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History Geek Week Day Three: Teaching with American Art and Portraits

I walked in late and I love this session already. Three people from several Smithsonian art museums are highlighting some of the ways teachers can use artwork and portraits as teaching tools. And the stuff they’re sharing is pretty sweet. The content is focused on the Civil War era but you could do this kind of thing with just about any period.

You can find most of it online at their Civil War with Art exhibit. Be sure to also check out  their Teachers Guide page with stuff on a variety of topics including Reconstruction, Native Americans, and Manifest Destiny.

A couple of sample activities:

Have kids divide a piece of paper in half by drawing a line down the middle. (Your kids could also do this with a laptop or mobile device.) Label one half 1846 and the other 1872.

Show the 1846 image of John Brown by Augustus Washington:

(I would not tell anyone who the image is until after the exercise.)

Instruct your kids to write down as many adjectives as you can about the individual in the image on the left hand / 1846 side of their paper.

Do the same thing for the 1872 side. Show students the 1872 image of Brown painted by Peter Hansen Balling.

(You can find a large version of this image here. This painting was based on an image in an 1859 Frank Leslie Illustrated front page.)

Have the kids compare the two lists and circle the words that are similar or the same. Ask them:

Why are there similar words? How does each image make you feel? What does each image make you think of?

Then move to asking kids to think about the similarities and differences in the two images. Now provide information about the artist, type of image (painting vs. photograph), and date. Have them “source” this information. Does this information influence their thinking in any way?

What do you think the photographer and artist wants you to feel or think?

Finally provide the final piece of the puzzle – that this is John Brown. Provide some information about the types of things Brown did and a basic biography.  Most will probably not know who Brown is but ask them whether this makes a difference in their lists.

In some ways, these two images represent the beginning and the end of the Brown story. Ask them to predict the types of photos, paintings, and documents that would fill in the “empty” spaces between 1846 and 1872.

Many who look at these images often mention Brown’s eyes

they seem kinda creepy

Maybe start by showing just the eyes:

You can do a similar sort of thing with 1860 and 1865 images of Abraham Lincoln.

Which image came first? How do you know? Why is there such a difference between the two?

One more example.

Show your kids the painting by Winslow Homer titled A Visit from the Old Mistress. Ask them to think about:

What might this conversation be like? Who’s in charge here? What they talk about? What would they not talk about?

and perhaps more difficult

What happens now?

Awesome stuff. And the cool thing is that you can use just about any image from just about any period.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this idea and am going to try it.

    November 19, 2012
    • glennw #

      It seems like a great way to encourage lots of thinking by your students. Good luck!


      November 19, 2012

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