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George Washington in American Art

65 min
  • Students will be able to interpret historical evidence and make inferences by observing and describing details in works of art depicting George Washington.
  • Students will be able to entertain and consider multiple viewpoints and revise their thinking by analyzing George Washington’s depictions in various styles and for various purposes.
  • Students will be able to articulate the value of artwork as a primary source by writing a thesis statement that answers the essential question.

The works of art included in this lesson can be displayed in a variety of ways as best suits your classroom and teaching situation. The artwork can be presented using a projector and the lesson can be done as a large class discussion. Alternatively, small groups can be assigned one high-quality color print of each work of art to interpret and share with the class as a jigsaw activity. Or, each piece of art can be printed and hung around the room or in a large space where students move around the room to interpret each, then come together for debriefing at the end. Seven works of art are provided, but not all need to be used in the lesson. This lesson is based on the “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine from Project Zero.

Invite students to share with a partner a picture they have taken recently on their phone. Have the partner interpret the picture by asking them what they see and what they think. Ask students to consider what the picture reveals about the subject and the audience.

If students are not allowed technology in your classroom, provide students with an image of your choosing that can be silly or serious, depending on your teaching situation and class needs. Follow the same guided prompts provided.

  • Tell students that art is a primary source and, like text-based documents, can reveal much about the time from which it came, the “author” (artist) and the intended audience: In this activity, they will look at various depictions of George Washington in art to write both a comparative and a change and continuity thesis statement.
  • Model the thinking routine used for this lesson with students by looking at the Apotheosis of Washington fresco as a class. Give students one to two minutes to look without talking, asking them to carefully observe and make note of all the details that strike them. If they struggle, show the detail from the fresco’s focal point of Washington with two women.
  • Ask students to share what they see (e.g., angels, thirteen women, Washington in the sky, clouds.
  • Ask students next to consider what this work of art makes them think. Invite students to share responses. Encourage students to support their interpretation with reasons to make their thinking visible (e.g., “I think the artist thought Washington was a god because he is in the clouds between two women that look like goddesses and there are angels all around.”).
  • Ask students to share what they wonder after looking at this art (e.g., When was this painted? Why was it painted? Why do some of the angels have their back to the viewer?).
  • Use the Instructor Answer Guide to reveal key details of the painting that will deepen the students understanding of this source.
  • Have students work in pairs or trios to apply the thinking routine used in the warm-up to each of the other images of George Washington.

Invite students to come back together after looking at the images of Washington to synthesize the content by leading a class discussion of the following questions. Students may orally respond to each question or write their responses, as best fits your needs.

1. What common themes did you see in these depictions of Washington?

2. Did any of the art seem to be an outlier, or differ from the others significantly? Why do you say that?

3. What do these images reveal about George Washington?

4. What do these images reveal about an emerging national identity?

Have students write a comparative and/or CCOT thesis statement based on the art in this exercise:

  • Comparative prompt: Compare and contrast depictions of George Washington in art created during the period from his presidency to the Civil War.
  • CCOT prompt: Evaluate the continuities and changes in depictions of George Washington in art created during the period from his presidency to the Civil War.

Solicit volunteers to share their thesis and workshop several using the following questions, or have students share with a partner and provide feedback on the following questions:

  • Does the thesis answer the question without restating the prompt?
  • Does the thesis make sense?
  • Is the thesis historically accurate?
  • Does the thesis provide clear and cohesive reasoning?
  • Does the thesis provide a road map or “table of contents” for an essay?