Teach PA History
Explore PA History
…But What Does It Mean? Symbolism in Artwork
What to Know
Teaching Time
2 50-minute class periods
Grade Level
Elementary School
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • History
Historical Period
  • New Nation - 1761-1800
  • Expansion and Reform - 1801-1855
In this elementary-level lesson, students will learn about the importance of symbolism and prior knowledge in the interpretation of artwork. After defining symbolism and seeing a simple example, students will analyze and identify symbols in The Artist in His Museum, 1822, a self-portrait created by Charles Willson Peale in 1822. They will then be given additional factual information about Peale's life and be asked to revisit their initial perceptions and confirm or revise their thoughts. Finally, students will be asked to create their own self-portrait using appropriate use of symbols and present their work to the class.


1. Understand the concept of symbolism and its purpose in paintings. 2. Understand that Pennsylvania artists used this technique in their paintings. 3. Describe a piece of artwork and hypothesize about its meaning. 4. Work effectively in small groups and revise hypotheses based on additional historical information. 5. Create their own self-portrait using symbolism appropriately to convey aspects of themselves. 6. Present artwork and clearly explain symbolism to class.

Standards Alignment

  • Arts and Humanities

    9.1.3.C. Recognize and use fundamental vocabulary within each of the art forms.
    9.1.3.E. Demonstrate the ability to define objects, express emotions, illustrate an action or relate an experience through creation of works in the arts.
    9.2.3.A. Explain the historical, cultural and social context of an individual work in the arts.
    9.2.3.D. Analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.
    9.2.3.H. Identify, describe and analyze the work of Pennsylvania Artists in dance, music, theatre and visual arts.
    9.3.3.A. Recognize critical processes used in the examination of works in the arts and humanities.

  • History

    8.2.3. A. Understand the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to Pennsylvania.
    8.2.3. B. Identify and describe primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in Pennsylvania history.
    8.3.3. A. Identify contributions of individuals and groups to United States history.
    8.3.3. B. Identify and describe primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in United States history.

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    1.1.3. F. Understand the meaning of and use correctly new vocabulary learned in various subjects.
    1.2.3. A. Read and understand essential content of informational texts and documents in all academic areas.
    1.4.3. B. Write informational pieces.
    1.6.3. A. Listen to others.
    1.6.3. C. Speak using skills appropriate to formal speech situations.
    1.6.3. D. Contribute to discussions.
    1.6.3. E. Participate in small and large group discussions and presentations.
    1.8.3. B. Locate information using appropriate sources and strategies.

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