Exploring Portraits from 1400 to 1850

Course Number


Study Group Leader (SGL)

Richard Thal


This course will take place virtually on Zoom. Participation requires a device (ideally a computer or tablet, rather than a cell phone) with a camera and microphone in good working order and basic familiarity with using Zoom and accessing email.

10-Week Course

Feb. 28 - May 8. No Class April 24.


Looking deeply together at portraits can engender rich reflection and lively discussion. In this course, we will consider many aspects of portraiture. These will include: changing conceptions of individuality; the range of styles; the emergence of underrepresented artists and portrait subjects; and the cat-and-mouse game of self-portraiture. We will look at portraiture across time. After examining the varied functions that portraits have served, we will explore how the spark of individuality ignited the Italian Renaissance and study the bravura work done around the same time and subsequently in Northern Europe. One class will be devoted to the portraits and self-portraits of Rembrandt, whose ability to delve into the human soul is unsurpassed. 

Self-portraits will be featured in several classes. Among other things, we will open the doors to see the highlights of the collection housed in the Uffizi Gallery’s Vasari Corridor, a treasure trove of works rarely open to the public. We will also study the changing role of women artists as depicted in several centuries of works. As we ask what makes a great portrait, we will look at how artists balance the quest for truth and beauty and how well they capture the subject’s soul within social constraints. Most importantly, by looking at and learning about portraits, we will revel in the variety and beauty of these works, gain appreciation of artists about whom we knew little beforehand (or underestimated), and discover fascinating stories of the artists and their subjects.

Group Leadership Style

More facilitated discussion than lecture.

Course Materials

Materials will be shared on a class website. Rather than assigning one primary text, the SGL will share selected highlights from a number of books that explore various perspectives on portrait painting. As part of the weekly homework assignment, the SGL will also share links to videos and printed articles, as well as a PowerPoint highlighting selected images we will look at in class. A full PowerPoint will be the cornerstone of most class sessions.

Preparation Time

1-1.5 hours per week.


Richard Thal worked for 40+ years in low-income communities with grassroots organizations devoted to community organizing, affordable housing, and economic development initiatives. Early in college, in an era when “relevance” was paramount, he remembers complaining bitterly about distribution requirements. After all, when there were such pressing problems in the world, what purpose was served by being force fed two semesters of fine arts? Little did he know that those two semesters would lead to many of the most elevating moments of his adult life and a lasting passion for art. He is leading this course for the second time.