Mary White Morris by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1782, Independence National Historical Park

Long before the advent of digital or print photography, portrait miniatures served as intimate keepsakes given by the sitter to a loved one to convey their affection and represent their bond. During the American Revolution, these tiny likenesses were carried by soldiers and public officials away from home, and worn by women as necklace pendants or wristlet ornaments. This lesson introduces students to the art of the portrait miniature, and invites them to envision twenty-first-century equivalents.

Suggested Grade Level

Elementary and Middle School

Recommended Time Frame

One fifty-minute session

Objectives and Essential Questions

Students will:

  • learn why portrait miniatures were popular during the American Revolution,
  • explore the lives of individuals from the Revolutionary generation who were the subjects of portrait miniatures, and
  • examine the work of Charles Willson Peale and other artists who produced miniatures.


Materials and Resources
(in order of appearance)

  1. Charles Willson Peale, Mary White Morris, ca. 1782 [see the gallery below]
  2. Capt. James Smith, Portrait of the Smith Family, ca. 1807 [see the gallery below]
  3. See, Think, Wonder thinking routine
  4. Tiny Treasures: A Closer Look at Miniature Portraits from the Gibbes Museum of Art video
  5. Portrait miniatures [see the gallery below]: Alexander Murray, Amelie-Maxime-Rosalie de Grasse and Melanie-Veronique-Maxime de Grasse, Baron Frederick Henry Weissenfels and Mrs. Mary Shumur Weissenfels, Burwell Bassett, Capt. William Henry Bruce, Friedrich Wilhelm, baron von Steuben, George Baylor, James Hamilton, Joseph Fox, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, Nancy McCampbell Hays, Thomas Posey, William Palfrey, William Truman Stoddert, Unknown Sitter, Margaret Izard, Mrs. Benjamin Snead, Jr., Eliza Izard, Joseph Yates, Mrs. Abraham Crouch, John Blake, Matthew Ridley, Unknown Sitter (with cat), Mrs. Thomas Fell and her son William, Mrs. Russell nee Cox, Lord Carteret’s daughter, George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, George Washington by James Peale, The Artist’s (Pierre Henri’s) Family
  6. Charles Willson Peale, James Peale Painting a Miniature, 1795 [see the gallery below]
  7. Two Portrait Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale webpage


Background Knowledge

Students should be familiar with colonial America and the time in history during which the American Revolution took place.

Sequence and Procedure

Share the full-sized portrait of Mary White (Mrs. Robert) Morris by Charles Willson Peale with students, asking them to use the “See, Think, Wonder” routine—What do you see? What do you think about that? and What does it make you wonder?—to record their reactions to the image, paying particular attention to what Mrs. Morris is wearing on her wrists. Next, share the portrait of the Smith Family by Capt. James Smith, performing the same analysis. Ask students to consider what the two paintings have in common.

Have students share their observations with one another and the class.

Explain that portrait miniatures were small paintings given by the subject to a loved one—long before the advent of digital or print photography—to convey their affection and to represent their bond. In the eighteenth century, a drawing or painting or other work of art was the only way a person’s likeness could be preserved for memory, and for many in early America, only one likeness may have ever been produced in one’s lifetime. Miniatures were often commissioned to mark important milestones in life, including marriage, long absences and death. During the American Revolution, women wore these tiny likenesses as necklace pendants or as wristlet ornaments as a reminder of their loved ones—many of whom were serving in the Continental Army, and men serving as soldiers or in public service far from home carried portrait miniatures with them. Invite students to share how they remind themselves of loved ones separated by time or distance today.

As time permits, show the four-minute video Tiny Treasures: A Closer Look at Miniature Portraits the Gibbes Museum of Art for more background about portrait miniatures.

Assign students to small groups to examine one or two portrait miniatures from the gallery below. Students should record their answers to the following prompts for each portrait:

  1. Describe the person (subject) in the portrait.
  2. How old do you think the subject of the portrait is?
  3. From the way the subject is dressed or what they are depicted with, what do you think the subject’s profession is—explain what leads you to this conclusion.
  4. For whom do you imagine the subject had the miniature created?
  5. Describe what you notice about the way the portrait is contained or what is displayed on the reverse side of the portrait miniature.


Share the collection information and story of each portrait subject—have the students assess whether their inferences to the prompted questions were correct.


Assessment and Demonstration of Student Learning

Ask students to design a portrait miniature for a figure from history. As inspiration, show students Charles Willson Peale’s painting of his brother James painting a portrait miniature. Have them record a description of how the portrait’s subject would dress and present themselves to be remembered, supported by primary source evidence about the subject and his or her accomplishments. Describe any special features or designs that would be part of the miniature portrait’s reverse side. Ask students to note the intended recipient of the portrait miniature, as well as their relation to the subject. Students should present their designs to the class.

If time permits, students could stimulate their thinking about this activity by designing a portrait miniature for themselves before creating one for a historical subject.


Visit Two Portrait Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale at the American Revolution Institute website to learn more about this famed artist and two of his works in the Institute’s museum collections.

Revolutionary Achievements Category

Independence, National Identity

Exploring the Revolution Category

The Revolutionary War, The Legacy of the Revolution