Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

The Radcliffe Family
Thomas Hudson, England
About 1742

Students will examine the artistic characteristics of The Radcliffe Family, explore how artwork can lead to accurate, inaccurate, or incomplete historical conclusions, and explain why it is important for historians to obtain multiple perspectives and sources of information before drawing any conclusions.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Social Studies
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • examine the artistic characteristics of The Radcliffe Family;
  • explore how an idealized or contrived artwork can lead to inaccurate or incomplete historical conclusions; and
  • explain why it is important for historians to obtain multiple perspectives and sources of information before drawing any conclusions.


  1. Display The Radcliffe Family to the class. Invite the students to look carefully and share what they observe. Prompt them with the following questions: What do you notice about the painting? How would you describe the people in the painting? What are they wearing? What are they holding? Describe their facial expressions. How would you describe how they are arranged? How would you describe their poses? What do you observe about the setting of the picture?
  2. Invite students to find Jasper (boy carrying the drum) in the portrait and use their imaginations and the clues in the painting to construct an idea of what his life was like. Ask students to work with a partner and make a list of all the things they can guess about Jasper’s life.
  3. Encourage students to think about the following questions as they make guesses about Jasper's life: What is the relationship between the people in the painting? When do you think this is happening? Where do you think this is happening? Who is most important? How do you know? How many boys are in the family? How old do the people appear to be? Do you think the family always dressed, looked, and behaved in the manner portrayed in the painting? What clothes and styles were popular? Describe what you think Jasper’s daily life would have been like. What did kids do for fun? Etc.
  4. Discuss these inferences as a class and create a class list of guesses about Jasper’s life.
  5. Now ask students to take their brains out of 1742 and imagine someone in 2280. Explain to students that 2280 is over 250 years from now, when their great, great, great, great, great, great grandkids will be their age! Project your class photo and distribute photocopied versions to students. Ask students to think about their great, great, great, great, great, great grandkids looking at this portrait of the class. Ask students: What do you think your descendant would think about this photo? Would they be able to guess how we are related? Would they be able to guess who was in charge? How? What might they think about your clothes? Would they be able to guess how you dressed on the weekends, or get a sense of the style of the time? Would they be able to guess what you did during the school day? What conclusions could they make about the setting of the picture?
  6. Ask students to write comments from their descendants’ perspectives about the photo, including their observations and assumptions about the people and situation in the photo. If margins are left around the photo, students can write these comments in the margins. Remind students they are thinking about the photo from the perspective of someone in the future.
  7. Invite students to share ideas with the class. Discuss how a picture could give someone from a different time a confusing impression of what they are observing. Lead students to make the connection between a descendant’s guesses about us and our guesses about Jasper’s life. Talk about how we can use artwork as a historical record to learn more about a time period, but we need to remember that a picture may not tell the “whole” story. Talk through your list and the assumptions you made about The Radcliffe Family from your observations, deciding which we might need more information about and which guesses are probably true.
  8. Lead a class discussion about how historians are very careful about drawing early conclusions when looking at primary sources such as The Radcliffe Family. Remind the students that multiple perspectives and sources of information are sometimes needed before drawing conclusions.
  9. To conclude your conversation, have students create an exit card (a sticky note or index card to be collected by the teacher) describing one “lesson learned” that we need to keep in mind when looking at art as a historical record. These cards can be compiled into one statement to be a reference for future lessons.


  • Lined piece of paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • Large pieces of chart paper and colored markers or (interactive) whiteboard for recording students’ ideas
  • Class photo (portrait style) to be handed out or projected
  • Photocopy of class photo for each student (leave margin for writing space)
  • About the Art section on The Radcliffe Family
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
  • Analyze historical sources using tools of a historian
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
21st Century Skills
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy

The Radcliffe Family

About 1742

Thomas Hudson, England

About 1742

126 in. x 174 in.

