How to Read a Painting

Literary analysis is tough.

• “Explain how the author uses setting to establish the mood of this short story.”
• “Determine the narrator’s tone and present two pieces of textual evidence to defend your choice.”
• “Examine the writer’s use of the colors green and yellow as symbols that support the novel’s theme.”

I’m a literature nerd, so digging into these prompts would keep me happily engaged for days. Most teens, though, don’t share my enthusiasm, often because they don’t yet have the tools, experience, or confidence to articulate what they see in the works of literature we study.

The solution? Modeling and practice. Once teens start to see how the game is played, they quickly become more comfortable – and vocal! – in sharing interesting things they notice.

I’ll never forget a moment with David, a junior with a mop of curly hair and a quick wit in an American Literature class I taught a few years ago. We were studying Huck Finn, a required text at my old school, and I read aloud a section of chapter 12 as part of a close-reading exercise.

In that chunk of text, Huck describes life on the raft with Jim and how they were able to sneak ashore at night to buy bits of food and sometimes “lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable.” Toward the end of the section, Huck says, “We shot a water-fowl now and then that got up too early in the morning or didn’t go to bed early enough in the evening.” It’s a line I’d read more than a dozen times over the years without giving it much thought, but that afternoon David raised his hand.

“Yes, David?”

“So, Ms. R., those ducks are pretty much Huck and Jim, right?” 

Confused, I asked, “How’s that?”

“Well, the ducks that get shot are the ones that don’t follow the rules. And Huck and Jim, they’re outlaws now.”

Cue the camera-zoom to my dumbfounded face. How had I not seen it? “Yes, David. Yes! They are.” The pleasant scene Huck paints for the reader is, of course, a fallacy. Jim is in real danger and that little line is a tool to foreshadow the violence to come because Huck and Jim dare to defy the rules of society. Oh, Twain, you crafty rascal.

So, yeah, I like literary analysis. How do we get more students to think like David? Modeling and practice. Short stories and poems are logical building blocks as we step toward analysis of novels and plays. I’ve also used art as a time-saving “text” that’s quick to “read” and offers plenty to analyze. Setting? Yup. Mood? Of course. Symbolism? Let kids explore and see what they find!

Reading a piece of art is an excellent supplement to many of our literature units, and I’ve recently begun building the tools to expand this practice to be a stand-alone activity. Imagine hosting Masterpiece Monday or Fine Art Friday as part of your bell-ringer routine. You’ll bring a touch of schmancy to your class and students will be ready to impress future dates with their ability to speak confidently about art. 

First, find a piece of art you think students could dig into and then give them a few questions to consider. Not sure what to ask? This list from the Terra Foundation for American Art is a solid collection of Common Core-aligned questions/discussion topics to help you get started.

Lately, I’ve been wandering around online museums and building my own set of six-question worksheets for options that catch my eye. The first five in my collection of Fine Art Analysis bell-ringers/activities include:

Worksheet #1: Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows

Worksheet #2: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Worksheet #3: Waiting by Edgar Degas

Worksheet #4: Separation by Edvard Munch 

Worksheet #5: Near Bethlehem by Banksy

Do you have a favorite painting or artist I should focus on next? I want to diversify my collection, though my options are limited to pieces available in the public domain. Any suggestions? Leave ’em below!

Teach on, my friend.

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Crystal Byers
1 year ago

My students are reading books in literature circles now—Beloved, Where the Crawdads Sing, and In the Time of the Butterflies. I saw this one last year at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—Ramona Vive su Vida or Ramona Lives her Life. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s in the plans.


Crystal Byers
1 year ago

I wrote about Ramona once.


Laura Randazzo
1 year ago
Reply to  Crystal Byers

I love this, Crystal! Touched my heART, too. 🙂

Laura Randazzo
1 year ago
Reply to  Crystal Byers

I like what you said about the textures of the piece and how we’re all like that – layered and complex. That also sounds like a really cool unit you’ve built.

Crystal Byers
1 year ago
Reply to  Laura Randazzo

I thought about using Ramona with Jane Eyre, but Jane seemed enough on her own. Ramona fits perfectly here…speaking of complexity.

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