Grades/Level: Upper Elementary (3–5), Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
Two class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Lesson Overview

Students will compare and contrast an academic and an Impressionist portrait through a writing exercise and discussion. Each student will then write a formal commission letter to one of the artists, requesting a portrait.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• examine and write a descriptive paragraph from the perspective of a person in a painting.
• compare and contrast a similar subject painted in two different styles.
• understand the differences between academic painting and Impressionist painting.
• write a formal commission letter to an artist.


• Image of Portrait of Leonilla, Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
• Image of The Convalescent by Edgar Degas
• Pens or pencils and paper

Lesson Steps

1. Begin by displaying images of the two paintings: Portrait of Leonilla, Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn by Franz Xaver Winterhalter and The Convalescent by Edgar Degas. Have students choose 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 the person in the painting might say if she could speak to them. Ask students to consider how facial expression and body language communicate 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 volunteers, or select a few students, to present what they wrote (choose students who wrote about each of the two women). Discuss as a class how each student interpreted the women in these two portraits. Ask students to compare the personality of the two women based on the student interpretations.

3. Explain to students what an artistic commission is, and what a patron is. (A patron commissions an artist to create a work of art. For example, the family of Princess Leonilla hired Franz Xaver Winterhalter to create a portrait of her. The family is the patron.)
• Look at the portrait of Princess Leonilla. What kinds of things do you think the family agreed upon before making the commission? (The patron might have requested the artist to paint the sitter in a specific dress and/or in a particular setting.)
• Think back to the personality type that you described in your paragraphs about Princess Leonilla. How do you think the requests made by the patron for this portrait (her family) may have contributed to the impression of this personality?
• Look at the woman in Degas' painting. Do you think the artist was commissioned to paint this work? Why or why not?
• Think back to the personality for this woman that you described in your paragraphs. How did the artist create the impression of this kind of personality?

4. Compare the portraits as a class using the following questions:
• 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 the two artists have painted the the two women? (The portrait of Princess Leonilla is smooth, and the lines are crisp and defined, while The Convalescent by Degas has a rougher and more scraped surface. It is also fuzzy, less crisp, and less defined than the portrait of Leonilla.)

5. Explain to students that the two works represent two painting styles. The portrait by Winterhalter represents the Academic tradition of painting that was exhibited at the French Salon, while Degas' painting represents the looser handling of paint favored by the Impressionist painters of the late-19th century. Have students discuss which style they prefer with a partner. Have partners share with the whole group why they favored one style over the other.

6. Ask students which of the two painters—Winterhalter or Degas—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
• 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

7. The formal commission letter should contain at least two paragraphs, along with an imagined address and proper salutations.

8. Once students have finished their writing, have them share their letters with the class.

The Convalescent / Degas
The Convalescent, Edgar Germaine Hilaire Degas, about 1872–January 1887


Students will be assessed based on their writing from the perspective of the sitter and their formal commission statement letters. They will also be assessed based on their participation in class discussion.


Based on the class discussion about body language, props, and settings, have students create their own self-portrait in the style of one of the artists discussed.

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 5
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.3 Use their knowledge of all the elements of art to describe similarities and differences in works of art and in the environment.

Grade 6
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.3 Describe how artists can show the same theme by using different media and styles.

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
3.2 View selected works of art from a culture and describe how they have changed or not changed in theme and content over a period of time.
3.3 Compare, in oral or written form, representative images or designs from at least two selected cultures.

Grade 7
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
3.2 Compare and contrast works of art from various periods, styles, and cultures and explain how those works reflect the society in which they were made.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.3 Take an active part in a small-group discussion about the artistic value of specific works of art, with a wide range of the viewpoints of peers being considered.

Grade 8
4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.2 Develop a theory about the artist's intent in a series of works of art, using reasoned statements to support personal opinions.
4.3 Construct an interpretation of a work of art based on the form and content of the work.

Grades 9–12 Proficient
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.
4.3 Formulate and support a position regarding the aesthetic value of a specific work of art and change or defend that position after considering the views of others.

Grades 9–12 Advanced
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.4 Research two periods of painting, sculpture, film, or other media and discuss their similarities and differences, using the language of the visual arts.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.1 Describe the relationship involving the art maker (artist), the making (process), the artwork (product), and the viewer.

5.0 Connections, Relationships, and Applications
5.2 Compare and contrast works of art, probing beyond the obvious and identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images.

English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 5–8
2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.4 Write persuasive letters or compositions.

Grades 9–10
2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.4 Write persuasive compositions.
2.5 Write business letters.

Grades 11–12
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.1 Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse (e.g., purpose, speaker, audience, form) when completing narrative, expository, persuasive, or descriptive writing assignments.
1.3 Structure ideas and arguments in a sustained, persuasive, and sophisticated way and support them with precise and relevant examples.