Long-term loan from the Berger Collection, TL-17968

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

Born in southwest England, Thomas Hudson was one of the most important portrait painters in England in the mid-1700s. During his lifetime, Hudson painted at least four hundred portraits, about eighty of which were turned into engravings. Engraving was a historically important method of commercial reproduction; the duplication of Hudson’s paintings demonstrates the extent of their popularity. Hudson moved to London in the late 1720s, where he later (1740s) became a member of a group of artists who promoted the first public space for artists to exhibit their work, the Foundling Hospital in London. During Hudson’s painting career, a new style of art emerged in France, called Rococo. The style was characterized by luxury, grace, playfulness, and lightness. Rococo motifs were focused on the carefree aristocratic life. The lighter colors seen in Hudson’s paintings are cheerful and optimistic, and convey feelings of a soft, harmonious, ambient light.

What Inspired It

Dated about 1742, this painting may have been commissioned to celebrate the Radcliffe family’s purchase of a splendid new home near Plymouth, England. The Radcliffe Family is a “conversation piece,” a type of informal portrait representing a group of people engaged in social discourse – not talking necessarily, but engaged with one another if only by virtue of their knowing each other. Descendents of the family pictured could look back at this painting and converse about their elite ancestors. For a brief moment in the 1730s the conversation piece was popular among noble and even royal patrons. It eventually became the almost exclusive property of the gentry, people of good breeding or high social status who ranked just below the nobility. Walter Radcliffe and his wife Admonition were both members of the gentry. They had nine children, all featured in the painting. The children, from left to right, are: Mary, Jane, Admonition (playing with the dog), John (touching Admonition’s shoulder), Anne Grace, William (in his mother’s lap), Walter, Jasper, and Joanna.

The surface on which the painting was made is actually sixteen separate pieces of canvas fitted together and glued onto another material. Thomas Hudson was required to make the painting in this way because canvas was not produced in such large pieces at the time. Some scholars think that Hudson sketched the overall composition and then had sittings with only a few of the family members at a time at their home in Devonshire. Back in his studio in London, he worked on the hands and faces. There he employed a drapery painter to do the rest—drapery, background, and clothes.


Arrangement of Figures

The family is posed in an almost triangle arrangement, with the father at the top showing his importance in the family hierarchy. All of the family members look directly at the viewer except for one boy, one girl, and the dog.

Elements of Grandeur

There are a number of details that suggest the people who live in this house are very important—the luxurious tasseled curtain; the elaborate garden pedestal and urn on the right; the Turkish carpet that the family is positioned on, which would have been quite exotic for the time; and the Ionic pilasters (flat, rectangular forms based on round columns, used as an ornamental motif). Only a socially prominent family would have had and/or valued these objects.

Men’s Dress

The accepted costume for men in the early 1740s included a wig, breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat. Mr. Radcliffe conforms perfectly to the image of a country gentleman at ease.

Women’s Dress

In this painting, all of the women’s dresses conform to the prevailing style: ankle- or floor-length skirts, elbow-length sleeves, a squared neckline, and, in Anne Grace’s case (directly to the left of Mr. Radcliffe), a short train. The girl’s caps are adorned with a variety of decorations such as tulips, pink and blue ribbons, flowers, ostrich feathers, and green leaves.

Boy’s Dress

During the 1700s, boys and girls alike wore dresses until five or six years old. As they got older, boys were dressed in miniature versions of their father's clothes. Look at the way Jasper, who carries a drum, is dressed compared to his brother, Walter, who is handing a piece of fruit to the baby. Two of the four boys are wearing dresses and they all hold a piece of fruit.

Loose Brushstrokes

The lace and shiny fabrics were painted with loose brushstrokes that are easy to see. Up close they appear rough, but at a distance they magically create the look of fabric and lace. The exquisite silk of the girls’ dresses was painted by Joseph van Aken [AH-kin], one of the drapery painters employed by Hudson.


A highlight is an area or a spot in a drawing, painting, or photograph that is strongly illuminated. In this painting, highlights are represented by a dab of white or light-colored paint.


Look for glints of light on the tips of noses, in the eyes, and on the lips of the figures. Hudson’s placement of these glints and his confident brushstrokes mark him as a master. These glints and brushstrokes help to bring the figures to life.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.