Teach PA History
Explore PA History
…But What Does It Mean? Symbolism in Artwork
Equipment & Supplies
  • Overhead projector (optional) Dictionary Drawing paper and pens/pencils (homework)

Day One:

1. Place the following quote on the board:

"…to clothe the idea in perceptible form."
[Poet Jean Moreas, 1886 Manifesto of Symbolism].

Ask students what they think this means. You may have to explore the word "perceptible" [anything that can be seen, touched, smelled, etc.] Then ask your students, "What is the poet talking about?" If your students are having difficulty answering the question, skip to Step 2, and come back to defining the word later. If, however, your students come to the answer of "symbolism" right away, tell them they are correct! Ask a student to look up the definition of symbolism and to write it on the board. For your reference, the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a symbol as "something that stands for something else; especially, something real that stands for or suggests another thing that cannot be pictured or shown." So symbolism, then, is when one or more objects are used to represent a larger concept or idea.

2. Show an example. Place Lion Licking Paw, 1886 on an overhead transparency and project it for the class to view. Ask students to describe the characteristics of which they are reminded. Record responses: (brave, fierce, strong, courageous, etc.) Explain that a painter might use a lion to show these characteristics in a person or country. You may repeat this with more animals if necessary: e.g., eagle, horse, wolf (or a school mascot, if it is animal).

3. Once it seems your students understand the concept of symbolism, tell them that they are now going to look at how one Pennsylvania artist, Charles Wilson Peale, used symbolism in painting his self-portrait. Hand out The Artist in His Museum, 1822 or place it on an overhead projector. Tell the students that they will be able to interpret some symbols in this painting on their own, but for other symbols they will need additional historical information. First they will see what they can hypothesize on their own.

a.Invite students to examine the painting closely. You may use the following questions as leads:

When do you think this portrait was painted? Why?

What do you think Peale is interested in? What objects in the picture might tell us this?

What objects do you not understand?

b. Now give the students Worksheet 1: Finding Symbols and have them complete it individually.

c. When students have completed the worksheet in which they describe the painting and find what symbols they can, have student break into four groups. Ask each group to read Worksheet 2: Historical Clues one clue at a time and work together in their group to find objects in the painting that support or show us the fact. (There are four or five facts per group.)

d. Once each group has completed Worksheet 2: Historical Clues have one representative from each group share their findings. Have all four groups share their new insights about the painting. Then hand out Worksheet 3: Revisiting Symbols. Ask students to look at their Worksheet 1: Finding Symbols and, based on the new information their classmates have shared, revisit their original impressions of the painting. In Worksheet 3: Revisiting Symbols, students will have the opportunity to add or revise their first impressions.

4. At the end of class, collect both worksheets from students. Review some of the symbols Charles Willson Peale used in his self-portrait to convey himself. Then for homework, explain to students that they are to draw a self-portrait. They are to include at least three symbols of their life in their artwork. Go over ideas of areas of interests they could symbolize in their drawing (e.g., favorite subject, hobby, sport, or foods).

Day Two:

1. Briefly remind students what they covered yesterday and ask them again, "What is a symbol again?"

2. Then ask them to get out their homework and pair up with a classmate. Allow five minutes for them to share their work and symbolism with their classmate. Each student will present their partner's self-portrait to the class, explaining the symbolism within the artwork.

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