how to describe and write about the art by our feelings

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This worksheet is intended to help you look deeply into a particular exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC and develop an understanding of a work of art that you will then turn into a major essay.

In order to complete the assignment, you will need to visit the National Portrait Gallery between now and mid-February, then, at the end of February, you will turn in this worksheet and a three-page essay analyzing and discussing a particular artwork you have viewed as part of the Outwin 2019 exhibit at the museum.

You will bring this worksheet with you and its questions should help you gather evidence about the experience of understanding how art relates to our country. You should use your observations to guide your paper. What you feel about the piece and what you learn about its creator and its “meaning” will be at the center of your written response.

I want you to take the time to view all the pieces in the exhibit, but I want you to focus on one work in particular, something that caught your eye or affected you in some way. Then I want you to take notes on the piece. Each work has a card on the wall next to it that tells who the artist is and what their motivation was for creating the art. (You can also look up the artist on Google after you have returned home to learn more.)

Some background about the Outwin exhibit that you will be visiting

The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today features work by nearly 50 finalists of the Portrait Gallery’s latest Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Every three years, artists living and working in the U.S. are invited by the museum to submit one of their recent portraits to a panel of experts. The winning artworks reflect the compelling and diverse approaches contemporary artists are using to tell the American story through portraiture. The Outwin 2019 presents work in a variety of media by artists from 14 states across the U.S., Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The competition is made possible by the Virginia Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Endowment, which was established by Virginia Outwin Boochever and continued by her children. (Taken from the National Portrait Gallery page on the exhibit)

Here is a link to a short video about the exhibit:

This article/review from the Washington Post gives more background about some of the pieces in the exhibit:…

If you download the Smartify app ( ), it can give you a self-guided tour of the exhibit when you’re there, which can help you learn even more.

How to gather details for evidence when you write your paper

Look at the art with an open mind. Focus on what happens to you when you first see a painting, photograph or video. Look at it close up and from far away. Is your impression different based on how close you are to it? What media does the artist use to show the portrait? What does it make you think of? How does it make you feel? What does it tell you about the person pictured? After you think about these things, write down your thoughts and feelings in a notebook that you should bring along. And use the questions and suggestions below to help you articulate your responses (which means you must bring these pages along as well).

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to look at art (as long as you keep an open mind) and no right or wrong way to express your ideas and feelings.

Questions to answer when you are at the Gallery

Before you choose a particular piece to write about, look at each of the works of art. Read what is on the walls next to them, their titles and the other text.

What is your first impression when you go into the exhibit? What catches your eye, your ear?

What is common about all the pieces of art in the exhibit? What is different about each piece?

As you look around, list words or ideas that come to mind about what the artworks seem to be about.

Now choose a particular artwork that you want to write about.

Write down what it was that made you choose that piece?

As you look at it, what does it “say” to you? What does it “mean”? What is its message?

What expression is on the face of the person in the portrait?

Read the text next to the piece, and then look at it again. (Take notes or a photo of the text for your essay)

How did reading about the piece and what the artist said change your impression of the piece?

In what ways does the work of art relate to people in the U.S. today? In what ways does it relate to you?

What story does the work tell? What does it say about the subject? What does it say about the world in which the person in the portrait lives?

Whom would you be most interested in telling about the piece? Why? What would you say to them?

After you have seen all of the works

What is the overall narrative of the exhibit, what story does it tell about humans, about the U.S.?

Write down what you think the thesis, the main idea of the exhibit is.

What interested you most about the exhibit?

What was the most important thing you learned from the exhibit?

If you have time, check out other parts of the Portrait Gallery (and the connected Museum of American Art)

After you have seen the whole Outwin Exhibit, chosen the artwork you will write about, and written down in your notebook information about the work and the artist from the wall text next to the piece, take a stroll through the other galleries in the museum and take in the work there. Some of it is traditional, some of it is radical, some makes overt political and social statements, and some is less overt. For instance, the Museum of American Art, which is connected to the Portrait Gallery, has an interesting exhibit called “Discovering America.” Also, there are many exhibits in the Gallery, temporary and permanent, so be sure to find out how to get to the Outwin.

You should plan to spend at least an hour in the Outwin exhibit, but also be sure to budget in travel time. You cannot rush art appreciation.

National Portrait Gallery Information

Admission to the Portrait Gallery is free.

Address: 8th St NW & F St NW, Washington, DC 20001

Nearest Metro Station: Orange Line train to Metro Center (walk 4 blocks)


The Assignment

Your essay grade will be based on how clearly you can tell me how the piece looked (describe it to me, keeping in mind that I may not have seen it) and what it meant to you, what its message was and how that message relates to a larger statement about living in the United States today.

What to include in your essay:

Evidence (from what you found out at the exhibit and afterwards, through online research)

Background on the artist

Description of the piece

Emotions (how it made you feel)

Meaning (what its message was)

Social connection (what it said about life in the United States today)

Grading criteria: I will be collecting and grading your worksheets as well as the follow-up essay about the work you have chosen to write about. For the worksheets, your grade will be based on the completeness of your responses and on your use of formal English. Vague, general, and too-brief responses will bring your grade down. For the essay, you will also need to use formal English and be clear in your essay.

Due Date: The essay for this assignment will be due on Wednesday, 2/26 or Thursday, 2/27.

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