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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 Europe

Abstract: This lesson offers an overview of the Art of the Europe collection at the MFA with a specific focus on highlights from 17th, 18th and 19th century art that illustrate the emergence of modern Europe.



This lesson highlights some of the artworks in the MFA’s Art of Europe collection.  Students will look at different styles of paintings from France, England and Austria. In the period from 17th to 19th century, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed the social and natural landscape. With those changes, we also can trace changes in art in both subject matters and styles. Students will be asked to use careful looking skills to identify the subject matter, analyze how artists have used materials in their works of art, and review parts of history they have learnt from class through works of art. Students will leave the lesson with a better understanding of stylistic influence and key changes in art that are supported by historical shifts.


Learning Goals:

·         This discovery will require students to practice close looking and observation, through expressing and supporting their individual ideas by grounding them in a work of art.

·         Students will be asked to look for stories within works of art and be introduced to the context of stories.

·         Students will describe the purposes for which works of dance, music, theatre, visual arts, and architecture were and are created.

·         Students will learn about different styles of works of art and how they evolved in Europe from 1600-1900.

·         Students will learn how artists were shaped by the political, social, and economic climate of that time period.


Using this Resource:

·         Social Studies teachers and students will be interested in learning about how artworks inform what we know about modern European history. They will also be interested in visually exploring concepts and stories associated with these cultures.

·         Foreign language teachers and students will be interested in learning about the history and perceptions of cultures they have studied.

·         Visual arts teachers and students will be interested in thinking about the different purposes of art, how the work of art was made and how the style of art varies across time and space.

·         Teachers and students, who have participated in the Highlights of Art of Europe 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:

·         What is the subject matter?

·         What story does this artwork tell? What stories are we missing?

·         How was the work of art made? What is the style of this painting?

·         How is style similar or different across time and space?

·         How does political, social or economic climate of a certain time period influence decisions that artists made?



About the MFA’s collection:

The MFA has a large collection of art of Europe, from gilded icons of the Italian Renaissance to one of the largest collections of Monet’s paintings outside of France. The art of Europe collection ranges from the 7th century to the late 20th century, including more than 22,000 objects. There are many different types of works of art in this collection. Paintings on canvas, panel, ivory, copper, and in fresco are matched by sculptures and works of decorative art.


In this lesson, we will focus on paintings from the 17th-19th centuries. When asking students to decode changes in subject matter and style over a period of time, focusing on one form of medium can make the changes easier to track.


What political, social and economical change are we focusing on? The period we are focusing on witnessed some great societal changes. The economic changes happening during this time also made exploring new subject matters a possibility for artists.  From the very beginning of 17th century, the age of reason—enlightenment arose, in which cultural and intellectual forces in Europe emphasized reason, analysis and individualism. From the lens of art, we can find that open-minded intellectuals including artists at that time started to choose new subject matters for their works of art. From 1760 to 1820 or 1840, the Industrial Revolution marks another major turning point in history. During this period, society experienced a transition from hand production to machines. This change drew artists’ attention to the force of nature and the relationship between human and nature. From 1789 to 1799 in France, the French Revolution, carried forward by Napoleon, overthrew the monarchy, established a democratic republic and brought forth a radical social change based on liberalism and other enlightenment principles. This social and political change influenced the artistic expression at that time. There were an expansion of subject matter to include less prominent figures and a shift of style towards realism.


What are some influences of artistic movements on the art creation in nowadays? An important element to keep in mind is that the changes that can be observed through the artworks in this lesson were not necessarily universal. Artists in 1880s Europe were still successful creating paintings that were similar to those shared in this lesson from the 1680s. The changes brought about by baroque, rococo, realism, impressionism, and neo-impressionism are important – but it is not as though the song changed and suddenly everyone starts dancing in a different style. Students can be asked to reflect on art they see being made in the 2010s. Is it all the same style?


Lesson: This lesson explores some of the visual culture created by European artists. Not only will students learn about recurring stories and characters on the paintings, but also will explore choices the artist made in creating the artwork. Students will compare different subject matters and styles. They will see a change in art that reflects a broader social shift. The lesson will provide a visual context for some of the subjects students will have learned about in their other classes.


The looking questions are designed for 9th through 12th graders, but could easily be modified for a younger or older audience

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