Using Artwork to Teach History, Part II


Using Artwork to Teach History, Part II

In our previous blog post, we looked at one way to use artwork to teach history. This week we’ll explore other ways paintings can be used in the classroom.

Understanding the “Everyday Life” of a Particular Time-period


Genre paintings are a great way to help students explore what life was like in the past. These paintings often depict everyday people living their lives in settings like in their homes, coffee houses, taverns, on the farm, in the city and much more. By analyzing these paintings, students can learn more about the specific event or time-period studied in class.

For this activity, students may use the same graphic organizer from Part I of this blog series. However, rather than looking for what happened during the event, the students are looking for clues about the people and their lives. It is best if several paintings are examined together, as this will give students a more complete picture of the times. Remember, the artwork’s creation date is critical. In order for a painting to be considered a primary resource, it must be painted during the same time as the event or time period being studied.

Let’s take a look at a few examples focused on the Civil War. Note that the webpages provided below present each painting with additional information. If you click on the painting, you will be able to showcase the image to your students without that additional text. It might be beneficial to start the analysis of the painting in that way, and then expend the information, providing additional context for each one of them.

  • View “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin-Spencer. 1854,
    1. Consider: What is the man doing? How is he dressed and what is he carrying? What are the other people in the painting doing? How are these people different or similar from people today?

What other questions come to mind? Is there anything else you can infer from these paintings? Is there a common theme among these paintings? What evidence supports your claim?

For upper-level students, a deeper analysis could include questions pinpointing how do we know the date of the painting. This would require the students to conduct further research into the objects show in the painting, such as clothing, as well as the circumstances of those depicted in the paintings.

Another way to incorporate deeper analysis with students is by research the painter/artist. Students may reflect on:

  • What were they trying to show in the paintings?
  • Were they making a statement about an event or political attitude?
  • Do the paintings reflect the artists’ attitudes about their subjects? What is the evidence for this?

These art explorations can be done by individual students or in groups of two or three students. However, we suggest no more than three in a group to allow for individual analysis and input.

Remember, the goal is to encourage the students to really look at paintings. As we mentioned in August, our society is constantly bombarded with visuals that we become immune to them. By helping our students practice their visual analytical skills now, we set them up to be critical consumers and thinkers in the future.

Additional Resources

Blog post image citation: Lilly Martin Spencer. Young Husband: First Marketing. Oil on canvas. New York, NY: 1854. The Met. August 27, 2021)


Posted September 14, 2021

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