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Read Between the Brushstrokes: Using Visual Art as a Historical Source

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 "New Age of Slavery" by Patrick Campbell (2014), students will learn more about the events and cultural context of the contemporary landscape including the pattern of police brutality against African Americans and the Black Lives Matter Movement while honing their visual literacy competency. The questions, prompts, and information provided in this Learning Lab will help students hone their skills in visual literacy competency. Students can use this Learning Lab collection to help sharpen their historical thinking skills and expand their conceptions of historical sources.

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!

Keywords: NMAAHC, African American, slavery, flag, American, 13th Amendment, visual art, Black Lives Matter, lynching, United States, visual literacy

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Postcard Places

Jean-Marie Galing

Roman Mosaics

Collection of examples of Roman Mosaics and lesson plan for creation of garden mosaics.

Roman Mosaics:

Day 1: powerpoint/ history of Roman Mosaics, begin planning, paper design 

Day 2: group makes a design on contact paper with tiles 

Day 3: make mosaics in the lab


Day 2 Directions:  

Circle Map

Write the words: What is a Roman mosaic? in the center circle.  Fill circle map with at least 10 words that define and describe a  Roman mosaic in the outside circle. You can use the i-pad to access Google Classroom to review the information from the powerpoint we viewed in class. 





Day 2:

Step 1:

  • Use the sample bag of tiles to figure out what color tiles you need.
  • Write the number of tiles your group estimates that you will need to complete your mosaic in the blanks below.  You may make changes at this time to your design based on colors available.


_____ black _____ dark blue _____ orange

_____ white _____ teal blue _____ lavender

_____ red _____ yellow


Step 2:


  • After you have estimated the amount of tiles you will need of each color, choose one member of the group to take their paper with the numbers listed and go to the table to count tiles out and put into 1 ziplock.
  • Next, use your rough draft to arrange tiles. 
  • Create border (1-2) colors first.
  • Then, create center design (3-4) colors.


Step 3:


  • Put contact paper with tiles inside clear tray.
  • Fold back  ½ sheet of contact paper circle, fold over, arrange border tiles on half sheet, Remove rest of contact paper, place the rest of the border tiles on second half of contact paper. Save paper back of contact paper to press down and even out after placing tiles.
  • Don’t forget to use a pencil to measure the distance between tiles (you should be able to fit a pencil between tiles).

Day 3: 

  • Carefully remove contact paper with mosaics from plastic tray and set aside.
  • Mix cement in clear tray, 8 cups of cement to 1 cup of water, start with ½ a cup, then add gradually/not all at one time, may not need whole cup of water, stir until mixed evenly
  • When cement starts to thicken smooth it out on top
  • Use your pencil to estimate the center of the circle, push pencil down in center
  • Begin transferring tiles to top of cement, do not press them into the tile until all of your border and design are complete
  • After all tiles are transferred and you are happy with how it looks, use the eraser on your pencil to push tiles down gently, slowly a little bit at a time
  • If it starts getting dried out, spoon a little bit of water onto the top and smooth out
  • If it gets too wet, you can use a paper towel to soak up excess water


Rubric:  Total 20 points

_____ 5 following directions of procedure

_____ 5 arrangement of tiles

_____ 5 group participation

_____ 5 safety in the lab/lab sheet completion/circle map





Tracey Barhorst

Smithsonian Video Resources in American Sign Language

This collection includes a growing number of educational video resources in American Sign Language, including the ArtSigns series from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the story behind an unusual object at the National Museum of American History, the Two Inch Universe from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, as well as a performance from the National Museum of American Indian, and storytelling at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival.
Ashley Naranjo

Becoming a Historian: Historical Context

Historical thinking skills allow historians to better practice and interpret history. This series teaches students how to develop these skills to become better historians themselves.

This Learning Lab will guide students through the process of defining historical context and practicing employing strategies from an example dealing with the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. 

