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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.

Stories In Art

  • Architecture, Painting, and...

    Slide Notes

    John Singer Sargent, American 

    1921 Oil on Canvas 


    On View Rotunda 204A

    Beginning: This is one of the first things people see as they enter the museum. It is arguably one of the most symbolic works of art because it is a symbol for the MFA. 

    What do you see? How would you describe this?

    What is the lady (Athena) doing? What are the figures holding?

    Story: Athena (women with the shield) is protecting architecture, painting and sculpture (the three people sitting down) from the ravishes of time (the man). This is a symbol for the MFA because the museum is considered the protector of arts from time.

    End: Knowing the story behind this piece how does this apply to the MFA?

    Sargent is making a classical statement about how art is protected in the museum from time.





  • Discovery of Achilles on Skyros

    Slide Notes

    Nicolas Poussin, French

    1649-50 Oil on Canvas


    Koch Gallery, 250

    Beginning: This piece is a story about a very famous Greek hero. 

    What is going on in this piece?

    Who do we think is the focus of this painting?

    Draw attention to Achilles- Does that look like a normal woman? What if I told you that this person is a man! How does he differ from the others in the painting?

    Story: Any one know it? 

    A long time ago there lived a strong young man named Achilles. His mother had heard in a prophecy that her son would die in the Trojan War so to keep him safe she hid him on Skyros and disguised him as a woman. The Greeks suspected that Achilles was hiding on Skyros so they brought a large chest filled with golden mirrors, exquisite jewelry, clothing and a sword. When Achilles spotted the beautiful sword he grabbed it, revealing his true identity to the Greeks. He had given himself away!

    End: What moment does the artist choose to capture? Why do you think he chose this moment? What do you think of the story?

    End: What moment does the artist choose to capture? Why do you think he chose this moment? What do you think of the story?




  • The Passage of the Delaware

    Slide Notes

    Thomas Sully, American

    1819 Oil on Canvas


    American Gallery 133

    Beginning: This is a historic painting by Thomas Sully. It shows a moment during the Revolutionary War that was key to the American victory over the British. 

    Take a look what do you see? What's going on here?

    Who seems to be the most important person in the painting? Why?

    What is the setting of this painting?

    Story: Does anyone know the story behind this piece? It was snowing hard and bitter cold that Christmas night in 1776. The Americans had lost a string of battles and retreated multiple times and it looked like the British would win the war. Moral was low. The soldiers lacked food, warm clothing, and even shoes. A victory was desperately needed and General George Washington is about to step down from his horse and give it to them. He is about to lead his ragged troops across the ice-clogged river in the dead of night to surprise the British troops, win the Battle of Trenton, and turn the tide of the war. 

    How does Washington compare to the others in the painting?

    End: Sully uses the size and context of this painting to convey the emotions and importance of this historic event. 




  • Watson And The Shark

    Slide Notes

    John Singleton Copley, American

    1778 Oil on Canvas 


    Saunders Gallery 128

    Beginning: This painting is by John Singleton Copley and it is based of a true story. 

    What do you notice?

    What shows action in the piece?

    End: What do you think happened? Was the man eaten or not?

    Story: Anchored in a harbor in Havana, Cuba fourteen-year-old cabin boy named Brook Watson decided to go swimming. As he swam around the ship a shark attacked him, biting off his leg. The shark circled around him opening its jaws to attack him again. Hearing Watson's cries his shipmates rushed to his rescue. Snatching Watson up right before the shark attacked again. 

    Years later Copley met Watson at a dinner party and asked him about his leg. Watson told him the story and asked Copley to paint it for him. Copley did and created the first action painting for the time period. 





  • The Fog Warning

    Slide Notes

    Winslow Homer, American 

    1885 Oil on Canvas


    Alfond Gallery 234

    Beginning: This is pieces is by Winston Homer, a famous American artist, known for his paintings that tell stories.

    What do you see?

    What is the man looking at? How does the painting feel?

