The History of Art

Teachers can use these art history lesson plans as a way to get students to look at art in a new light.

By Daniella Garran

history of art lesson plans

Although it can be a challenge to find time to integrate additional material into any curriculum, it is, nevertheless, a tremendously worthwhile pursuit. History and social studies curricula have the potential to be greatly enhanced by including a study of the history of art. Before the invention of writing circa 3500 B.C.E., the only records that were kept were pictorial. Even after written language was integrated into ancient cultures, few people could read or understand it; therefore, art remained an important means of communication. Art is an excellent societal barometer; it reflects the successes, failures, concerns and sentiments of a culture during a given era. Evaluating and analyzing art throughout history is as important as examining government documents, reading the literature and exploring monuments and memorials). In fact, many students (especially those who are visual learners) will find visual culture a helpful way to access history.

One way to introduce students to the concept of art history is to have them create a timeline. You can photocopy images of a number of famous paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc. so that you have one image per student. Some of the images that you might want to use include the Lascaux Cave paintings, Diskobolos, Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, hieroglyphs, and The Oath of the Horatii. Be sure to use images that span the history of man so that students have a chance to analyze the styles used by different artists and how they evolved over time. Do not give students any information about the works of art but ask them to work together to organize the images chronologically. Once the class is satisfied with the order of the works of art, ask them to explain their logic (for example, a work that shows an understanding of three-point perspective is more advanced than a stick figure). If there are errors in students’ chronology fix the images so that they reflect the actual history of art and proper sequence.

Studying the art of a particular culture is equally important as developing a sense of the scope of the visual arts over the course of world history. Greek culture, for example, includes the simple yet elegant Cycladic female figures  as well as Myron’s perfect Diskobolos. Greek vase painting tells the same story of artistic development. By studying the range of artistic expression in a single culture, students will get a sense of how to analyze a work of art, assess artistic styles and interpret the history of that culture. An engaging way to help students understand the history of a certain culture’s art is to have them find as many images (sculptures, paintings, etchings, engravings, etc. . . ) of a single event as possible and then try to reconstruct the details of that event simply from the art depicting it.

History of Art Lesson Plans:

Expressionism: This lesson can help students understand the role of art historians and the methods they use to evaluate and interpret art. Students learn to assess art in terms of its functionality, patronage, ownership and subject matter. Although the lesson focuses on one particular artist (Beverly McIver), it is a valuable exercise for students to practice looking at art and interviewing an artist to learn more about a particular piece.

Art Auction: This engaging and interactive lesson allows students to review the identity and history of significant works of art. The lesson also requires students to contemplate how the value of art is determined in addition to considering how and why an object is considered art.

Art as Storyteller: Paintings are unique in that they are often narrative, serving as a record of history. In this lesson, students study a particular painter and develop an understanding of how he or she tells a story through painting. Students also have the opportunity to create a painting in the style of their chosen artist.

Conflict, Tragedy, and the Power of Art: Not only is it important for students to study the history of art but it is also valuable to study how art is informed by history. This lesson looks at “Art as a Call to Arms,” “Art that Heals” and "Glorification of the Patron” among other themes. Students can demonstrate their understanding and depth of knowledge through a final project which requires them to create a piece of art in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, though certainly the subject matter of the project can be modified to reflect more recent events.