|Focus on Original Art
North Port Glenallen Elementary School, North Port, Florida, and the John and Mable
Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
Museum field trip
Context of the Video Lesson
These fourth-grade students have been
engaged in a six-week study of seventeenth-century Dutch culture, with Still Life with
Parrots (late 1640s) by Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606-1683/84) as the focal work of
an interdisciplinary instruction and assessment unit developed by the Florida Institute
for Art Education (see overview of the Comprehensive Holistic Assessment Task [CHAT] under
Background). The ten-session unit includes art history, art criticism, art making, and
aesthetics as well as connections to language arts, science, geography, and social
The museum field trip was designed as an application and extension of classroom study.
During the field trip, students engage in active and interactive learning activities using
original works from the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Works of art often reflect or express ideas and values of the society in which they
originate. Dutch still-life paintings of the seventeenth century reveal much about the
people, culture, and time, including the Dutch fascination with the marvelous, exotic,
exceptional, and unique in both the natural and human-made worlds.
- apply knowledge gained from study of Still Life with Parrots to study of another
Dutch Baroque painting, Still Life with Cats and Monkeys (c. 1635), by Frans
Snyders (Flemish, 1579-1657);
- interpret Still Life with Cats and Monkeys in terms of subject matter,
composition, and historical context;
- express in writing and drawing the most marvelous, wondrous, or exotic aspects of Still
Life with Cats and Monkeys; and
- compare the two artworks and debate which one best represents the Dutch interest in the
marvelous during the time when the works were created.
Museum collection of original works of art on exhibit.
Objects to represent discussion categories, with questions attached:
Objects / Category
Silver pitcher and red feathers / Subject matter
Oranges / Color
Dark red velvet cloth / Composition
Conch shell / History
Wine glass / Meaning
Basket to hold the objects. Mat on which to place the objects.
Cloth to cover the objects.
Cards with characteristics of Baroque paintings.
Poster with information from the museum label and poster of assignment.
Worksheet showing frame for drawing activity.
Pencils and colored markers (obtain museum permission for use in galleries).
elements of art: line, shape, color, texture, space
Note: Arrangements for the field trip to the art museum were made weeks in advance,
and collaboration with the education staff of the museum was ongoing.
Make preparations in the museum galleries before students arrive. In this lesson, for
example, place easel in gallery opposite the painting Still Life with Cats and Monkeys.
Place sealed letter from the parrot on the easel (see letter under Background).
Put labeled objects on a mat under the framed poster of Still Life with Parrots.
Cover the objects.
Place worksheets, foam boards, pencils, colored markers, and viewfinders on a mat near the
Note: This lesson is written from the perspective of a particular location, museum,
and pair of paintings. Teachers can apply the procedures to their own locations and
- Students enter the gallery and discover that the painting Still Life with Parrots
is on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They also discover a note on the easel
from the parrot, similar to other notes they have received in their classroom.
- A student is selected to read the note, in which the class is invited to examine Still
Life with Cats and Monkeys. Next, the teacher reads her letter from the parrot.
Students are asked to turn their backs to the Parrots painting, close their eyes,
and listen to the magical words. The objects (that have "spilled out" of the Parrots
painting) are uncovered and ready to surprise the students when they turn around.
- Each object has a question attached to it. Individual students take an object and read
the question, which is a springboard for discussion:
Pitcher or feather: Subject matter
What objects do you see in the painting?
Orange: Color/Sensory qualities
How does the artist use color, line, shape, or texture to lead your eye around the
Velvet cloth: Composition
How does the artist balance the painting?
Conch shell: History
What are the essential facts about this painting? (Read the label.)
Wine glass: Meaning
Is this an everyday scene or is it something extraordinary?
The teacher will amplify each part of the visual analysis and guide the students in
interpreting the painting (see visual analysis guide under Background).
- Following the visual analysis and interpretation of the painting, the teacher engages
students in several related learning activities in the museum gallery.
- Writing and drawing: Review with students the use of adjectives to describe the
qualities of objects and ask them to apply their knowledge to describe objects in Still
Life with Cats and Monkeys. Hand out sheets of drawing paper with a border
representing a frame and ask students to write descriptions of exotic objects depicted in
the painting on the frame. Next, direct students to choose one of the exotic objects and
draw it inside the frame, using a viewfinder if they choose (a viewfinder is a four- to
five-inch paper square with a three- to four-inch square open center). Remind them to hold
it at arm's length. They will use a pencil first to make a sketch and then add color.