 Historical context is the background information that informs a deeper understanding of a historical individual, group or event. Historical context is important because it allows historians to better understand history in the ways a historical individual or group understood the world around them, which leads historians to analyze the past more accurately. 

 Keywords: nmaahc, African, American, historical, thinking, skills, context, historical, contextualization, background, 1968, Poor People's Campaign, history, interpret, analyze

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian Pioneer: Solomon G. Brown

In 1852, Solomon G. Brown of Washington D.C. became the first African American employed by the Smithsonian Institution. He was an unusual man of his time, as he was a literate free person of color in Washington D.C., where slavery was legal until 1862. Additionally, Mr. Brown was an influential member of the African American community in Washington D.C, before and after the Civil War. For 54 years, Mr. Brown worked at the Smithsonian Institution in a variety of positions. He saw the institution change and grow. In 1902, the Smithsonian honored Mr. Brown for his time and service.

 This Learning Lab explores the experience of Solomon G. Brown and his work at the Smithsonian Institution. Exploring his career can highlight the complexities of slavery, freedom, race, and citizenship that African Americans experienced in Washington D.C. through the latter half of the nineteenth century, which included the late Antebellum Period, the Civil War, the Gilded Age and the beginnings of the Jim Crow Era. His life poses an interesting contrast to the more normative narratives of African Americans during the mid to late nineteenth century.

Discussion questions are included at the beginning of the Learning Lab.


Keywords: nmaahc, African American, Smithsonian, Institution, museum, castle, secretary, freedom, slavery, Washington D.C. DC, district, Columbia, research, pioneer, Solomon, Brown, first, civil war, antebellum, reconstruction, Jim Crow, 19th century, 20th century

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Black Panther and Black Superheroes

Wakanda Learning Lab is this? 

This Learning Lab explores the importance of representation in popular media. How are people portrayed? Why are they portrayed? What does this say about a people in a society and the society itself? How do these messages affect and inform us about others and ourselves?

First, how are African Americans represented in popular media. Second, how African, the African Diaspora, and African American culture are represented in Black Panther (both as a comic book character and as part of the modern Marvel cinematic universe) and through other superhero lore. 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates the museum's acquirement of the movie costume of the iconic and groundbreaking Marvel comic book character Black Panther. The character of Black Panther (King T'Challa of Wakanda), and his iconic suit, debuted in the Marvel cinematic universe in the 2015 film Captain America: Civil War, and featured in his self-titled movie Black Panther in 2018. Since the debut of Black Panther (King T'Challa of Wakanda) in the Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, Black Panther has been a trailblazer for the black superheroes that have followed him in print and on screen. 

Students can explore this Learning Lab independently. Learning exercises and worksheets have been provided to help enhance the exploration of the content. 

Keyword: nmaahc, African, American, Black, Panther, Marvel, T'Challa, Wakanda, suit, comic, superhero, super, hero, civil war, Falcon, Bumblebee, Vixen, Storm, Nick Fury, Luke Cage, DC, universe, Green Lantern, Misty

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Martin Luther King Jr.: The Later Years (1965 - 1968)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his last years, King’s focus shifted toward achieving economic equality and combating poverty in the United States, denouncing the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, and contending with the rise of The Black Power Movement.

 This Learning Lab highlights documents, images, objects, and media from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other Smithsonian units that help to tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final years, his assassination, and his enduring legacy.

Keywords: nmaahc, Martin Luther King Jr, MLK, Jr., African American, civil rights, last years, Chicago, Vietnam, poverty, Poor People's Campaign, Resurrection City, Memphis, assassination, legacy, Coretta Scott King, Reverend 

National Museum of African American History and Culture

African American Historians of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

An innate function of being human is to preserve and share our experiences and stories.  African American men and women have researched and recorded their history despite enslavement, racism, segregation, sexism, and opposition. Their research helped expand the known narratives of American and international history through the African American perspective and interpretation of historical sources. This Learning Lab explores selected African American historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their research and works were critical to the foundation of African American studies and their activism helped open doors for future African Americans to enter and contribute to the field of history.  The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, situated in the heart of the nation’s capital, serves as the physical manifestation of the efforts of African American historians featured in this lab.

