AmblesideOnline Picture Study Notes

by Lee-Anne Penny for term 1 (Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley)

I have written these lesson plans primarily for background reading, and a source for ideas for the parent. Please do not feel that you need to go through them with your children exactly as presented; they are merely a guide for your convenience, and should be adapted to your discussions as a family. I hope someone finds them a useful start to Picture Study.

Please share with the list your thoughts on these painting, and any resources you feel may benefit the rest of us.


(Watson and the Shark is covered in detail here; if you click the icon near the bottom about "the story," it tells the story in slide-show format. You'll need to click the "next" button on each page to continue the story.)


Notes on Stuart's "The Skater" by Lee-Anne Penny

The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) Gilbert Stuart 1782 Oil on canvas 245.5 x 147.4 cm (96 1/4 x 58 in.)

Larger image, though with inferior color

The subject of the painting 'The Skater' is a young Scotsman, William Grant. He was a friend of the artist. There is a story about how Grant came to be painted in the skating pose. Before sitting for the portrait, Grant and Stuart went for a skate on the Serpentine (man-made lake) in Hyde Park and their adventure on the thin ice inspired the portrait.

The face is a strong and convincing likeness, well modeled by the cool precise lighting, and the whole figure of Grant also conveys a believable sense of weight and movement. The generally cool colouring and the rather crisp drawing of the figure's silhouette enhance the mood of winter and the action of skating. Catching the skater poised in the middle of a turn, Stuart gives us an image of both action and contemplation. The figure is balanced itself, and balanced within the painting, and the sway of his figure is reflected in the large tree on the shore. The diagonal of his right leg is echoed in the higher branches of the tree.

Stuart was a master at recreating flesh tones. He refused to paint them in streaks of colour as was the custom, but rather as mottled and mingled colours which become clear on the canvas. He did not mix the colours before application, but rather let the colours shine through the other like blood through skin.

Note the similarities. There is also a similar painting (not found online) of a skater by the French artist Pierre Delafontaine. I haven't found evidence that there is any connection between these works, but were all painted in the same time frame. I include this point strictly for interest only, and because the Raeburn work is a personal favourite:-)

The Copley Family John Singleton Copley 1776-7 Oil on canvas 184.1 x 229.2 cm (72 1/2 x 90 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art

Larger image here

In June 1774, when he was already thirty-five years old, Copley decided that he must go to Europe. Although he intended to stay abroad just long enough to acquire artistic sophistication, the American Revolution changed his plans. Studying in Rome and stopping in many continental cities, Copley arrived in London in October 1775. There he was joined by his wife, children, and father-in-law, Richard Clarke, one of the Tory merchants whose investments had been dumped overboard at the Boston Tea Party.

To celebrate the reunion, Copley painted this group portrait. The members of the Copley family shown in the painting are, from left to right, John Singleton Copley, Richard Clarke (Copley's father-in-law, in white wig), Susanna, the oldest child Elizabeth (Betsy), John Singleton, Jr., Copley's wife Susanna (called Sukey), and daughter Mary. The infant on Clarke's lap was to be youngest son, Clarke who had been left behind in America, but the infant died in 1776 and in the final version the baby is Susanna, born in England in October 1776.

The subjects are posed informally, caught as if on an afternoon at home. This painting shows his deep feeling for his family. The artist portrayed himself turning away from a sheaf of his sketches to look out of the painting. His wife, Susanna, leans forward to hug their four-year-old son, John. Mary, who was a year younger than her brother, lies on the sofa, while Betsy, aged six and the eldest of the children, stands with a serious aplomb indicative of her seniority. The baby, Susanna, tries to attract her grandfather's attention with a rattle. The background is fanciful; no carpeted room ever merged so ambiguously into a forest glen. Copley's contemporaries would have understood the idyllic landscape as a reference to the family's natural simplicity and the elaborate furnishings as an indication of their civilized propriety. The naturalism of the children is contrasted with the formality of the older gentleman who sits sternly unsmiling.

The models for "Red Cross Knight" (another painting by Copley) were the artist's own handsome children, seventeen years older than when they posed for "The Copley Family." John, the boy hugging his mother in that painting, is the Red Cross Knight. Elizabeth, the daughter standing in the center of the family portrait, is Faith, and Mary, the infant on the sofa, is Hope.

Notes on Stuart's "George Washington (Lansdowne portrait)" by Lee-Anne Penny

George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait) Gilbert Stuart 1796 Oil on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Image with historical information (also, click "Calendar" link for exhibit tour dates and cities). Larger image

An interactive website to explore the painting.

History painting was not a popular genre in America but the history painting of the individual (the history portrait) filled this void. Depictions of Washington were popular because he was seen to embody the ideals of American virtue and courage and to symbolize American republicanism. He was seen to have succeeded not by noble birth but by nobility of character. Washington was depicted with the artistic conventions of British aristocratic poses in portraiture (the full length), but free of aristocratic trappings and pretensions. Although he was a leader, he had to be portrayed free of aristocratic trappings, as a rich farmer, called to lead his nation's soldiers in times of stress. In his portraits, his importance is suggested because of his actions and his personal merit and the purity of his character, rather than because of accidents of birth or inherited position.

There was a national obsession in obtaining portraits of the nation's leader. Painters and engravers of presumably all political persuasions made and re-made portraits of Washington. His image became the central and united symbol of the country during the 1790s. Washington was immortalized in engravings, porcelain figurines, clocks and paintings. He appeared in every kind of image and the authenticity of the likeness became very important. Work by those artists who had had sittings with the man became more accepted.