Share work when finished.
- Great debates: Ask students, "Which one of these paintings is the most wondrous and
exotic and best represents Dutch/Flemish life in the seventeenth century?" Assign
half of the class to advocate Still Life with Cats and Monkeys as the best
representative and half to advocate Still Life with Parrots. Each group will take
turns making a case for their painting, pointing out qualities that relate to Dutch life
- Aesthetic decisions: Remind students that museums have curators who make decisions about
acquiring paintings for the collection and exhibiting paintings in the galleries. Pose the
question, "What if you were a curator at this museum and you were asked to choose
only one of these still lifes to put in the museum--which one would you choose? Why?"
After a lively discussion, help students categorize the kinds of reasons they gave for
their selections, i.e., quality, subject, preference, artist, color, popularity of the
work with the public, etc. Discuss which reasons might be most important considering the
painting's contribution to the public. Also discuss more practical issues related to
acquisition decisions, such as cost in relation to the budget, place of the selected work
in relation to the rest of the museum's collection, condition of the work, and possible
expenses for restoration.
- When the class is back in school following the museum visit, conduct a discussion with
students, eliciting their perceptions of the field trip and reinforcing intended
Note students' attendance and participation in activities in preparation for, during,
and following the museum field trip.
Collect and review each student's work in the drawing and writing activities. For example,
did each student write adjectives that accurately describe the specified parts of the
painting? Did students draw selected sections of the painting with an acceptable degree of
accuracy, according to the assignment?
Note participation in museum gallery activities. Were students alert and interested? Did
most or all students engage in discussions? Did students understand and complete the
If you choose, develop a questionnaire or quiz, possibly using slides or reproductions of
selected paintings. The questionnaire might focus on specific facts and basic
understandings related to the lesson, organized in short answer form. It could also ask
questions that require judgment and generalization in the form of brief written responses.
Note CHAT unit summary under Background and related assessment activities.
Letter to the Teacher from the Parrot
Dear Mrs. Mudle,
I want to thank you for bringing the students to my painting and helping them learn so
much about it. Since they did so well with Still Life with Parrots, I would like to
ask them to accept another challenge. First, turn your back to my painting, sit down,
close your eyes, and listen to these magical words about Still Life with Parrots.
Still Life with Parrots is exotic and fantastic, full of wonder but realistic.
Full, so very full, brimming over with luscious colors, delicious fruits, varied textures,
and traces of faraway places. You can almost taste the fragrant oranges, whole and part.
See the grapes and cherries and pomegranates, rich and juicy. Feel the velvet of the
tablecloths and the cold of the pillars. Hear the buzzing of bees and the sound of the
distant sea. You are here now. Feel yourself in the seventeenth century, loving the exotic
freshness of the still life, the glory of the voyages, the desire to find out more about
the wonders of the world!
Open your eyes and look at the still life in front of you. How is it similar to Still
Life with Parrots? You are right, there are similarities and there are differences.
Will you accept the challenge to learn more about this painting?
Now, Mrs. Mudle, have your students turn around to receive their part of the challenge.
[Students will turn around, objects will be on the floor in front of the Still Life
with Parrots reproduction. Teacher will say: "Look! We mentioned how full the
painting appeared and how the objects looked so real that they might spill out. It has
happened! I guess that is what the parrot meant by magical words!" The parrot
Each of these objects from my painting is a symbol of a task that will help you discover
how Still Life with Cats and Monkeys is similar to and different from my painting.
Let's begin our journey into Still Life with Cats and Monkeys, c. 1635, by Frans
Visual Analysis Guide
A suggested sequence for visual analysis
Subject matter: What objects do you see in the painting?
You listed the objects from nature and those made by humans just like we did when we
studied Still Life with Parrots. Would you say that there are more objects from
nature or more that were made by people?
Did any of you think that there were objects that were marvelous or exotic? Which ones?
When we studied Parrots, we talked about how point of view determined whether you
thought something was exotic. So if you were a Flemish person living in the seventeenth
century, would these things be exotic? Are they exotic to you personally today? Why or why
Color/Sensory qualities: How does the artist use color, line, shape, or texture to lead
your eye around the painting?
