Lesson Plan: Colonial Identity

In this lesson, students learn how Copley's portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Hubbard illustrate the Hubbards' desire to identify themselves with England while indicating their profession and social status. Students observe these paintings and discuss how this is evident. They research and discuss the origins of the American colonies and explore how colonists were still influenced by English culture. As a follow-up project, students produce a portrait of an individual, including attributes that provide information about the tastes and ambitions of the sitter.

Suggested Grade Level: 7-8 (with adaptations for 9-12)
Estimated Time: Three class periods


As 18th-century American colonists grew more prosperous, many sought to record their achievements. Portraits fulfilled this desire. One of the challenges confronting the early American painter was that patrons (mostly wealthy New England merchants and businessmen) requested a sophisticated style, in keeping with the English tradition of portraiture. Colonial artists, however, had little access to the paintings or training necessary to develop a style in the English tradition. John Singleton Copley and his peers studied mezzotint reproductions of English portraits. Mezzotints were important because they could be bought and sold relatively cheaply, giving artists in the colonies access to art from England and the rest of Europe.

Lesson Objectives

  • Compare and critically analyze works of art, considering especially how attributes or symbols reveal social status in colonial America
  • Learn to conduct research on the Web
  • Learn about the American colonies and the importation of culture from England
  • Create a portrait that incorporates telling attributes

Key Terms

  • colony
  • mezzotint
  • class
  • taste
  • portrait
  • texture
  • realism
  • attribute
  • symbol
  • cherub
  • sitter

Instructional Materials

  • Pencils
  • Notebook paper
  • Paper
  • Colored pens, colored pencils, or acrylic paint
  • Brushes
  • Water
  • Recommended Web sites (see below)



Worksheet questions include:

  • Define "colony"
  • What does it mean to be a "colony"?
  • What do you think are some of the reasons that people left England for the colonies?
  • How do you think the colonists felt about living so far from England?
  • What were the advantages?
  • What were the disadvantages?
  • If you were a colonist, what kinds of things would you have brought from your home country?
  • Can you think of people today who move to a new place but continue to practice the traditions of the country or region where they came from? (e.g., moving from the southern to the northern United States, emigrating from Mexico to the United States).
  • Why might people do this?


Base students' evaluations on their participation in class discussion, ability to describe and analyze a work of art, and appreciation of the decisions that colonists made in forming their American identity.


  • Have students create a portrait of someone who is known to them (friend, parent, or other adult). Encourage them to consider the environment in which they will place their sitter, what clothes he or she will wear, and what other attributes they will include to signal the sitter's interests and identity. Ask them to consider whether or not they will rely on a particular kind of imagery (in art, advertising, etc.) that appeals to the tastes of their sitter.
  • Challenge students to imagine that they are portraitists living in the United States during the 1700s and they have to paint a portrait of one historical or fictional individual from the Revolutionary period. Encourage students to choose people of various social classes and ethnic backgrounds (farmers, slaves, merchants, traders, artisans, Native Americans). Have each student gather information relating to their character. Ask them to produce a portrait containing several attributes and to write a brief biography or short story about the individual in their painting. Hold a mini-gallery opening featuring the "Many Faces of the 13 Colonies."


attribute (n)
object closely associated with belonging to a specific person or thing; in art, often used to identify known individuals, such as saints

cherub (n)
singular: a child, usually winged, in painting and sculpture that appears innocent, chubby, and rosy

classical (adj)
of or having characteristics of antiquity or ancient Greek or Roman cultures

mezzotint (n)
engraving type popular during the 18th century, made by roughing the surface of a copper or steel plate with a tool called a rocker and then scraping and burnishing the roughed surface to produce an image

patron (n)
person who hires an artist to create a work of art

portrait (n)
the likeness of a person (especially a face) in a work of art, such as a painting, drawing, sculpture, or photograph

Realist (adj)
relating to a movement in 19th-century France that concentrated on the unidealized representation of "real and existing things" (Courbet); a general term used to describe an intent to objectively depict the appearance of the physical world

style (n)
distinctive manner of expression (as in writing, speech, or art)

symbol (n)
something that stands for or represents something else; a visible sign of a concept or other invisible trait

Illinois Learning Standards
Language Arts: 4-5
Social Science: 16, 18
Fine Arts: 25-27

Art Access