait — very few had the right to vote.

Say “Cheese!”

Have you noticed that people in old portraits, whether paintings or photographs, look very serious? They are very rarely shown smiling. Why do you think this is so? (Hint: think of how long it takes to paint a portrait…)


Now you are the artist!

Self-portraits are the pictures artists make of themselves. Set up a mirror on a table and first study your face very carefully. Using a lead pencil, draw a picture of yourself and then color it in with crayons or colored pencils. Include details — a favorite toy, book, or sports item — that describe you and your interests.

Frame your portrait. Choose a frame to download:
Ornate-Frame | Flower-Frame | Star-Frame

ARTplay is a monthly column written by Marianne Ruggiero from The RISD Museum in which various themes and activities will introduce kids and parents to the museum’s collection both online and off. Each month Kidoinfo will help spark your children’s interest in art — they can learn about different works at the museum and download a related activity to create offline. Be sure to visit the museum and explore the art in person. On Free-for-All Saturdays (the last Saturday of every month), kids may continue their exploration through a variety of hands-on workshops, performances, videos, and special gallery quests throughout the day.

Credits for illustrations:
Cornelis de Vos
Flemish, around 1584-1667
Portrait of a Young Girl, around 1633-5
Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 ” x 32″
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Gift of Manton B. Metcalf
Photography by Erik Gould

Jacques-Luc Barbier-Walbonne
French, 1769-1860
A Portrait of the Comte de Choulot de Chabaud la Tour and his Family, 1806
Oil on canvas, 87″ x 68 1/2 ”
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

Thought to be by James Martin
American, active 1798-1810
Portrait of a Gentleman, around 1820
Pastel on paper, 21 1/2 ” x 16 3/4 ”
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Georgianna Sayles Aldrich Fund
Photography by Erik Gould

All additional inquires or requests should be directed to: Melody Ennis, Coordinator of Photographic Services, The RISD Museum, 224 Benefit Street, Providence, RI 02903. 401 454-6535. E-mail inquires to: mennis@risd.edu

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