CoverIntroductionKey Civics and Government ConceptsDefining Critical Media LiteracyCritical Media Literacy GuidesTopic 1. Foundations of the United States Political System1.1 Social Media Policies and Community Standards on YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and More1.2 The Internet as a Public Utility1.3  21st Century Women STEM Innovators1.4 Media Coverage of Kings, Queens, and Royal Families1.5 Representations of Native Americans in Films, Local History Publications, and School MascotsTopic 2. The Development of United States Government2.1 Declarations of Independence on Social Media2.2 Media Marketing and Government Regulation of Self-Driving Cars and Electric Vehicles2.3 Representations of and Racism Toward Black Americans in the Media2.4 Political Debates Through Songs from Hamilton: An American Musical2.5 Bill of Rights on TwitterTopic 3. Institutions of United States Government3.1: Hollywood Movies About the Branches of Government3.2: Writing an Impeachment Press Release3.3: Members of Congress' Use of Social Media3.4: Political Impacts of Public Opinion Polls3.5: Website Design for New Political PartiesTopic 4. The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens4.1: Immigration in the News4.2: Portrayals of Immigrants in Television and Film4.3: COVID-19 Information Evaluation4.4: Women Political Leaders in the Media4.5: Online Messaging by Special Interest Groups4.6: Digital Games for Civic Engagement4.7: Social Media and the Elections4.8: Images of Political Leaders and Political Power4.9: Media Spin in the Coverage of Political Debates4.10: Celebrities' Influence on Politics4.11: Political Activism Through Social Media4.12: Media Recruitment of Public Sector Workers4.13 Deciding What Books Students Read in School4.14: Images of Teachers and Teaching4.15: For Whom Is and Could Your School Be Named4.16: Representing Trans Identities4.17: Media Framing of the Events of January 6, 20214.18: Music as Protest Art4.19: PACs, Super PACs, and Unions in the Media4.20 Brands and PoliticsTopic 5. The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court Decisions5.1: Prohibition in the Media5.2: The Equal Rights Amendment on Twitter and Other Social Media5.3: Civil War Era News Stories and Recruitment Advertisements5.4: Representations of Gender and Race on U.S. Currency5.5: The Equality Act on Twitter5.6: Reading Supreme Court Dissents Aloud5.7: Television Cameras in CourtroomsTopic 6. The Structure of State and Local Government6.1: Native American Mascots and Logos6.2: A Constitution for the Internet6.3: Military Recruitment and the Media6.4: Your Privacy on Social Media6.5: Pandemic Policy Information in the Media6.6: Gendered Language in Media Coverage of Women in Politics6.7: Gender-Neutral Marketing of Toys 6.8: Environmental Campaigns Using Social Media6.9: Trusted Messengers, the Media, and the Pandemic6.10: Online Campaigning for Political Office6.11: Advertising the Lottery Online and In Print6.12: Local Governments, Social Media and Digital Democracy6.13: Protecting the CommonsTopic 7. Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy7.1: Press Freedom in the United States and the World7.2: Objectivity and Reporting the News from All Sides7.3: Investigative Journalism and Social Change7.4: News Photographs & Newspaper Design7.5: How Reporters Report Events7.6: Recommendation Algorithms on Social Media Platforms7.7: YouTube Content Creators7.8: Fake News Investigation and Evaluation7.9: Paywalls and Access to Online News7.10: Critical Visual Analysis of Online and Print Media7.11: Memes and TikToks as Political Cartoons7.12: Women Reporters in the Movies7.13: Design a 21st Century Indie Bookstore 7.14: Greenwashing and the Media7.15: AI Writing Tools and Political Information

4.8: Images of Political Leaders and Political Power

Look at the portraits of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1794), and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first Woman Supreme Court Justice (1983).

Portrait of John Jay
Portrait of John Jay | Public Domain
Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor
Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor | Public Domain

What do the images make you think about who the person is and what role they play in law, government, and politics?

What assumptions might you make about the individual?

What conclusions were you able to draw about their historical significance and political power based on the images?

Throughout history, political leaders have gained importance and power through imagery, including paintings, portraits, and sculptures. U.S. citizens often instantly recognize figures in U.S. history from artistic renderings, such as George Washington on the dollar bill, Abraham Lincoln seated at the Lincoln Memorial, and the iconic 2008 Hope poster for Barack Obama’s first campaign for President. The staging and framing of these works of art convey lasting messages about each person as a historically significant agent of change.

Even art about celebrities attract great interest. In May 2021, Andy Warhol's portrait of Marilyn Monroe, “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” sold for $195 million at auction -- the most money ever paid for a piece of 20th century artwork.

A similar pattern happens in global history where political figures from Alexander the Great to Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela are recognized as important and powerful leaders from the paintings, photos, coins, and other images made about them or commissioned by them. Louis XIV of France used art by Charles le Brun to glorify himself as the strong and robust “Sun King” with a divine right to rule, even though he had lifelong health problems. Marie Antionette had Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun paint “Marie-Antoinette and Her Children” (1787) in an unsuccessful political attempt to portray her as a faithful and strong mother to the nation.

Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children
Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and her children | Public Domain

Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) had portraits painted depicting her power and that of England as a world power. Napoleon’s 1812 portrait is famous for his pose in a uniform designed to stress his leadership as a military general in war.

Photographs too were image-building tools for political leaders. Think of the 1913 photo of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and family; not long after, in 1918, they would all be executed during the Bolshevik Revolution.

How do artistic images convey information about individuals and power and why do they last over time? In Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, Mary Beard explores the artistic depictions of the first Roman Emperors and considers why “generations of now anonymous weavers, cabinetmakers, silversmiths, printers, and ceramicists” made and remade these “ancient faces of power” (2021, p. X, para. 2). For Beard, rich and powerful political leaders, both famous and infamous, retain their fame in part because of how paintings and portraits continue to commemorate their importance through time.

In today’s world, political figures, not only dictators, kings, and queens, but also democratically-elected leaders, actively seek to shape how they are portrayed in the media (Political Portraits in the Media Age, BBC Culture, October, 2013). They craft their own portraits of power from banners and posters hung in public spaces to social media posts about their activities and achievements.

In the following activities, you will explore and design imagery of political leaders and political power.

Activity 1: Curate a Digital Collection of Images of Political Figures 

Activity 2: Design an Artistic Representation of a Political Leader

Additional Resources

Connecting to the Building Democracy for All eBook

Building Democracy for All: Leadership and the Qualities of Political Leaders


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