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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Portraiture

A search on occupation portraits results in a number of images of anonymous workers such as a blacksmith and a tinworker posing with the tools of their trade. These portraits are filled with subtle details such as the workers' facial expressions and their clothes and tools. An analysis of these visual details provides information about the subjects in these portraits and their relationship to other groups featured in this collection.

Such groups might include military and religious figures. Searches on terms such as army and military yield portraits of men such as U.S. Army General Hugh Brady in both his civilian clothes and his military uniform and a photograph of the U.S. Military Commission to Crimea. A search on terms such as clerical results in portraits of men such as Bishop Frederic Baraga and Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman.

  • What are the similarities and differences between the portraits of these different types of people?
  • What do the subjects' clothing suggest about their occupations and social status?
  • What do the subjects' poses and props (or lack thereof) suggest about their occupations and social status?
  • Do the captions shed any light on the subjects and their status?
  • How do these portraits compare to the collection's images of politicians and authors?
  • How do you think that these visual details influenced the way viewers responded to the images?
  • What kinds of values would you expect the society that created these portraits to have had?