Historical readings and class discussion are effective resources to a certain degree. What better way to make a connection to a specific era than by using primary and secondary sources? Students studying the Vietnam War or WWI may be exposed to photographs of the participants of those events; thus providing an opportunity to make an intellectual and emotional connection to the subject being viewed. This enables the students viewing these resources to understand that historial figures and events were not much unlike themselves or their experiences. This is somewhat of a challenge for the American Revolution since early photograhy had not made its debut as yet. What we have though are stunning and surreal works of art by the great portrait artists of the 18th and early 19th century; such as Stuart, Copley, and Trumbull. We should recognize that these resources are invaluable windows to American history, perhaps more so than written primary sources, as the artist invested countless hours creating the art and the piece would reflect popular feelings about the subject matter at the time it was painted.
The artists I have chosen here are some of the most popular and accomplished of that era: Jonathan Singleton Copley, JohnTrumbull, Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully. I have chosen the portraits and scenes which reflect certain themes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and I am asking students to view these works of art and determine what elements they hold in common or what aspects are in contrast. Undertaking this process should provide students with an awareness of the popular political themes from the historical events and a deeper appreciation for the extraordinary talents of that time. Honestly, will the world ever have another Copley or Stuart?
The lesson is designed for a high school United States History survey course (11th Grade) and can be done in one class session (approximately 50 min.), but can be spread over two sessions if the class is large and there are various learning abilities in class. Students at my school are allowed to use devices in class (iPad, Windows Surface, etc.), so this is a constructive use of the hardware and the MFA for Educators website catalog. Students are asked specific questions regarding six paintings by the artists mentioned above. The works are grouped by two, and it is the hope students will see how the paintings correlate historically, but also be open to the possibility the paintings may be of similar subjects, but the artist intended different interpretations.