Lesson title: Colonial Portraits: Art and Daily Life
Overview: This lesson involves analyzing the 1769 portrait of Mrs. James Smith [Elizabeth Murray] by the famous colonial artist John Singleton Copley. If you have access in your classroom to the internet, have students begin by clicking on the website portrait in the activities section (see interactive sources). Students can scroll over various parts of the portrait to learn background information about painting, art, and daily life in the eighteenth century. Then students will use the provided worksheet and their inference skills to answer the questions. This lesson should take about 45 minutes.
Historical background: Colonial portraits were rare and special, reflections of the sitters' wealth and desire to have an image of themselves. However, there were not many artists with the talent to paint people’s likenesses well. Some people had silhouettes made of themselves. But a real portrait was much rarer and much more expensive. Elizabeth Murray and her family were unusual in that they hired a talented Boston artist to make portraits of several of them. Dorothy (Dolly) Murray, James Murray, Elizabeth Murray, and her third husband, Ralph Inman, all sat for Copley portraits, which are available in the archive section.
Copley was an accomplished and celebrated artist in the colonies and left to make his name and fortune in England in 1774. Before leaving for England, Copley created portraits of many wealthy colonists, including revolutionary heroes like Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. In portraits of the elite, he often included many objects that suggested the wealth and fashionable tastes of his subjects. Scrolling over the fruit in the interactive portrait will explain the use of that particular object, and clicking on the fruit will reveal additional background information, including links to other Copley portraits with interesting objects in them.
Elizabeth Murray sat for this portrait shortly after the death of her second husband, James Smith, in the late summer and early fall of 1769, on the eve of her departure for a long visit to England and Scotland.
Guiding questions: What can you tell about Mrs. James Smith’s social class? What clues help you to infer her status? How does portrait clothing of the 1700s compare with clothing today? Why do you think this picture was painted?
Learning Objective: The student will explore the portrait in depth in order to identify aspects of colonial art and daily life, making inferences as to the significance of each item in colonial society in the mid-1700s.
Activities: This lesson can be approached in different ways. If internet access is available, this can be an independent assignment. Duplicate copies of the chart and question worksheet. Students can scroll over the interactive portrait to gain information for filling out the chart; then they can answer the question worksheet in pairs or small groups, helping each other to analyze the picture.
If class internet access is not available, the teacher can download a copy of the portrait and distribute copies to pairs or small groups of students. Although they would not have the advantage of the information available by clicking sections of the portrait, a meaningful class discussion can be carried on concerning the painting, with the teacher supplying some of the historical background available on the website.
Assessment: After gathering information about different aspects of colonial life suggested by the study of the portrait, distribute copies of the student compare/contrast chart provided in the materials section of this lesson. Have students use colonial portrait information and modern portrait experiences to make comparisons and contrasts.
Extending the lesson: This lesson suggests many extensions.
1. Have students bring in photographic portraits, if available. Apply the same types of questions from the historical interpretation.
2. Have students orally present the information about their own portraits.
3. Using the writing prompt provided in the materials section of this lesson, have students write an expository essay comparing and contrasting colonial and modern portraits.
4. Have students create a poster with cut-out examples of modern clothing, hairstyles, heading coverings, and other details to compare/contrast with Elizabeth’s portrait.