    The title of this piece is Fog Warning, knowing that what can we infer from this painting?

    End: Do you think that the man will make it to safety or not? Why?

    As I said in the beginning Homer is a famous American artist and what he s known for is his stories. In this particular piece he captures the emotion behind the story leaving it up to us to determine the man's fate.





  • Slave Ship

    Slide Notes

    J.M.W. Turner, English

    1840 Oil on Canvas


    Beal Gallery 251

    Beginning: This is a politically charged painting so lets look at it together and see what the story is behind it.

    What do you see? Where does your eye do first? What do you think is going on? 

    Does anyone know what was happening in America in the mid-1800's? It was before the Civil War- what was the Civil War about? So how did slaves get to America? 

    Now look at this painting again and see if you can figure out what's going on? This is a slave ship.

    Story: This story was actually inspired by a poem written about a slave ship and how the captain would toss sick slaves overboard in order to claim insurance for slaves lost at sea. If they brought them to America sick or dead they would not get the insurance. 

    End: How does the artist make the story come alive? 

    It's a beautiful panting with a grim message. The artist belonged in America for us to remember our past.





  • Black River

    Slide Notes

    El Anatsui, Ghanaian

    2009 Aluminum Bottle Caps and Copper Wire


    Contemporary Arts Gallery 259

    Beginning: This is a contemporary art piece made in Africa and it relates to the colonization and exploitation of Africa. 

    What do you see?  What do you think it is made of? 

    How do you think it was made? Does it remind you of anything else that is used to tell a story? 

    What does the Black line look like? It is called Black River what might this piece be of?

    Story: The bottle caps represent the link between Africa, Europe, and North America because alcohol was one of the commodities Europeans brought with them to exchange for goods in Africa. 

    The Black River references a river in Nigeria, which was used as a shipping lane for the transport of slaves from inland to the harbors. Metaphorically it symbolizes the exportation of oil and people from Africa. 


    Do you think the artist did a good job conveying the conditions and lives of the African people? It is amazing that something so beautiful can have such a disturbing story behind it. 




  • Where do we come from? What are we...

    Slide Notes

    Paul Gauguin, French

    1897-98 Oil on Canvas 


    Wildenstein Gallery 561

    Beginning: The Artist of this piece is trying to convey a story about ourselves. So what I want you to do is take a good look at this piece.

    What did you notice first? Why?

    What has the artist done with shading/ light and color?

    What is the setting of this piece? 

    What do you think this is a painting of?

    What do you think the artist is trying to convey with this piece?

    Story: The artist is trying to convey the progression of life or the story of life. (From right to left baby, man, older person.) The title of the piece is Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Do you see why?

    The artist painted this at the end of his life and thinks of it as his masterpiece. Why?





  • Orpheus and Cerberus

    Slide Notes

    Thomas Crawford, American

    1843 Marble 


    Main Lobby Huntington Ave

    Beginning: Right now we are at an object that is a depiction of a very famous Greek Story. So walk around it and tell me what you see.

    What did you see?

    Lets look closer at the three-headed dog. What else do you notice?

    Is there a modern story/ movie that shows a sleeping three headed dog?

    What is Fluffy doing in the movie?

    Well Fluffy is based off of this dog right here.

    Does anyone know this Greek story? (Orpheus and Cerberus?)

    Story: The three headed dog is Cerberus and he guards the gates of the Underworld. Orpheus (the man) lulls the dog to sleep with this lyre so he can go down to the underworld to rescue his wife from Hades.

    What moment in the story does the artist show? How do you know this?

    What do you think this sculpture is made out of? What is a white rock that the Greeks and Romans typically used?

    How do we think the artist made it look like this? (Marble comes in HUGE blocks!)

    Do you think it was easy or hard to make this?

    End: Well that is why I chose this piece becasue it is a great story, the artist does a amazing job showing this one moment in the story and he turned a huge block of marble into this magnificent piece of art.