Keywords: NMAAHC, NMAAHC Education, African American, historians, history, primary sources, stories


Use the book excerpts, documents, images, objects, and media related to a highlighted historian in the Learning Lab to answer the questions provided in the Discussion Question page  and/or or use them comparatively with information in your history textbook about the highlighted historical period.


  1. Revolutionary War (Squares 3 - 10)
    William Cooper Nell (1816 – 1874) was born to a prominent African American abolitionist family in Boston, Massachusetts. As a young man, he was mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, wrote for Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, and was influential in the fight against segregation in Boston’s public transportation and accommodations during the 1840s and 1850s. In 1855, Nell authored The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, making it one of the first historical works to focus on African Americans.
  2. Civil War (Squares 11 - 18)
    George Washington Williams (1849 – 1891)
    was born in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. At the age of 14, he joined the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he finished his education in Massachusetts, became a minister, and founded a newspaper, The Commoner. By 1880, Williams moved to Ohio and became the first African American elected to the Ohio General Assembly. As a historian, Williams is most famous for writing the first comprehensive history of African Americans in the United States, a two-volume work called the History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880; as Negroes, as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (1882). In 1887, he published A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion.
  3. Reconstruction (Squares 19 - 25)
    William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963)
    was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His studies, which focused on African American history, anthropology, and sociology, took him to study in Tennessee, Germany, and finally back to Massachusetts where he became the first African American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard. In the quest for civil rights, Du Bois helped established the Niagara Movement, and its successor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a historian, he wrote widely on the African American experience, but one of his best-known works was Black Reconstruction in America (1935). While Black Reconstruction was refuted during the early twentieth century, the work is now considered one of the foundational texts of how Reconstruction is interpreted by today’s mainstream historians.
  4. Women and Gender History (Squares 26 - 31)
    Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964)
    was born to her enslaved mother and her white slaveholder father in Raleigh, North Carolina. She pursued education from an early age, as well as fought for women’s rights and gender equality. As a scholar at Oberlin College, she protested sexist treatment of women by taking courses and gaining degrees in subjects typically designated for men. She became an influential educator in Washington D.C. who saw her students attend some of the most prestigious colleges in the country. In 1925, Cooper completed her graduate studies at Sorbonne, University of Paris. She became the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD in History. In 1892, she wrote, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, focusing on the history and experiences of African American women in the South, and the need for their education to uplift the African American community as a whole.
  5. The First World War (Squares 32 - 37)
    Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 - 1950)
    was born in New Canton, Virginia. He is known as the “Father of Black History” because of his numerous contributions to the field.  Woodson was the son of poor, but land-owning former slaves. As he worked to support his family’s farm he did not enter high school until age twenty. Woodson earned his first degree from Berea College in Kentucky. He then worked, studied, and taught internationally before receiving his Bachelors and his Masters from the University of Chicago, and later his PhD from Harvard University. In 1915, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History), and in 1916 published the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History). In 1926, he established Negro History Week, which would later become Black History Month. In 1922, Woodson wrote The Negro in Our History, which covered African American history from African origins to the First World War. Woodson believed that history should not be a mere study of facts but the analyzation and interpretation of historical evidence for a deeper meaning.
  6. African American History: Slavery and Freedom (Squares 38 - 46)
    John Hope Franklin (1915 – 2009)
    was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma. In June 1921, the Franklin family endured and survived the deadly Tulsa Race Riots. Franklin earned his Bachelors from Fisk University, and would complete his Masters and PhD at Harvard. In 1949, he became the first African American historian to present at the Southern Historical Association. He was also the only African American to serve as the president of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. Franklin wrote widely on the African American experience, with his most notable work being the 1947 publication of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. Today, the work is in its tenth edition and is a staple of American history courses.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

African Americans and the Fourth of July

In celebration of the Fourth of July, this Learning Lab considers the day’s meaning in the history of the African American community and their nation. 