The Lansdowne portrait was done for the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Governor General of Canada and British Whig politician who fought for the British recognition of America. Washington is depicted not as a military man, but as a statesman in a Roman Imperial stance. Although he does hold the sword, the eye is drawn toward his other hand as it gestures toward the table. He seems to be saying with this stance ?The pen is mightier than the sword.?

Notes on Copley's Paul Revere by Lee-Anne Penny

John Singleton Copley

Paul Revere John Singleton Copley c.1768-1770 Oil on canvas 35 x 28 1/2 in. (88.9 x 72.3 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Image with historical commentary here.

Lesson Objectives: 1. to encourage the children in the appreciation of art 2. to increase the power of observation in the children 3. to introduce the art of John Singleton Copley 4. to explore the concept and use of portraiture

Step 1: Introduce the artist John Singleton Copley and tell a little about his life and times. There is a concise biography of Copley at this website: It may be helpful to place his life on a timeline with a short discussion to give the children a background if they are unfamiliar with this period of American history.

Step 2: Show the painting to the children. Ask them to tell you what they remember of the work after they have had a few moments to carefully examine it.

Step 3: After they have described the work, discuss together the life of Paul Revere. What does the painting tell us about Revere? Revere is not depicted as a Revolutionary hero (point out the date of the painting, and the date of his famous "ride"), but as a working silversmith in colonial America. He is shown with his attributes which function as accessories. The teapot thought to be the one depicted in the portrait can be found at the Boston Museum of Fine Art

This is a casual pose, as though interrupted in the middle of his workday. His tools are casually laid on the worktable and the teapot rests on the leather pillow as if Revere is contemplating the final design.

Step 3: With older children you may wish to examine the formal elements of the painting.

-Notice how Copley so deftly gives the impression of a highly polished silver teapot and tabletop. Copley shows off his ability to render the reflections in table and teapot. We can sense the smoothness of the surfaces, in contrast to the cool white of the linen blouse and the heavier texture of the vest. The light source is obvious and gives depth and roundness to the figure.

-The sitter is depicted in an almost frontal pose, one hand cupping the teapot, the other cupping the chin. The head is turned slightly, allowing the left side of the face and arm to be shaded. Yet the eyes look directly out to engage the viewer and to draw us into the painting. The flow of the clothing, the tilt of the head and the line of the nose moves our eye from the sitter's face down to the teapot.

-This is a somber painting both in colour and mood. We can learn as much by what was not included as we can from the painting itself. Revere is contemplative and quiet. There are no elaborate trappings of wealth or station to clutter the painting; he is depicted as a serious, steady craftsman. There are no pillars of marble, no powdered wigs, no brocade or silk, no elaborate curtains or upholstery, no background detail at all; he is simply a man plying his trade. Copley was well respected for his ability to render a psychological depth to his sitters. Revere is depicted with firmly set jaw, strong hands in the forefront and boldly engaging the viewer.

Step 4: In colonial America there was no market for many of the genres of art that were considered higher forms of art in Europe (church decoration, depictions of the Holy Family, etc.), so Copley did what other colonial artists did in America. He painted portraits. The rising merchant class clamoured for portraits. Discuss how this would have been a desirable commodity, and what the portraits would have been used for.

For your interest: Portrait of Revere by Gilbert Stuart

Notes about The Red Cross Knight From Lynn Bruce

John Singleton Copley's painting, "The Red Cross Knight" is based on Edmund Spenser's classic epic poem "The Faerie Queen." This is a symbolic painting about the most significant turning point in life, the moment of seeing one's own sinfulness and turning away from a life of sin to a life of faith -- some call it the new birth, others regeneration and conversion.

A very distilled synopsis of the events leading up to the moment depicted in this painting:

The Red Cross Knight had a true, chaste love in Una, daughter of the King and Queen (who represent Adam and Eve; note that her name means "one," implying integrity). However, he was deceived and defiled by Duessa (a demon witch with two faces, one beautiful, alluring and false, the other hideous and real; note that her name implies duality), and thus he lost both Una and his honor through deception and sin. He was then redeemed by King Arthur (a Christ figure), and through his providence, given the ability to see Duessa for what she is, and also the strength to defeat and disrobe (disempower) her -- thus the red robe draped over his arm.

So then, in this painting, we see the Red Cross Knight as he turns away from Duessa (or, symbolically, from Evil) and in his path finds two of three virgin sisters, Fidelia and Speranze (which mean Faith and Hope). Fidelia (Faith) holds a cup of gold filled with wine and water (both elements rich in Christian symbolism), from which coils the brass serpent of Moses (representing healing). Heaven's light shines around her head, and her countenance is constant. She holds the New Testament in her hand. Speranze (Hope) leans on an anchor on her arm, and looks heavenward in constant prayer. Charissa (Love), the third virgin sister, is absent because she has just given birth to a son.

In Spencer's poem, Fidelia (Faith) opens the Knight's eyes to heavenly knowledge, whereupon he becomes so anguished over his sins that he contemplates suicide. Speranze (Hope) steps in and comforts him, and teaches him how to take hold of the assurance of the anchor she leans upon. He confesses his sins, and in the end he and Una are married by the King himself.

Copley's children were the models for this painting. They can be seen as young children in the Copley Family Portrait which is also linked to this term's study.

Lynn Bruce