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Using Art in Teaching World History

by Marsha K. Russell

Introduction—Using the Eye to Reach the Mind: Art as a Tool in Teaching World History
Why Art?
Lesson Plan Sample—The Soldier in Modern Art: Hero or Villain?


Given the breadth and scope of the world history curriculum, determining how to devote precious instructional time is a common frustration for all of us who teach the course. Pulled between the demands of testing, content, and skills, we shudder when anyone suggests yet another thing to cover as we teach. In spite of this, I am going to do just that. I am going to encourage you to incorporate art into world history as a means of increasing your students' understanding, enjoyment, and retention of what you teach. Because it lays quick groundwork for every unit, helps direct the focus of your students to key points, and makes the rest of the material more accessible, this technique may actually save you time.


Benefits of Using Art

Using works of art as source materials in world history offers an amazing variety of benefits, both tangible and intangible. Art appeals to students of all learning styles, particularly those who are more comfortable with visual stimuli than with auditory learning. It is the great equalizer in teaching classes of widely disparate reading levels, since the piece of art is a 'text' to which all students have access. Since an art image is concrete, it is an ideal starting point for discussion, providing details that students of all abilities can recognize and giving them a springboard for relating the past to their own lives. The concreteness of the art image provides a bridge to more abstract historical issues and trends—an invaluable aid to your inductive learners. Moreover, it coaxes even reticent class participants to join in discussions.

Art As Primary Source Material

Besides the purely pedagogical advantages, works of art merit study for their own historical worth. In discussing the Byzantine empire, for example, we can teach about the autocratic Emperor Justinian by using words to communicate his hold over both church and state. But, when we show our students the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in Ravenna's San Vitale and ask them to discuss what the works reveal about the Byzantine relationship between religion and the state, they see that relationship at work. In addition, the works illustrate the use of art by the emperor to support his own power.

Reflection of the Times

Art teaches history for us not only by supplying the historical details, but also by reflecting the attitudes and human intellectual and emotional responses of people to the events of their times. In dealing with the French Revolution, we can attempt to teach about the social and economic inequities of the ancien régime in eighteenth-century France. These become real to our students when we show them rococo paintings by Watteau and Fragonard, capturing the lifestyle of the nobles who had hours of leisure to picnic dressed in fur and satin, as compared to the works of Louis Le Nain, which sympathetically and graphically reveal the dignity and poverty of the French working class whose labor supported the nobility. We can talk about momentous changes set in motion by the Tennis Court Oath, but when we show our students Jacques-Louis David's The Tennis Court Oath, they absorb not only the event itself, but also the fervor of the participants and the reaction of the artist himself to the event.

Building Analytical Skills

Finally, incorporating art into our overall scheme of teaching world history enables us to teach critical analytical skills. Just as our students must learn that studying history is an act of interpretation in which we must practice a method of investigation (figuring out what questions to ask, how to approach finding answers to those questions, and determining connections between those questions and answers), they can also learn those skills by looking carefully at works of art. As they must do in studying historical documents, they can learn to look at a painting and distinguish the content of the work from its style in order to perceive the point of view of the artist. They can easily learn to recognize ways that the painter manipulates us as viewers, shaping our reactions to the content through stylistic devices such as composition, color, size, and contrasts of light and darkness. What I have found is that once my students have mastered this kind of analysis, they rapidly become more comfortable with textual analysis, as well.

Teaching with Confidence

Here is one last thought. In conversations with fellow teachers in the past, I have found that many were initially reluctant to attempt using art as a teaching tool because of their own lack of artistic training. One does not have to be an art historian to teach the history revealed in art and it is unnecessary to use art-historical lingo with our students. We simply need to gain confidence in our own capacity to look closely at a work of art and think about what is revealed to us. The following lesson plan, which walks you through the process of knowing what questions to ask in leading a discussion, is designed to allow the teacher who has not made extensive use of art to see what benefits can accrue, as well as to provide the experienced teacher with an easily-adaptable lesson.



This lesson explores ways in which art reveals profound changes in both the practice of and attitudes toward war during the past three centuries.

Required Materials:

Slides, overhead transparencies, or photocopies of the following:

Instructional Objectives:

  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the French and Indian War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the Vietnam War.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to do both content and stylistic analysis of well-known works of art.
  • Students will analyze ways in which artists use stylistic devices to convey intended messages.
  • Students will demonstrate understanding of the impact of developing military technology on civilian populations and consequent changes in attitudes toward war.

The Lesson:

  1. "The Hook": Engaging the Students
    • Display side-by-side images of David's The Oath of the Horatii and West's The Death of General Wolfe.
    • Ask students to discuss among themselves whether the point of view of the artists is that war is good or bad. Ask them to be able to support their responses with specific visual details from the paintings.
    • After a minute or so, ask for oral responses, beginning with those who think the paintings communicate that war is bad. Ask them to provide evidence from the works of art for their position. After hearing the responses of those students, ask for oral responses and explanations from those students who believe that the position of the artists is that war is good. Again, ask for specific visual details as evidence.

