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Portraiture

A portrait is an artwork that depicts a specific individual. Initially, portraiture primarily consisted of paintings of the rich and powerful who had commissioned the work, but the genre has grown to depict a wider range of subjects over time and has been further democratised by photography. The term 'portrait' can also refer to an artwork's layout being taller than it is wider, as opposed to a landscape, which is the opposite.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) (the 'Armada Portrait')

by an unknown artist, c.1588

Medium: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: H 112.5 x W 127 cm

This painting commemorates Elizabeth I's defeat of the Spanish Armada. When Philip II of Spain tried to invade England by sea, Elizabeth I was having none of it! The Spanish were defeated, and their fleet fled back home, leaving Elizabeth triumphant and in the mood for storytelling. This painting commemorates Elizabeth's defeat of the Spanish invasion in 1588, but it also sends a compelling message. Friend or foe, this painting tells us that Elizabeth wants to be seen, respected and – if necessary – feared.

Tip: if you'd like more insight into the painting before teaching the lesson, an audio description is available, which has been developed for students with blindness or visual impairment to take part.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) (the 'Armada Portrait') c.1588

British (English) School

National Maritime Museum

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figure and what’s going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views. 

For students with blindness or visual impairment, an audio description of the painting is available to be listened to during this stage.

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How has the character and identity of the person in the painting (known as the 'sitter') been expressed?
  • Do their clothes tell us anything about their character or how they are feeling?
  • Are there any other clues or symbols that tell us something about their personality or identity?
  • If you were transported into the scene, what sounds might you hear?

Suggested activity: drawing from memory

Remove the image from view and ask your students to sketch the basic elements of the painting from memory. Give them a set time in which to complete their sketch and make it quick! 

Now display the image again and ask them to look at their sketch compared to the original painting. What have they remembered and what have they forgotten? Compare answers. Why do they think they have remembered certain features of the painting and not others?

Some in-class examples of the 'Drawing from memory' activity

Some in-class examples of the 'Drawing from memory' activity

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Expression, Gesture and Symbols & Attributes

Composition

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Stage 4: bespoke questions

To support those teaching The Superpower of Looking for the first time, this additional stage can be used when teaching the first lesson in each category.

During this stage, you can introduce knowledge from the context box while asking these bespoke questions on the painting. If you've already covered any questions through previous discussions, feel free to move on.

If it's required, guidance on what to look for can be found below the sets of questions.

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 


Comparison activity

Compare the Armada Portrait with Zanele Muholi's 2019 photograph Qiniso, The Sails, Durban.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Figures (particularly Symbols & Attributes) and Composition.


Cross-curricular activity: Art & Design and History

This combined Art & Design and History activity, which focuses on symbols in art, can be explored in a follow-up session in class or set as homework.

 

Step 1: Choose a historical figure

Encourage your students to select a figure from history that they have been studying in class and who they can find a portrait of on Art UK or elsewhere online. They could select Elizabeth I if they'd like to find out more about her. If short on time, here are some examples of historical figures on Art UK.

Step 2: Research

Ask your students to reflect on previous learning or carry out some research on the significant historical figure they have selected. What interested this historical figure and what was important to them?

 

Step 3: Collage

Starting with their chosen portrait, ask students to build up detailed collages by overlaying the original objects in the painting with new images and symbols (found online or drawn/painted by them) associated with their historical figure to create a more detailed and personalised representation of them.

This is intended to be a fun activity, which encourages students to explore the use of symbols in art in more depth. 

 

When everyone has completed their enhanced portraits, encourage them to explain their choices to others.

  • What were the most interesting facts the class discovered?
  • Have any symbols or illustrations been used more than once by your students? If so, which are the most common and why?



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