A New Twist on Art History

By Patterson, Berniece | School Arts, February 1998 | Go to article overview

A New Twist on Art History


Patterson, Berniece, School Arts


I would like for my fifth and sixth grade students to be knowledgeable about a large number of works of art by famous artists. However, like most art teachers, I only see my students once a week for forty-five minutes. Even though I integrate a famous work of art with each production activity, the number seems minimal because in order to obtain quality, the average activity usually takes more than one class period. This situation has concerned me for a while so I decided to take a different approach.

Gathering Ideas

I placed about twelve prints of paintings of various styles by well-known artists around the room. We discussed the meaning of each and the background of the artists. Students critiqued the paintings and discussed how the artists had achieved the principles of art. Then I asked the fifth and sixth grade students to choose one or more ideas from one or more of the paintings to combine with their own ideas. By going through the selection process, students looked carefully at the subject matter noting details.

An inspiring example was Faith Ringgold's Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles. Students observed how Ringgold included Vincent van Gogh, his idea of sunflowers and his house at Arles in her artwork along with her ideas of a quilt, quilted border and famous African Americans. Since Faith Ringgold included Madame Walker, Isabella Baumfree, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker, this painting provided a wonderful opportunity for integrating African American history.

Jumping to Conclusions

We began with students giving their interpretations of the paintings. The popular saying, "Don't judge a book by the cover," or in this case a painting, was appropriate as we discovered that appearances can be misleading. Students immediately thought that the gentlemen and lady in Grant Wood's American Gothic were a farmer and his wife standing in front of their house. They were surprised to learn that the man was a dentist, the lady was Grant Wood's sister, and neither lived in the house. Grant Wood used a sketch of a house that he had made while traveling through the country. Wood was successful in portraying hard-working people.

Students were very interested in American Gothic because they had seen it on television in several comical situations. A student brought the magazine, Clinton Comedy Catalog, to school that had a drawing of President Clinton and his wife posing on the front as the gentleman and the lady.

In Lee Smith's China or the Devil, students thought that the boys were Martians since their faces were green. They were amazed to hear that the boys were not Martians but instead they had a common goal of finding China or the devil by digging a deep hole, which is very noticeable in the painting, with a bright light above it. This generation is not familiar with this game. Lee Smith creatively illustrated one of his childhood memories in China Or the Devil. …

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