  2. Presenting the Information/Extension and Analysis
    • Suggest that in contrast with works of art that would follow in the course of the next 200 years, the message of these two pieces seems to be that war is good. Ask what form of government both France and Britain had in the eighteenth centuries, when David and West were painting these works (monarchies), then ask why it would be in the best interest of the monarch for people to believe that war is good.
    • Begin discussing the specific historical contexts by looking first at West, whose painting is set during the French and Indian War. Discuss the ways in which West depicts war as positive through content (gallant-looking officer in the act of dying while surrounded by his adoring soldiers, no blood or gore evident, noble Native American quietly watching among the crowd, beautiful uniforms, etc.) as well as through style (dramatic contrasts of darkness and light, light falling directly on dying general, lines pointing to and calling our attention to the hero, composition calling attention to the hero, use of color calling attention to the hero, etc.).
    • Display Goya's Third of May, 1808 beside West's image.
    • Ask students to discuss ways in which the message here seems to be that war is not good, as well as evidence which supports this work's reputation as an early and powerful anti-war statement. After an appropriate time-lapse, again ask for oral responses, insisting on visual details as evidence.
    • Discuss the historical context for this painting, Napoleon's occupation of Spain in 1808 and the response by the French military to an insurrection in Madrid's Puerta del Sol on May 2, 1808. Tie the historical facts to the content of the painting, and guide the class in discussing ways in which Goya uses stylistic devices to condemn the specific action depicted as well as war in general.

    1. Ask how the painter calls attention to the central victim.
      Possible answers include:
      Color: all others are dressed in dark colors, but central victim is dressed in eye-catching yellow and white.
      Line: the barrels of the rifles, as well as the victims own outstretched arms, draw the eye to him.
      Light: while the right half of the work is in deep shadow—and don't forget to discuss traditional symbolism of light/dark as good/evil—the light from the paper lantern most brightly illuminates the central victim, whose face is completely in light.
      Space: the central victim occupies more space than any other figure, and there is empty space in front of him which increases the sense of his presence.

    2. Ask how Goya portrays the range of human emotions when innocent people are about to be unjustly executed.
      Possible answers include:
      Some victims, wishing not to hear the cracks of the rifles, cover their ears, while others cover their eyes.
      The victim to the left of the central one looks dazed, staring into the space over the heads of his executioners, while the monk still farther to the left offers one final prayer.
      The central victim looks directly at the soldiers, his arms outstretched in a silent plea for mercy.

    3. Ask how Goya portrays the French soldiers who are the executioners.
      Possible answers include:
      Faceless, dressed in dull, gray, machine-like colors, composed of inorganic vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, and all mirroring the same pose, they are inhuman, robotic, stripped of any capacity to think, feel, or act independently.

    4. Ask what image the central victim is meant to remind the viewer of.
      Possible answers include:
      Jesus on the cross, with his outstretched arms. Remember Goya was painting in Catholic Spain, so this would have been an extremely familiar image. Note that the right hand of the central victim even appears to have a wound similar to a nail hole. The dead victim lying in a pool of blood on the ground beneath him mirrors this image.

  3. Extended Lesson—Option 1

    • Move next to the image of Guernica by Picasso.
    • If time permits, ask them to do quick sketches of the most powerful images. (This technique works beautifully in focusing the attention of the students on the painting and fixing it in their minds, so long as it is clear to the students that they will not be evaluated on the 'artistic merit' of the sketch. Simply giving them a minute or two to sketch in their own notes, then walking around checking to see that they participated for the promised 'participation grade' is quite effective.)

    Ask students to discuss with a partner what the painting seems to depict, what the specific images portray, and why Picasso, who could have rendered this scene like a photographic image if he had desired, chose to depict it as he did.

    After giving them a few moments to discuss these issues among themselves, explain the historical context (the first saturation bombing in history, done by Hitler's new 'war toys' as a 'test drive' while aiding General Franco in the Spanish Civil War). Elicit from students the observation that the war victims in this painting are different from those in West's painting. Acknowledge that with earlier military technology, war victims had primarily been soldiers, but that with new technology the pool of potential victims radically expanded into the civilian population.

    • Guide discussion of the specific images Picasso included (including: the mother grieving over her dead baby, recalling both scenes of Mary holding the infant Jesus and Mary holding Jesus after his removal from the cross; the bull, symbolizing brutality and darkness, according to Picasso; and the horse, representing innocence).
    • After discussing the content, lead a discussion on why Picasso chose to paint the painting the way he did, and how it might be claimed that this highly abstract, chaotic depiction of the horrors of this event is a more accurate depiction than more traditional methods of painting might have captured.

  4. Extended Lesson—Option 2

    Note: These pictures should be previewed before showing students.
    If time remains, move to the photographs from the Vietnam War. Ask students to discuss among themselves what their own individual responses are and why.

    Ask them to consider what the photographer probably intended for them to feel and what devices of composition, exposure, cropping, focus, etc. may have been manipulated to evoke their responses.

    After placing these photos in the historical context of the Vietnam War, guide a discussion of these issues.

    Ask them how painters might have depicted the same events in such a way to achieve the same effects.

  5. Assessment Options
    • 30-minute in-class essay comparing two other works of art that show different perspectives on the merit of war. There are scores and scores of art images depicting the theme of war. Here are a few.
      Copley's Death of Major Pierson
      Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People
      David's The Sabine Women
      David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps
      Leutzer's Washington Crossing the Delaware
      Delacroix's Massacre at Chios
      Gardner's photograph Carnage at Antietam or Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter
      Barlach's War Monument
      Uccello's The Battle of San Romano
      Velasquez's Surrender of Breda
      Siqueiros's Echo of a Scream, The Victory Stele of Naram Sin, Dying Gaul, Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issus, the Bayeux Tapestry
      Hartley's Portrait of a German Soldier
      Kollwitz's Never Again War!
      Capa's photograph Death of a Loyalist Soldier
    • Student research/oral presentation (or written) projects reporting the historical context and content/stylistic analysis of the works mentioned above.
    • Student works of art expressing their own depictions of and responses to wartime events throughout history.


Hartt, Frederick, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.

Honour, Hugh and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 4th edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995.

Janson, H. W., History of Art, 5th edition. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc. and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1995.

Stokstad, Marilyn, Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 10th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.


The Archive—fine art, numerous links

WebMuseum Network

Web Gallery of Art—web gallery of art, virtual museum, and searchable database

Art History Resources