Self-Portraiture as a Teaching Tool

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by William Coleman, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012

One of my goals for the section meetings of History of Art 172, “The Dutch Golden Age,” was to add depth to the lectures by helping our students to see the many resonances between the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic and the twenty-first-century United States. It was my hope that paintings that have meant so much to me could be made to speak anew by emphasizing that they were the products of a young global financial empire where technological innovation stood in for a shortage of some strategic natural resources, where political power shifted from the feudal nobility to an urban professional class. By teaching analogically, I thought, canvases laden with allegorical references would become legible again, equipping our group of newcomers with crucial analytical skills for the course.

Despite best laid plans, it became apparent early in the semester that many students found these complex paintings, in which, it seems, every object is calculated to tell a story or to reference an image in one of Jacob Cats’ emblem books, utterly incomprehensible. Portraits were especially off-putting; I was dismayed to overhear students chatting after lecture about how boring the formal portraits of dour men and women against dark backgrounds are and how impossible it would be to tell the difference between them on an exam. Simply pointing out some of the similarities between the culture that produced these images and our own was clearly not cutting it. I had to come up with an exercise that would drive the point home.

When students showed up to section the next week, I distributed a 3 x 5 index card to each. Because our course deals in some depth with the art of portraiture and the messages that objects can convey, I explained, we would be making self-portraits of our own and thinking about what accoutrements, settings, and poses we would choose to tell others about ourselves, exploring in the process the similar drive to symbolic self-representation in our own time and place. I projected my rather crude effort on the screen to allay any concerns about artistic ability, pointing out the choices I had made to tell the students a little more about their GSI, and off they went.

Students thrilled to the activity and I was delighted with the rich images that resulted. Some opted for an abstract collage style showing items of importance to them including favorite books, pets, and places. One student showed herself at half length in front of a beautiful Parisian landscape, complete with wine and baguettes. Another self-portrait that is especially ripe for psychoanalysis showed the subject flying on a skateboard over the head of a figure labeled “my man.” We went around the circle presenting our portraits to the group, getting to know each other better, certainly, but also coming to the realization that our possessions and items of dress tell stories about us in much the same way they do in portraits of the burghers of the Dutch Republic. While skateboards are few and far between in Dutch art, I was able to point out that the students had used many attributes and representational choices we’d seen in the paintings in lecture. The students discussed what they’d found to be the constraints of the portraiture medium in practice and were able to talk with new understanding about Dutch portraits.

In addition to positive feedback on the self-portraiture exercise from students immediately afterward and in office hours, I noticed a distinct rise in confidence and level of insight when they were asked to conduct visual analyses of portraits, both in section and in their writing. Less anecdotal evidence of the success of the exercise came from the midterm evaluations, in which I was gratified to see that a number of students cited our self-portraiture day as the most effective section to date and a major factor in getting over their initial difficulties in approaching seventeenth-century Dutch art.