Lesson Plan: A Presidential Portrait: Andrew Jackson
Student Learning Objectives
  • Students will discuss a work of art and conduct group research to learn about the life and impact of Andrew Jackson within the context of three time periods: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional period, and the early 19th century.
  • Students will discuss a work of art and conduct group research to interpret various historical perspectives through primary and secondary sources.
  • Students will develop and use cooperative learning skills to create a group portrait that uses artistic point of view to portray the life and influence of Andrew Jackson.
Social Studies

8.H.1.2, 8.H.1.3, 8.H.2.1, 8.H.3.3

Visual Arts

8.V.2.3, 8.CX.1.1, 8.CX.2.2, 8.CR.1.1

Written by Jill Taylor, NCMA Educator
Essential Question: How is our perception of history shaped by primary sources?
Abstract: Students will examine the role of perception in interpretation of primary sources in Ralph Earl’s portrait of Andrew Jackson. In small groups, students will research periods in Jackson’s life and use gathered information to create their own portraits of Jackson that communicate facts about actual events filtered through the point of view of someone affected by Jackson.

1. Show students Ralph E. W. Earl's portrait of Andrew Jackson. Discuss the role of primary sources of written and visual forms in understanding history. Have students describe Jackson's personality characteristics based on evidence found in the portrait. Solicit questions raised by the portrait, and consider the following.

  • How do portraits convey a sense of identity?
  • What is the popular perception of Andrew Jackson—now and when he was president?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe Andrew Jackson? (civilized or wild, serious or easygoing?)
  • What details does Earl use to create your impression of Jackson? (mourning clothes, pose, books and papers)
  • Who painted the portrait, and what was his relationship to Jackson? (Ralph E. W. Earl, a family friend who lived at the White House with Jackson and married into the family; he painted many portraits of Jackson.)
  • How could the artist’s relationship with Jackson or perception of him influence the way he depicts the president? (flattery, emphasis of the ideal over the real)
  • Is a portrait a faithful document? Why or why not?
  • Discuss Andrew Jackson's life and presidency, and have students evaluate how the popular conception of "Old Hickory" may be at odds with the man presented in the portrait. (Where does the nickname “Old Hickory” come from, and how does it reflect perceptions of Jackson? How does the portrait play into this perception or contradict it?)

2. Break the class into smaller groups to research the following periods in the life of Andrew Jackson and to evaluate how these periods reflect events and issues in North Carolina history. Consider how different people might have perceived Andrew Jackson.

  • American Revolution
  • Tennessee pioneer days
  • War of 1812
  • 1824 and 1828 presidential campaigns
  • Presidency: exploration of policies that affected North Carolina

3. Keeping students in their small groups, have them collaborate on a portrait of Andrew Jackson that reflects their assigned time. Ask them to select an artistic persona for their depiction that highlights a specific point of view, or perception, of Jackson. For example, their artistic point of view could be that of a soldier who served under Jackson in the War of 1812 or that of a Cherokee Indian affected by the Indian Removal Act. In addition, have students consider Jackson's age, his clothing, and his environment to depict Jackson accurately at this period. Groups should include significant objects that symbolize events or issues in Jackson's life. Portraits can be drawn or created using computer programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Groups should complete the Andrew Jackson Portrait Worksheet as a written complement to their portrait.

4. Bring students back together as a class. Have groups show their portraits of Andrew Jackson to the class without giving preliminary explanation. The rest of the class will look for visual clues in the portrait to interpret the work and will pose questions to the group. Guide the discussion by providing conversation subjects and questions covering the style of the depiction, artist point of view, and portrait details (such as those used in Step 1). Give students the Andrew Jackson Portrait Worksheet to use as a guide for discussion. The presenting group will confirm or deny interpretation through the answers they give to questions.

5. Display the portraits in chronological order to create a class timeline of Andrew Jackson's life. Use the portraits as a basis for discussing his life as a whole and how he affected North Carolina and United States history. Students may compare their portraits of Jackson to others created during his lifetime to further explore the role of perception in understanding primary and secondary sources.

  • Group research, the portrait, and the worksheet may be used to assess students’ understanding of one of the periods in the life of Andrew Jackson.
  • The group portrait should be recognizable and include symbols relevant to the subject, time period, and point of view that students select.
  • The worksheet answers should show evidence of the group’s planning and decision-making process within the context of their research.
  • Class discussion and the worksheet will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of portraits in communicating information about people, history, and significant events.
  • Students’ questions and responses to the Earl portrait and the student-created portraits will demonstrate their ability to interpret source material.
  • The worksheet explanations will be compared to the portraits to evaluate the effectiveness of the work in portraying information and a point of view.

primary source


art supplies (paper, marker, etc.) or computer imaging program 


Andrew Jackson Portrait Worksheet (available for download below)



Figures in North Carolina History
Ralph E.W. Earl was frequently called the "court painter" to Andrew Jackson, a somewhat ironic tag considering that Jackson, a Carolinian by birth, considered himself the champion of the common man. In this portrait, painted during Jackson's first term as president, Earl depicts the seventh chief executive from the waist up with one arm bent across his chest. Jackson's black mourning clothes (his wife died in 1828) add a measure of solemnity to his calm, self-assured appearance as he gazes into the distance. Earl's style produces crisp lines that distinguish the figure of Jackson and make him stand out from the muted background. A law book and sheaf of papers at Jackson's left elbow indicate the president's dedication to upholding and shaping the laws of his country.

Who was Andrew Jackson?
Andrew Jackson became a figure of national importance when an assortment of troops under his command defeated British forces at the Battle of New Orleans. Despite the fact that this battle took place weeks after American and British representatives signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812, Jackson was celebrated for his unlikely victory and became the second-best-known military figure in the country, after George Washington.

The child of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Jackson was born in the Waxhaw community near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina in 1767. His father passed away in a logging accident a few weeks before his birth, and his mother and brothers all died from illness or injuries sustained in the Revolutionary War effort. Jackson served as a courier with the Continental Army during the war. An orphan at age 14, Jackson found employment teaching school but soon abandoned teaching to study law. He studied in Salisbury and was granted a license to practice law in 1787. He accepted a job as public prosecutor in the western territory of North Carolina, now Tennessee. Jackson was instrumental in the development of the territory into the state of Tennessee and served as that state's first congressman for a short time in 1796. Jackson maintained his ties to the military dating from the Revolutionary War. He become major general of the Tennessee militia in 1802 and a major general in the U.S. Army in 1812.

How did Earl become Jackson's "court painter"?
The son of portraitist Ralph Earl, Ralph E.W. Earl probably received his initial instruction from his father. While studying abroad, the younger Earl gained exposure to the European tradition of history painting: the depiction of events recorded in history, literature or the Bible. Earl returned to the United States in 1815 to begin an ambitious project about the Battle of New Orleans. Needing Jackson's portrait for his history painting, Earl met the general and cultivated a friendship with him during a visit to Jackson's Tennessee home in 1817. Earl became a part of the family when he married the niece of Jackson's wife in 1819.

Nine years later, Jackson's election as president was aided by populist changes in voting laws that allowed more men the right to vote. Earl went to live with Jackson at the White House in 1830. There he painted portraits of Jackson, many with a format similar to the example shown here. Earl charged $50 for a painting, and $20 more for a frame. The portraits reflect the image of a man known for strengthening the power of the presidency and the Union, the former through the use of the veto and the latter aimed at preventing states' defiance of federal law and possible secession. During his term of office, Jackson advocated a policy called the Indian Removal Act which required Native Americans to abandon their lands in eastern states and move to territories in the West.

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