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Read Between the Brushstrokes: Using Visual Art as a Historical Source ("Off to War")

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Social Studies +3 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old)

This Learning Lab from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will explore the connection between visual art and history. 

When studying history, it is important to remember that all historical sources do not look the same. Visual art, being an active response to a stimulus, serves as a mirror to the contemporary landscape. Art engages in a conversation with history while acting as a visual expression of contemporary thoughts and ideas.

Through the visual art piece Off to War by William H. Johnson (1942-1944), students will learn more about the events and cultural context of the 1940s in America. Johnson’s piece responds to the tumultuous political and social climate of the period with a consciously naïve depiction of an African American family sending their son off to war. His painting sheds light on the deeply personal impact of World War II on domestic America, especially the African American community. Students can use this Learning Lab collection to help sharpen their historical thinking skills, hone their visual literacy competency, and expand their conceptions of historical sources. The questions, prompts, and information provided in this Learning Lab will help students hone their skills in visual literacy competency.

The guiding questions of this Learning Lab are

  • What is visual art’s connection to historical events? Why is it important that we recognize these connections?
  • How do contemporary events shape artists’ responses in their art making?
  • What does studying art add to our understanding of historical events and time periods?

The goals of this Learning Lab are

  • Bridge the gap in understanding between art analysis and historical analysis
  • Explore the inherent ties between art pieces and their surrounding historical context
  • Introduce the foundations of formal art analysis and develop close looking skills for visual art pieces

If you are new to Learning Lab, visit to learn how to get started!