Can you tell me the most important or interesting colors, lines, shapes, and textures you
saw? (Emphasize diagonal line and shapes.)
Where are the focal points of the painting? Why did the artist want the viewer's attention
drawn there? What did the artist do to lead our eyes there?
Composition: How does the artist balance the painting?
Is the composition symmetrical or asymmetrical? Explain. Can you see examples of
repetition? Movement? Contrast? How does the artist use these principles to convey his
ideas? What ideas do you think the painting conveys?
History: What are the essential facts about this painting? (Read the label.)
Report about the artist, the time, and the place this work was done. Does any of this
sound familiar to you?
Do you think this artist, Frans Snyders, might have known de Heem? Explain.
Do you think this painting is or is not Baroque? Why? (Students will be directed to look
at cards that describe Baroque characteristics.)
You have already said that Still Life with Cats and Monkeys was done around 1635.
Let's see how it fits on the time line we did in class with Still Life with Parrots.
Where would we put it? Does this help identify it as a Baroque painting?
Meaning: Is this an everyday scene or is it something extraordinary?
Why do you think the artist chose cats and monkeys and the other things to put in a still
life? Explain your answer.
What kind of feeling or mood do you think this painting has? What creates that feeling?
What is this painting really about? Is it just a picture of cats and monkeys messing
things up or are there larger ideas?
Could the monkeys stand for something else? The cats? The game and fruits? Explain. Would
you call this painting marvelous or exotic? Would you interpret the meaning of Still
Life with Parrots as an example of how people are inspired and fascinated by the
marvelous, exotic, exceptional, and unique in both the natural and human-made worlds?
Explain your answer.
Comprehensive Holistic Assessment Task (CHAT)
Still Life with Parrots by Jan Davidsz de Heem
The focal work for the CHAT is a Baroque painting from the John and Mable Ringling Museum
of Art by one of the foremost painters of Dutch/Flemish still lifes in the seventeenth
Goals of the Unit
- Students will interpret the meaning of Still Life with Parrots as an example of
how people are inspired and fascinated by the marvelous, exotic, exceptional, and unique
in both the natural and the human-made worlds.
- Students will interpret Still Life with Parrots as a reflection of
seventeenth-century Dutch/Flemish society influenced by exploration, trade, and
discoveries of new territories.
- Students will create works of art that convey ideas and feelings about the wonders of
nature and the human-made world.
In the first lesson, students will be asked to imagine that while they are visiting the
Ringling Museum of Art they magically travel on the back of a parrot into the painting to
respond to the bird's plea to tell everyone why they should stop and "really
look" at this intriguing work. After writing about their exploration, they receive
instructions for a secret mission to use a viewfinder to select and draw the most
fascinating thing in the painting. In the second lesson, students interpret the work
through classification and inquiry strategies and learn about the artist. In the third
lesson, they discover the characteristics of Baroque paintings by comparing works of art,
creating a time line, and listening to Baroque music.
To understand the cultural context of the painting, students look for clues about Dutch
life in other artworks and become explorers. In the fourth lesson, they play a board game
that takes their ships from the seventeenth-century Netherlands to ports in Africa and the
Far East to bring home precious goods and exotic cargo. In the fifth lesson, they discuss
what would be wondrous, rare, or unusual today and what they would bring back from a
modern journey. The marvels of the ordinary are revealed in the sixth lesson, as students
examine every part of an orange--as an artist, a scientist, and a writer.
In the seventh lesson, students study works by Picasso, Magritte, and O'Keeffe and see how
artists have the ability to take something ordinary and make it mysterious, unusual, or
amazing. Students bring their own "special" ordinary things to arrange in a
group still life and begin a sketch for their own artwork in the eighth lesson. They
finish their still life and assess their own work in the ninth lesson. In the final
lesson, students receive another secret mission letter, which asks that they write about
the painting with added information about the artist, historical and cultural influences,
and their own ideas. They also discuss how their work compares to de Heem's. A culminating
activity is for students to present their interpretation as docents to tell visitors
everything about the painting and what it means.
Kahr, M. M., Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Harper &
Lockett, R., ed., Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century: Images of a Golden
Age in British Collections. London: Lund Humphries, Ltd., 1989.
Sutton, P. C., Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza
Collection. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1992.
Talley, M. K., "Jan Davidsz de Heem: Vanitas Paintings." ARTnews, 92 (6),
1993, pp. 95-96.