Take some time to explore the objects, images, documents and media that explore the Fourth of July in relation to the African Americans from the Revolutionary War to the modern day. Questions to deepen exploration are embedded into each of the squares. 

Keywords: nmaahc, African, American, Fourth, July, 4th, slavery, enslavement, freedom, Revolutionary, War, British, Independence, celebration, Douglass, Washington, Founding, Fathers, declaration

National Museum of African American History and Culture

African Americans and the Civil War

This collection highlights the enslaved and free African American perspective and experience during the Civil War with collection objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, other Smithsonian units, and relevant media.

Keywords: NMAAHC, NMAAHC Education, African American, Civil War, United States Colored Troops, soldier, war, emancipation, history, primary sources

National Museum of African American History and Culture

What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene?

This collection was designed to serve as a bridge between the high school biology units of evolution and ecology as students explore the evolution of humanity through both a biological and moral lens.  Students will use Project Zero Thinking Routines to examine various artifacts from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as they grapple with answering the overarching question: What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene?  #GoGlobal

What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene? : Students answer/revise their initial answers to the overarching question after gaining additional knowledge from various learning activities: 

  • Claim/Support/Question:  Students use the Claim/Support/Question thinking routine to frame their thinking around and grapple with this question.
  • Skull Analysis > Human Evolution Misconceptions: After the discussion on human evolution misconceptions, students can revise their thoughts on "what it means to be human" and begin to develop a class list on the characteristics shared by humans.
  • Constructing an Ancestral Timeline: After constructing their timeline, students will have gained additional an understanding of specific morphological and behavioral characteristics of humans. 

Using this Collection: 

  • Detailed suggestions on how to implement the learning activities are found in the "information" section of each of the Blue Activity Tiles as well as the Project Zero Thinking Routine Tiles.
  • Notes regarding the use of each Project Zero Thinking Routine are documented as annotations within each individual Thinking Routine tile and provide specific instructions on how align these routines with this collection.  

Global Competence Connection:

  • Students will be challenged to “investigate the world” both in a modern and prehistoric sense as they explore this the resources in this collection.
  • One goal of this collection is to inspire students to take action as a result of considering the impacts that modern humans have had on the planet. 

Additional Questions Explored through this Collection:

  • What (specific behaviors, adaptations, etc.) allow species to survive?
    • This question can be highlighted during the skull sorting and analysis activities in order to help students review the concepts of adaptation, evolution by natural selection, etc. 
      • Extension: Teachers can project photos of these species in their natural environments and ask students to identify the adaptations that aid them in survival. This exploration can be used to explore full-body morphological differences between humans and non-humans.    
    • This question can also be explored as students analyze the Human Evolution Timeline Interactive. Teachers can ask students to compare and contrast the adaptations of various hominid species and propose ways in which these adaptations aided species to survive in their various environments. 
  • How have climatic changes impacted the survival of species over time?
    • This question can be presented as students explore the Interactive Human Evolution Timeline. The timeline presents data showing how the Earth's climate has fluctuated over the 8 million years of human evolution and highlights the fact that some of the most important milestones in human evolution occurred during the greatest climatic fluctuations. 
    • Teachers can use this exploration to foreshadow upcoming discussions of modern climate change.
  • How fragile is human life?
    • The Human Family Tree and Human Evolution Timeline interactives allow for thoughtful exploration of this question as they provide visualizations of hominid existence, individual species' lifespans in geologic time, and extinctions. 
    • Teachers can highlight the small amount of time that modern humans have existed in comparison to early humans as well as points in history that modern humans were faced with events that nearly caused extinction and ask students to grapple with the fragility of human life.  
  • Why do we matter as humans in the anthropocene?
    • This question serves as the bridge into the study of ecology and human impacts on the environment and challenges students to deeply consider their importance to their world. 

