Being an Art Detective

Decoding portraits of artists

Portraits are often thought of as just paintings or drawings, but they can also be sculptures, videos or photographs. Artists often use portraits to record changing identity and aspirations. A portrait might show part of a figure such as the head and shoulders, the whole body, or sometimes more than one person. 

Uncovering clues:

When making a portrait, an artist often aims to create a likeness of the sitter as well as telling the viewer something about them. Artists weave messages into their work - you just have to look for the clues to understand them. For instance, the artist might want to reveal that a King is very rich by painting him wearing his finest clothes, covered with jewels, in front of a banquet.

Try to 'decode' the following portraits:


Self portrait by Milly Childers (1889)

In Victorian times being an artist wasn’t considered a suitable job for a woman and some people thought that women should not work at all. Childers shows herself looking down on the viewer. At the time she created this portrait it was still fairly unusual for a woman to be in a position of power, either professionally or within her family or social circle. 

Milly Childers deliberately makes herself look like an impressive and powerful person, and this tells a story about her feelings towards people who might believe she shouldn't be an artist because she is a woman. 

The Artist in her studio by Paula Rego (1993)
Paula Rego, a painter and printmaker, was born in Portugal in 1934. Her grandmother was a significant figure in Rego's life and during her childhood she learnt many traditional folk tales, which later became the subject of many of her works.

This painting is a representation of the identity of the artist in separate fragments and depicted through a selection of items and fantasy characters in her studio.

Discussion points: 

(Download these questions as a classroom worksheet - see links below)

Milly Childers:
  • Does the painting have any clues about her job? 
  • What can you tell about the character of the woman in the portrait from her pose and expression? 
  • Does she look like a Victorian woman? Explain your answer. 
  • Imagine a story behind the painting. What happens next to the woman?
Paula Rego:
  • Look at all the people in the painting. Who is the artist in the picture? How can you tell? 
  • How do you think the people in the painting know each other? 
  • What do you think the objects and people tell you about the artist? 
  • What is the artist saying about her job by creating similar characters in this painting?
  • What is the woman in the painting feeling? 
  • What sort of person do you think she is? 


Aspiration - wanting to achieve something
Banquet - a big formal meal held for a special event or ceremony
Depicted - to show something in a picture or in words
Expression - the look on someone's face showing what they feel or think
Likeness - a representation of someone or something
Pose - a position taken for a purpose, usually a portrait
Significant - to have or show meaning
Sitter - someone who becomes the subject of an artwork
Viewer - someone who looks at an art work

View other relevant My Learning resources or see the teachers' notes page for discussion and activity ideas.

Scroll down for a list of links and resources on this topic.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Art Gallery | 
This content is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA

Accessibility Statement | Terms of Use | Site Map

Copyright © My Learning 2018. All Rights Reserved

Website by: Grapple