Lesson: Comparing Portraits

  • Grades: K–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts

Students will compare two portraits and write dialogue based on their observations. They will share their writing and then discuss similarities and differences between the two works. Students will then write a mock commission letter to one of the artists requesting a portrait done of them.


  • Students will use context clues to create dialogue and make interpretations such as mood, tone, etc.
  • Students will explain their own ideas and understanding in discussion and in writing.
  • Students will write a commission letter.

Vocabulary: portrait, commission letter, body language



  1. Find two portraits of men or two portraits of women in the museum’s collection, preferably of different styles or eras. (Generally, paintings where the artist knows the sitter are considered portraits, otherwise one would refer to someone in the painting as a figure or character.) Have students choose or assign one of the two portraits and write a paragraph of dialogue in the voice of the person in the painting.

    Prompt students by asking them to think about:

    • What might the person in the painting say if you could speak to them? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • Consider how facial expression and body language communicates something about the sitter.
    • Ask them to use only details that they can see in the paintings as they write their paragraph, details that might tell them more about what the person in the painting may be feeling or thinking.

  2. Once students have written their paragraphs, ask a few students to present what they wrote (choose students who wrote about each of the two portraits). Discuss as a class how each student interpreted the person in these two portraits. Ask students to compare the personality of the two people based on the student interpretations.

    Compare the portraits as a class using the following questions, asking the follow-up “What do you see that makes you say that?” after each one:

    • What do you see that is similar in these two paintings?
    • What do you notice that is different?
    • What differences do you notice about the way each figure is painted? (E.g. one is smooth, and the lines are crisp and defined, while the other one has a rougher and more scraped surface.)

Extended Lesson

Recommended for grades 4–12

Ask students which of the two painters—use their names when applicable—they would choose to paint their portrait. Have each student write a commission letter to the artist of their choice, requesting a portrait. When selecting an artist, students should consider the painting style of the artist, and the kind of personality they wish to project to viewers of their portrait. Each letter needs to clearly describe the following:

  • The setting of the portrait
  • What the student wants to wear
  • How the student will stand or sit
  • What gestures the student might make
  • Why the student chose that artist
  • How the artist’s style fits with what the student wants in his or her portrait
  • How the student’s body language will communicate something about him or her
  • Any props that might tell a viewer more about him or her

The formal commission letter should contain at least two paragraphs, along with an imagined address for the artist and proper salutations. Once students have finished their writing, have them share their letters with the class.