For Teachers: How to Use Paintings to Find Out About the Past

Brightly coloured mural including ships, sailors, mermaids, sea life and seagulls.

Mural of Working Boats from around the British Coast

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Purchased with the assistance of the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Collection Endowment Fund

    • Paintings can be great records of people or events of the past. If you ask the right questions, you can unlock a historical painting’s secrets and stories. Many museums and art galleries have high resolution images of their paintings online that can be used in the classroom like these from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery or these themed collections from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The great thing about using online images is you can choose from collections around the world. Or, pay a visit to a museum or gallery and take a look at the real thing – paintings are always, bigger, smaller, have more detail or brighter colours than they do in a book or online.

      Is it a reliable source? Unlike other artefacts and records, paintings need to be used with particular care as a primary source – they are not always reliable. The artist might not have been present at the time of the event or might not have even seen the thing they are being asked to paint. Although considered the best painter of animals of his day, George Stubbs never saw the Kangaroo or the Dingo he famously painted to show Europeans what they looked like – he never even went to Australia! You can see them on display at The Queens House, Greenwich. The artist may have been asked to create a particular impression of a place or person. Oliver Cromwell famously asked Samuel Cooper to paint him ‘warts and all’, whereas artists used all sorts of tricks to paint portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, making her appear younger, stronger and more powerful than she was in the flesh. This is no different to the tricks modern magazines use with make-up, lighting and photoshop to make their subjects look younger, older, taller, fatter, thinner – if we saw them in real life, most of us wouldn’t recognise them!

      Here are some simple questions to help you look closer:

      •    Look very closely at the whole picture, including all four corners. Describe what you see.
      •    Is there a label? What does this tell you about the picture?
      •    What type of picture is it – portrait, landscape, seascape or something else?
      •    What do you think is happening in the picture?
      •    Are there any people in the picture? What are they wearing? What do their clothes tell you about them? Can you see the expressions on their faces? What does this tell you? Are they holding anything?
      •    If you could step inside the picture what do you think you might hear, smell, feel, taste?
      •    What might have happened just before the scene in this picture? What might have happened afterwards?
      •    Who is the artist?
      •    How did the artist make this picture?
      •    Why do you think the artist made this picture?

      The National Portrait Gallery uses portraits as sources for historical enquiry in these examples.

      The National Gallery has this guide for reading paintings.

      Curriculum links

      Using paintings in this way can support and enrich learning across the curriculum.

      Historical enquiry
      -    Identifying and using useful primary sources
      -    Gathering, selecting, assessing and presenting evidence
      -    Questioning
      -    Assessing reliability and bias
      -    Looking at multiple perspectives – was everyone’s experience the same..?
      -    Thinking about what/which voices might be missing?
      -    Developing and substantiating an answer, argument or narrative


      -    Developing language and vocabulary
      -    Persuading and arguing
      -    Qualifying and justifying
      -    Discussing and debating
      -    Communicating in different forms for different purposes


      -    Effective searching
      -    Analysing
      -    Selecting
      -    Evaluating
      -    Presenting
      -    Repurposing
      -    Combining multiple applications

      Artsmark and Arts award

      Artsmark is a nationally recognised sign of commitment to high quality arts and cultural education. It enables education settings to evaluate, celebrate and strengthen a quality arts offer and contributes to the cultural aspect of Ofsted’s requirement that a school promotes students’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Using museums and galleries to support classroom work, or developing you own museum, gallery, archive or exhibition is a great way for your school to gain Artsmark.  Find out more about Artsmark and its impact here.

      Arts Award is a range of unique qualifications inspiring young people to connect with and take part in the wider world of arts, heritage and culture through different challenges at different levels. Through Arts Award young people gain a nationally recognised qualification enabling them to progress into further education and employment. Find out more here and how museums and galleries can support young people in gaining Arts Award.

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