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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Highlights of the Art of the Americas

Abstract: This lesson explores three centuries of American art, ranging from colonial portraits to the early paintings of 19th Century. Students will learn about the ways in which Americans perceived themselves during this time.

Description: This lesson explores three centuries of American art, ranging from colonial portraits to the early paintings of 19th Century. Students will look at the works of artists, who were influential in shaping American culture in a new nation. Students will be asked questions about what they think the subjects wanted to communicate about themselves. Students will leave the lesson with an understanding of how objects and paintings embodied the values and beliefs of the peoples who produced them.

Learning Goals:

Students will understand how these objects express a historical perspective on creating a new nation and identity.

Students will discover the range of artistic expression that took place from the Colonial period to the early republic.

This discovery will require students will practice close looking and observation, through expressing and supporting their individual ideas.

Using this resource:

Social Studies teachers and students will be interested in thinking about how objects and artifacts provide information about the way people lived. They will also be interested the political and social principles formed between the Colonial period to the beginning of the United States.

Visual Arts teachers and students will be interested in thinking about different purposes of art, the changing role of artists in society, and stylistic changes over time.

Teachers and students, who have participated in the Art of the America’s Outreach Program, will be interested in revisiting and the artworks they saw during the discussion to learn new information.

Teachers will be interested in viewing and contributing to the comments below to learn more about how other educators are using this resource.

Guiding questions:

How did the founding people of the United States want to shape the nation?

How does the art communicate the values of a society?

What values did the early Republic communicate with their art?

How did this region of the world change over time?

 How does the art show these changes?

The objects in this lesson are just a beginning. We encourage you to explore the Museum's online collection through this web source—or even better, to visit the Museum and walk through the physical galleries—to look for other objects that will provide further insights into this topic.


This sample of American artwork shows different examples of art from the United States from the Colonial Period to the era just after the revolution. The selected artworks will show students not only the historical changes to American society but also the cultural changes taking place. Students will understand what Americans borrowed from their English roots and what they altered in order to make an identity of a nation. The changes happening within this part of the world created a distinctive style of art that is separate and connected to the art world of Europe.

It is important to note that these are just a sampling of artworks from a few of the voices that make up American culture, and are by no means representative of all of those that have contributed to our cultural and historical identity. An important question to explore with students is “who is still missing from our definition of American art?”

The looking questions are designed to for 2nd through 5th graders, but could easily be modified for a younger or older audience. 


Sumptuary laws: are laws made for the purpose to restrain luxury and extravagance usually for religious reasons. These laws also identified social ranks and privileges.

Anatomical Proportions: body parts shown in proportion to look like a real person.

Chronicler: someone who describes or records historical events usually without interpretation.

Sons of Liberty: were a secret society of patriots dedicated to protecting the rights of the American colonists, especially fighting taxation from the British government.

Strategies for looking:

Art works well for discussion because it holds multiple points of entry. In looking at art we engage in different ways: we describe, analyze, judge, associate, question, and more! Many of the questions included above are designed to encourage these different ways of looking and consideration of the larger theme of the lesson.

Beginning a discussion with the question “What is going on in this artwork?” is a powerful way to engage students with looking. This question encourages students to make sense of what they see beginning with what they know. For example, students may not be able to identify George Washington's role in the battle of Trenton, but they can notice that he looks important in Sully's Passage of the Delaware or describe the story depicted in the artwork. “What is going on” provides an authentic, learner-created foundation, which allows students to give meaning to contextual information and to grapple with deeper looking questions.

In engaging with works of art using looking questions, students will often make claims about the artworks. To encourage students to support their claims with evidence, “What do you see that makes you say that…?” is an excellent follow-up that prompts students to reflect on the steps they took to reach their conclusion. For example, “What do you see that makes you say that George Washington is important?” in Passage of the Delaware?"

Many of the questions used at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston during tours are designed to begin with open-ended discovery and move students to consider different interpretations or frameworks for thinking about the work of art. For example, a question such as “What can this artwork tell us about the time in which it is made?” allows for multiple interpretations while prompting students to consider that art, indeed, can provide a lens for a time and place.

These strategies are based in research such as the work done by Visual Understanding in Education and Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This research suggests that art is an ideal tool for promoting critical thinking, fostering a constructivist environment, and providing students with a strong context for developing the skills of collaborative and evaluative discourse. The strategies outlined above are one tool to foster that type of a learning environment. Experiment and see where your students will take you!

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