Philosophy at the Virtual Art Museum

Using art to prompt philosophical discussions in the high school classroom.

Teacher Guide

Michael Borges Study

Kehinde Wiley, 2008
FILTERS: Portraiture

Artwork Module Navigation

Questions for Philisophical Discussion


Michael Borges Study

  1. What strikes you about this portrait?
  2. What do you make of the flowers painted in a flat, graphic style that surround the man in the picture?
  3. What attitude does the sitter have in this portrait?
  4. Does the painting express a specific attitude about the man in the portrait?
  5. Is your attitude toward the painting changed when you know that it is one of a series of watercolors that the artist painted of men of African descent and that this painting is of a man in Brazil?

Compare and Contrast

Open the discussion guides for some of the other portraits on this site: Portrait of Madame X, Rembrandt’s self portrait, and Woman with Hat. After you’ve studied those images a bit, discuss the questions below.

  1. Which of the portraits/self-portraits you looked at is your favorite? What makes it your favorite?
  2. Why do you like it better than the other ones?
  3. Do you think that painting is beautiful? Which features of the painting contribute most to its beauty? For example, the colors, the detailed representation of the person, or its accuracy? Would you say that all works that have that or those features are beautiful?
  4. Can a painting be beautiful even if its subject is not? That is, if the person who is featured in the portrait is not beautiful or handsome, can the painting still be? What is the relationship between the person portrayed and the portrait itself?
  5. Is beauty the only term you would use to praise your favorite portrait? Try to think of other terms that evaluate that painting but that go beyond merely calling it beautiful? For example, might you praise your favorite portrait for being accurate, expressive, intimate, etc.? Are these other terms important to your understanding of the painting?
  6. Some philosophers maintain that our knowledge of our own minds is different than our knowledge of the minds of others. Do you think this is true? That is, do you know your own state of mind in a different way than you know the state of mind of others? Is your knowledge of yourself more certain than you knowledge of others? In what ways if any? Are there features of a self-portrait that distinguish it from a portrait of someone else? Are these related to the difference between self-knowledge and knowledge of other people’s minds?
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, thought that the “look of the other” was always objectifying. Based on the paintings you have looked at, do you think that painters necessarily objectify their subjects? Do we always objectify others? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Does this claim apply any differently to a self-portrait? Justify your answers.

Additional Resources

Portraiture Overview and Resources

Portraits are visual representations of individual people. Painted portraits were common until the invention of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century. When looking at portraits, it’s important to engage not only with the person depicted in the work of art, it’s also important to discuss the artistic choices the portraitist made when creating the image.

Tate Modern on Portraiture

Three issues are raised by the philosophical questions in this unit: the nature of beauty; how self-knowledge differs from the knowledge we have of others; and whether objectification always enters into our perception of others. These are difficult and interesting questions. Here are some resources to help students grapple with these questions.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on beauty

Philosophy Talk episode: “What is beauty?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on self-knowledge

Philosophy Talk episode on the self and self-presentation

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Sartre and objectification

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Kehinde Wiley, Michael Borges Study, 2008
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Kehinde Wiley, Michael Borges Study, 2008
Download & Print Send Via Email
Kehinde Wiley, Michael Borges Study, 2008

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