Unknown Sitters

View the winners of our 2024 Student Writing Contest

Our museum holds a collection of over a million artifacts and artworks. These objects help us document the past—but there are still pieces missing from the historical puzzle. THNOC’s upcoming exhibition Unknown Sitters features paintings of people who sat to have their portrait painted, but whose names and unique identities have been lost to us through time. For this year’s Student Writing Contest, we want student writers to use their creativity and historical knowledge to invent imaginary identities for these New Orleanians we don't know.

Students should select one of the portraits for their grade level from the Unknown Sitters exhibition (images below). 

Look closely at the portrait and search for clues that might tell more about the person and their time in history. Details like the people’s clothes, surroundings, and facial expressions can tell us a great deal.

In 200 words or less, write a creative description of the person or people in the portrait. It could be a poem or a paragraph, from the sitter’s or artist’s point of view, or from your own perspective. Any type of creative writing is welcome! 

Scroll down for more info, or submit your entry here.

Grades 3, 4, and 5

  • 1958, by Max Hill, 2007.0388.27

  • 1840–1850, by Charles Octavius Cole, 1993.56

  • 1867–1869, by Andrew Roth, 1987.177

Grades 6, 7, and 8

  • 1981, by Douglas Bourgeois, 2018.0253.14

  • 1840–1860, by Jules Lion, 2021.0264

  • 1945–1950, by Howard Newton Reeve, 1996.88

Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12

  • 1930–1935, by Daniel Webster Whitney, 1984.231.7

  • 1870, by François Bernard, 1997.120.8

  • 1862–1872, by François Bernard, 2008.0329.1

Here are some other questions and ideas to help students get started:

  • What title would you give this portrait?
  • Why did you choose this portrait? What about the person or people is interesting to you?
  • How do you think the people felt when they were painted?
  • What would the person have liked or disliked?
  • Where would the person have lived? Where would they have worked? Who would their friends have been?
  • What challenges would the person have faced?
  • Who was this portrait made for? Would it have hung in a home or in an office?

Contest Guidelines:

  • This contest is open to all students in grades 3–12 in the United States and US territories.
  • Each student may submit only one entry.  
  • Entries should be submitted through the THNOC Student Writing Contest form.
  • Each entry should be 200 words or less.
  • Each entry must be a wholly original work composed by the submitter.  Any entry that is found to be plagiarized in whole or in part will be immediately disqualified. 
  • The deadline to submit an entry is February 28, 2024.

Contest Awards:

A judging panel of THNOC staff will select winning elementary (grades 3–5), middle school (grades 6–8), and high school (grades 9–12) entries. The winning writers from each category will receive $350 for first place, $250 for second place, and $150 for third place. In addition, all winners’ entries will be published on THNOC’s website.

A selection of entries will be included in the Unknown Sitters exhibition at THNOC.


Winners will be announced in March, 2024.

Questions? Contact Collin Makamson, Curator of Education

Submit Your Entry!


Past Contests

2023 Student Writing Contest

2022 Student Writing Contest

2021 Student Writing Contest

2020 Student Essay Contest