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Artists Portray the American Landscape
Lesson Plan

History of Art, History, Art, Social Studies

Influence of Art in Yellowstone

Students will be able to:

  • Identify two artists who have painted American landscapes and one work that each has painted
  • State biographical facts about each of the two artists
  • Analyze a work of art by each

In nineteenth-century America, landscape paintings became prominent in galleries, exhibition halls and publications. During the eighteenth century many artists had found that painting portraits was the primary way to establish an artistic career. That emphasis changed in the next decade. The interest in portraying the land developed for many reasons. As some United States citizens accumulated wealth and property, they cherished representations of land they owned, hoped to own, or at least enjoyed visiting. Representations of nature also signified the spiritual; America seemed like a new Eden, the original garden that was perfection, a concept that derived from readings of the Bible. The landscape also signified America itself. Whereas Europe had a long history, symbolized by its castles, cathedrals and civic monuments, the United States was a new nation, forging its identity. That identity could be seen in the unique natural features of the continent.

The beginning of the American landscape tradition is often considered to be the "Hudson River School," a term used to identify artists who shared an interest in portraying the landscape north of New York City. Although they did not have a formal school or association, they shared a commitment to the romantic landscape and to creating an art that was truly American. Thomas Cole is often seen as leader of the Hudson River artists. Another dominant figure was Frederic Church, who took his brush from Niagara Falls to South America. The American West attracted landscape artists because it presented opportunities for portraying wilderness, dramatic vistas of the plains, and sublime mountains. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran traveled to the West on expeditions and produced breathtaking representations. In the late nineteenth century, American artists learned impressionistic styles. Artists such as Childe Hassam and John Twachtman portrayed American scenes with bravura brushstrokes and a changed emphasis on the use of light. Although it is often thought that interest in the land diminished in the twentieth century, artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth have found significant inspiration in regional settings. In recent history, the environmental movement has sparked a renewed interest in depicting American natural settings.

Reference resources on American artists (See the Bibliography and Website List accompanying Influence of Art in Yellowstone. Also, use encyclopedias, books on American art and history, available from your local libraries)

Access to a printer to download images and/or photocopier to copy images from publications

Space to create an exhibition gallery and a method to display copies of paintings (examples: Use corkboard and thumbtacks or classroom walls with masking tape).

Discuss landscape art with your students. Divide the class into groups of three students. Assign each group an artist to research. Allow time for research outside the classroom.

Artists to consider (some of these artists are known for their paintings of other subjects, such as Native Americans or cowboys, but they do have landscapes in their body of work):
John James Audubon; Thomas Cole; Frederic Church; George Catlin; Alfred Jacob Miller; Seth Eastman; Fitz Hugh Lane; Albert Bierstadt; Thomas Moran; Winslow Homer; George Inness; Thomas Hill; John Twachtman; Childe Hassam; Sidney Laurence; Robert Scott Duncanson; Frederic Remington; Charles M. Russell; Carl Rungius; Thomas Hart Benton; Georgia O'Keeffe; John Marin; Andrew Wyeth. (There are many others who could be included. Use local resources such as libraries or museums to add artists from your region.)

Each group should study the artist's biography and works of art. Each group should choose one of the artist's landscape paintings. Help each group obtain a copy of it by downloading, photocopying from a publication, or in another method such as purchasing from a reproduction source (if appropriate in your educational situation). Each group should plan to exhibit the work of art and prepare a "gallery talk" about the artist and the work of art.

Among the questions they should research:

1. Where was the artist born and where did he/she live?

2. As a youth, did the artist show an aptitude for art and how was that demonstrated?

3. Where did the artist study art (example, in Europe, with another artist, in a special school)? What kind of lessons did he/she learn? What types of art inspired the artist?

4. How did the artist become interested in landscape painting?

5. What sites did the artist paint? Did the artist paint any landscapes that can be associated with a national park?

6. What is the style of the artist? For example, do the paintings seem realistic in a traditional way or are they abstract? Does the artist paint with distinct lines or with broad patterns or strokes? How does the artist use color: are the paintings dark, bright, subdued, pale, harsh? How does the artist portray light in the painting? Where is the primary focal point (the primary area of interest) in the painting?

7. What were the artist's ideas about art and about the landscape? What did he/she say that helps you understand their ideas? What did other people of the time say about the artist's works?

Concerning the work of art:

1. What is the title (or name) of the painting? What site does it depict?

2. When did the artist paint it? What experiences did he have in making it?

3. What is the style of the painting (see above, no. 6)?

4. How does the painting make you feel?

5. What do you think the artist is expressing in the painting?

When the research has been completed, each group should prepare a presentation on their work of art. They should cover major points from the questions, discussing both the biography of the artist and the specific work of art. By using the questions, the groups can prepare an analysis of the painting. Encourage the groups to involve all members in the presentation. Students could plan to divide the report in parts with each having a section, or create a conversation between the members. Another form of presentation could be for one member to act the role of the artist (or another authority on the artist) and for the other members to ask questions.

On the day of the presentations, assemble the groups with their reproductions and arrange an exhibition in classroom or other space. Choose a method for arranging the works of art. For example, the works could be arranged in chronological order, beginning with the earliest. Or, the arrangement could be by geographical location, with sections for the East, the South, the Midwest, the Far West or other regions you have identified. Present the method and discuss with the groups how their works should go, then have the students place them. Allow time for the entire class to walk around and view the exhibition, then have the groups present the reports as a "gallery talk" that refers to the painting.

At the conclusion of the reports, each student should write an exhibition label for two paintings. One painting should be the one the student reported on and the other should be a painting reported on by another group. The label should include the artist's name and the title of the painting. It should have one sentence about the biography of the artist and one sentence analyzing the painting.


1. Visit a museum in your area with landscape paintings. Consult with museum for pre-visit planning materials and/or guided tour options. Plan a visit that will allow opportunities for students to look at landscape paintings and analyze them.

2. Invite an artist who paints landscapes to your class. Ask him/her to discuss background, education, and ideas about art and the land. If possible, have the artist give a painting demonstration.

Sketch of Tower Fall
Sketch of Tower Fall

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