Exercise: What Did You See?

+ How many people are in the painting?


+ What is their relationship?

Husband and wife

+ How old are they? How do you know?

At the time of the painting, the man, Thomas Mifflin, was 29, and his wife was 26. If you guessed they were younger, look again, remembering that in the past, people did not have modern plastic surgery or even wrinkle creams, and men, even young ones, frequently powdered their hair gray.

+ Are they sitting or standing

Both are seated on chairs.

+ What is the man doing?

The man is holding a small book, his left forefinger marking a page.

+ What is the woman doing?

The woman is weaving decorative fringe.

+ Does either one have anything on their head?

The man appears to sport his own gray hair, possibly powdered. The woman is wearing a white bonnet.

+ Does either one have any marks or creases or identifying features on their faces?

The man has a scar on the middle of his forehead, wrinkles under his eyes, and deep smile lines. The skin on the woman’s forehead and eyes is smooth and free of wrinkles; she has a dimple on her left cheek.

+ Are there any flowers in the painting?

Yes, the woman has a corsage of flowers pinned to her dress.

+ What color is the chair the woman is sitting upon?

The woman is seated on a patterned, dark teal, cushioned chair.

+ What color is the chair the man is sitting upon?

The man is seated on a mahogany colored chair facing backward.

+ Where is the man looking?

The man is looking at his female companion.

+ Where is the woman looking?

The woman is looking away from the man, off to the left.

Seeing More

The painting is called the Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin by John Singleton Copley.

Painted in 1773, and currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it features Thomas Mifflin, an American politician who would go on to become the President of the Continental Congress, and his wife Sarah Morris. 

Look at the painting again but even more closely, more slowly this time. Follow the subjects’ gaze. Look on the table and under it. Note what is inside the room and what is outside. Study details: wrinkles in her dress, veins in his hands, the texture of the chairs. Count whatever you can. Notice any shadows and which direction they point. What could be causing the reflection and shadows, and where would we look for such an object? Appreciate how an image that might seem simple at first glance is really a complex series of relationships.

Noticing that we keep uncovering more questions and more details the longer we look is how we know we’re going deeper than just a glance, how we know we’re not just seeing, but observing. It’s an elementary skill your mind will soon have mastered.

Now let’s really observe. Click here to re-open the painting.