Portrait of Alexander Dix
by Sarah Perkins, 1795

What doesportrait mean?

What is the setting of this portrait?

Alexander's parents probably hired an artist to paint this portrait. Why do you think they wanted a portrait of their son?

Why do you think the artist or Alexander's parents chose this particular setting for the portrait?

In the early days of the American Republic, many children didn't live to adulthood because medical care wasn't very good. Therefore, wealthy and middle-class parents sometimes
commissioned artists to paint their children's portraits so they would have a permanent memory of their kids no matter what happened to them. Remember, this is about 100 years before the camera was invented!

Alexander's parents were probably rich business people or land owners. That might be why the artist chose this
setting. The fields behind him probably belonged to the Dix family. Notice how Alexander's suit is almost the same shade of green as the trees and fields, making him blend into the background. This might be the artist's way of telling us that Alexander and his family felt proud to be part of the American landscape.

How would Alexander look in a different setting? Click on the settings below, and think about how the mood of a portrait changes with the setting:

at the park

in a modern family portrait

in a battle scene

This portrait of Alexander was painted when he was probably about 10 years old. He looks much older, though, because at this time, children were often thought of as "mini-adults." Their parents were very strict, and their free time was filled with religious and educational activities. After the age of about seven, children weren't allowed to play anymore, and they had to dress like adults! The idea of childhood as a special time, separate from grown-up problems and interests, did not develop until the 1800s.

Would you rather be a kid now or back then? Tell us your opinion!

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