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In this image, Jacob Lawrence painted a portrait of himself as an artist. He is in his studio in Seattle, Washington, where he and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight, moved in 1971. Lawrence showed his own face as mask-like. He is holding brushes that represent his profession as a painter. He is smiling, as though he is welcoming you and inviting you into his space.

In this painting Jacob Lawrence is surrounded by his tools and materials, including tubes and jars of paint, a drill, and a hammer. On the left, one of Lawrence's paintings hangs on the wall. This painting is from Lawrence's narrative series, The Life of Harriet Tubman, 1939-40. It shows Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom. Below a figure dressed in blue climbs a staircase. Perhaps this figure is from another of Lawrence's paintings, or maybe it is an actual person. On the right, other paintings on the wall include Lawrence’s  Tombstones, 1942, and Cabinet Makers, 1946.

A portrait is a picture or image of a person. A portrait usually looks like the person, but it can also be made of objects, signs, or words to stand for the person instead.

A self-portrait is when an artist uses him or herself as the subject for a portrait.

An artist’s studio is a place where an artist makes his or her work.

When you are looking at a flat work of art, the background is the space that appears farthest away from you. Artists often use a background to show the setting or where a scene is taking place.

When you are looking at a flat work of art, the foreground is the space or objects that appear closest to you.

A symbol is something--usually a sign or an object--that represents or stands for something else. For example, flags can be symbols for countries and hearts are often symbols for love.

A figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. For example, food for thought.

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In this webquest you will:
  • Explore how Jacob Lawrence represented himself in his Self-Portrait.

  • Use the web to examine how other artists and photographers make portraits.

  • Make two self-portraits: one will be representational and the other will be symbolic or metaphoric.
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Self-Portrait, 1977
Gouache and tempera on paper
23 x 31 in. (58.4 X 78.7 cm)
National Academy of Design, New York
© Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation
  1. Look at Jacob Lawrence's painting,  Self-Portrait, 1977. Move your mouse over the painting and find questions to discuss with your classmates.

  2. Look at some  student portraits on this website and use the Portrait web resources below to view and discuss how other artists and photographers have made portraits and self-portraits. There are different kinds of portraits, some are representational and some you will find are more symbolic.

    Who or what is in this portrait?
    What can you tell about the person by looking at their portrait?
    Where is the subject?
    What are they doing?
    What did the artist or photographer include?
    How do the things included in the portrait contribute to your understanding of the person portrayed?
    How do symbolic elements in a portrait work as metaphors?

  3. Create a representational self-portrait. If you can, create this portrait digitally by taking a picture of your face and merging it with another image, such as someone’s body, the body of an animal, or anything else that you feel represents aspects or characteristics of your personality. You can do this by combining your face with other elements in Photoshop. If you do not have access to this kind of software, you can combine elements of yourself from photos with cut outs from magazines and other sources to make a collage.

  4. Next, create a non-representational self-portrait. In other words, create a portrait of yourself that avoids any human reference. You will need to focus on symbolic references to yourself, as well as metaphors, or things that stand for you. Again, if possible, create this symbolic portrait digitally by collecting images from the web and other places. Create a digital or paper collage.

  5. Put your two portraits together. As a class, view and discuss your representational and symbolic/metaphoric portraits.

    How did you represent yourself in both of your portraits?
    What feelings did you express?
    What objects did you choose to include?
    Why did you include them?
    What do they mean to you?
    What did you learn about yourself while you were making your portraits?

  6. Look at the differences between your representational and symbolic portraits.

    What does each approach allow you to express about yourself?
    What is difficult to represent about who you are?

  7. Separate your two portraits. Put all of the representational portraits on one side of the room and all the symbolic ones on the other.

    Can you find the connections between peopleís different kinds of portraits? What can you say about yourself in a visual image that you canít say in writing?
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Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Portrait by artist Lorna Simpson.

Another portrait by artist Lorna Simpson.

Portrait by artist Alice Neel.

Another portrait by artist Alice Neel.

Peter Paul Reubens’ self-portrait.

Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait.

Andy Warhol's self-portrait.

Portraits by photographer Lewis Hine.

A selection of portraits.


Frida Kahlo portrait.

Maquette for a Radio Announcer by Gustav Klutsis. How is this a symbolic portrait?

A staged self portrait by Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #31. If this isn’t really her, who is this a portrait of?

This is a piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. How could this be a self portrait?

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You will be evaluated on your self-portrait. Your teacher may also choose to create art rubrics for evaluation.
  • Was your self-portrait planned carefully? Did you try different methods before deciding upon a method to use for your self-portraits (sketch, painting, digital, etc.)?

  • Do they show that you are aware of different kinds of design elements and techniques and do they convey a personal style?

  • If you made a digital portrait, did you experiment with different tools available to you?

  • What kinds of creative elements and techniques did you use to create your portraits?

  • Do your portraits show evidence of feelings, expressions and other personal attributes about yourself?

  •  Learning Standards Addressed
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Go back and look at some of the portrait resources on the web. Look at your own portraits too.

How have artists grappled with the representation of themselves?
How did you grapple with the challenge of representing yourself?

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©2001 Whitney Museum of American Art