Lesson: Outside the Frame

  • Grades: K–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Studies

In this lesson, students will be observing and discussing visual details such as mood and action found in the artwork. Using Family, Taken Captive by the Indians, the 1849 painting by Trevor McClurg that contributes to a long, fraught history of European-American depictions and narratives of American Indian people, students will write about what is happening “outside the frame” based on interpretation and/or research.


  • Students will explain their own ideas and understandings in discussion and in writing.
  • Students will use context clues to make interpretations.
  • Students will write what is “outside the frame” based on their observations, research, and knowledge of the historical context in which the piece may be based on.

Vocabulary: frame, colonization, captive


Painting of family gathered on hilltop with smoking ruins in the background
Trevor McClug, Family, Taken Captive by the Indians, c. 1849, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Museum appropriation, © Public Domain
  1. Begin by showing students a painting or photograph where they can interpret what is happening inside and outside the frame. Some examples you could use may be (Children at Festival) (1955–1957) by W. Eugene Smith or New York Scene (1964) by Richard Estes. Using Family, Taken Captive by the Indians by Trevor McClurg as an example, students will be making interpretations based on what they see in the painting and what may be happening outside the painting.

    Start the discussion by asking a few questions (*Do not tell the students the name of the piece until after the short discussion):

    • Describe the setting.
    • Where is this taking place? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • Who is the woman and the small children? Why are they the focus of the painting? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What is going on in the background? What do you see that makes you say that?

  2. Now tell students the title of the painting—Family, Taken Captive by the Indians—and have a short discussion about that, perhaps based on students’ knowledge (or lack thereof) of North American history.

    • Talking points should include colonization in America, how Americans Indians are portrayed in American art (and the ways in which those narratives contribute to an erasure of Native history),The French and Indian War, etc. *For 6th–12th grade students you may want them to research these topics and Trevor McClurg to come up with reasons why the artist may have chosen this subject matter and how it may relate to Pittsburgh history.

    Brief Background

    McClurg was born (and lived most of his life) in Pittsburgh, PA, the eldest son of Irish immigrant foundry entrepreneur and politician Alexander McClurg (1788–1873) and his first wife Sarah Trevor (born 1839). Trevor originally studied painting at the Royal Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, he later ran a drawing school, and became a professional photographer.

    In Family, Taken Captive by the Indians, McClurg illustrated the popular nineteenth-century conception of the pioneers as heroic harbingers of civilization pitted against the hostile wilderness, personified by American Indians. McClurg portrays American Indians as either dark, shadowy presences lurking in the background as here, or, as in The Pioneer’s Defense (ca. 1855), an invisible menace beyond the cabin walls. Though the subject is American, McClurg’s treatment of it is European. His captives are painted in the hard, linear manner associated with the Dusseldorf school, and form a monumental, classical grouping.

  3. For K–5th graders, have them write about what they think is going on “outside the frame” based on their interpretations of what is going on “inside the frame” (length should be based on students’ abilities). Have some students share out their answers or do a turn and talk with the person sitting next to them.

  4. For 6th–12th graders, have them write about what they think is going on “outside the frame” based on their research (The French and Indian War, American colonialism, Trevor McClurg, etc.). Students should cite their sources whenever possible. You may want students to present their findings to the class.

Extended Lesson

Teacher provides students with a piece of paper that has the painting or photograph in the middle and students literally draw or paint what is going on “outside the frame.”

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.