What does this painting tell me? Using Artwork to Teach History

What Does this Painting Tell Me? Using Artwork to Teach History

The beginning of a new school year is exciting, and filled with new students. It’s also a time to think about new ways to help them learn. Here is a suggestion, try using paintings to get your students thinking!

Each day. we are surrounded by visuals on screens, the products we consume, the clothes we wear and the buildings we pass. We encounter so many visuals that we tend to tune them out. Students should learn how to look critically at these visuals and make thoughtful decisions as to their importance.

Children learn first from what they see. As they develop and learn to read, this visual is replaced by text. Think about the novels and books you personally read; not many, if any images, are found in adult books. As we get older, we sometimes forget how to look at a picture with a critical eye.  

According to a post from the National Council of Teachers of English, written by NCTE member Dianna Minor, “Students skilled in visual literacy are able to create meaning from images, which in turn improves their writing proficiency and critical thinking skills. By integrating visual literacy into classrooms, we help students learn to collaborate and to discuss a wide range of ideas while expressing their own.“ There are many ways to use visuals in the classroom. Let’s take a look at one way to help students develop their analytical skills through the analysis of paintings.

First, consider what you’d like the lesson to center on. Do you want to teach about an event in history? A person and/or a group of people? The philosophy of a specific period? Or simply focus on a particular artist? Whatever you choose, there are many other options to help your students practice their critical thinking skills. 

Next, choose the painting. While this will depend on the lesson, be sure your students can access a good image of your chosen painting. Remember, the ability to see details is very important!

Finally, provide the students with some background on the painting. For example, if you want them to learn about a particular event, discuss what led up to it. Next, explain to them how to look at a painting for clues of its meaning or significance. The below steps and this graphic organizer will help guide you and your students in this analysis exercise. 

  • Observe: Ask the students to look at the painting’s details, such as the colors, the objects, the mood, the lines and shapes. Have them list several of the things that they notice first. Then ask them to look at the painting again and list any additional details they notice.
  • Reflect: Encourage the students think about the “W” questions: who, where, when, what, and why. Ask them to write down or share aloud the things in the painting that answer those questions. It’s ok if they can’t answer each one. The fact that they are now thinking about them is the goal. Remember, there are no wrong answers. People bring their own unique set of perspectives to a painting.
  • Interpret: Next, ask students to dig a little deeper. What does the painting tell the us about a particular event in history, a person and/or a group of people, a philosophy of the time period, or about the artist? What kinds of emotion does it make you feel?
  • Question:  Finally, ask the students what they’d like to know more about. To further their inquiry, invite them to list the places they could go to find that information. 

Now the fun begins – let’s practice with a painting from the Archibald Willard Collection, Spirit of ’76 Paintings and Drawings! We hope you try this activity with your students. Share your experiences with us by emailing us at [email protected]Looking for more ways to engage with art in the classroom? Stay tuned for Part II of Using Artwork to Teach History in our September blog post. 

Additional Resources


Blog post image citation: Spirit of ’76 Painting and Drawings. Stillimage. Wellington, OH: 1876. Herrick Memorial Library. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll36/id/20831/rec/4. (Accessed August 24, 2021)

Posted August 31, 2021
Topics: All Topics

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