Aleah Myers

Benjamin Franklin's Inventions

A small collection of some of Benjamin Franklin's more famous inventions.

Camrie Parkman

Found Poems and Social Justice: Using Rosa Parks and other sources to create found poems about social justice

This collection includes portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, websites, links to Smithsonian Magazine articles, and other news articles all relating to issues of social justice. #NPGteach

Jan Rubenstein

The Soul's Expression: Identity, Individuality, & the Spirit in Visual Art

Art provides a pathway for individuals to express their inner self while also capturing the outer—this great wide world so intricate it's difficult to define.  Throughout history, humans have sought to  comprehend both their environment and their own inherent cultural uniqueness. This search has become symbolized in their artistic accomplishments and aesthetic heritage. Whether through representations of specific individuals and the human figure or awe-inspiring works of architecture, these art pieces are a window into the creative core of our past. 

In this collection, we will observe the ways in which the soul/spirit has been expressed in art, and how human creativity sheds light upon both individual and cultural identities and its varied interpretations throughout the ages. This collection is organized in three symbolic steps on a stone staircase entitled "The Stone Path of Eternity." To truly travel through each piece, I have included an image, a brief description of the work under information, and then, signified by the yellow (1) above, I've provided my own analysis and interpretation of the piece in its relationship to the collection theme. 

Through lingering through the "Stone Path of Eternity," which is represented by the first two tiles, we will from one stone to the next in seeking the many ways in which the soul's expression can be defined. 

In Stone Number One, "The Spirit's Encased Construct," we'll see how architecture and large-scale artistic projects merge to reflect both cultural identity and the individuality of their leaders through works from ancient Babylonia, Egypt, the Byzantine Empire and into the combinations made possible by the aesthetic  innovations of modern times. 

Shifting step to Stone Number Two, "Human Identity Immortalized in Matter," we delve into the ways in which the human figure is represented and what these images can share with us in terms of the varying levels, purposes, intentions behind the artist's created expressions and impact of depicting the Spirit on Earth. This idea is exemplified in creations ranging from the Paleolithic period to modern times, with examples from Egypt, Ancient Greece,  the Italian Renaissance and the 20th century popular culture. 

Finally, in Stone Number Three,"Individuals and Spirituality Entwine," we step into the door of the spirit directly, traveling through the many methods which cultures apply in trying to simultaneously convey and understand what realms are in union with and beyond this life.  Some cultures who address this idea in their artistic tradition are seen in instances of Egyptian art and work from ancient and Hellenistic Greece, as well as both the Italian Renaissance, Northern European Renaissance, and contemporary Western art. 

 The intended audience for this collection is just as varied as my subject matter. Those who might be drawn to this collection are people attracted to the enigmas of life and death, who have questioned their place in society and the mysteries this world has to hold, and are curious to know more about how, historically, cultures have related to these probing questions—for, as you will see, they certainly have existed as long as humans have walked the earth. No matter if you're in high school, college, or beyond formal education, I hope you will find my musings on these artworks and their meanings compelling and thought-provoking. 

Renowned artist and poet William Blake once wrote, "To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour."   From the most abstract art to the remarkably realistic, there is always an image of ourselves, in the an esoteric sense, waiting to be found within.  With its timeless method, Art seeks to create a definition for this all-encompassing and ever-evading essence and I hope to continue that quest with you as we explore this collection. #AHMC2019

Emma Geller

National History Day: Abolitionists (created by Tess Porter)

This collection brings together EDSITEment and Smithsonian resources to support the initial research into a project for National History Day.  While originally created for the 2017 theme, "Taking a Stand in History," resources found in this collection are useful for researching other National History Day themes.

These resources - including portraits, articles, primary source documents, videos, and websites - highlight four abolitionists profiled in American Experience film The Abolitionists and the National Youth Summit on Abolition: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. Additional resources related to abolitionism and other important abolitionists are located at the end. When navigating this collection, please see the standalone text tiles for summaries of section resources.

By no means is this collection comprehensive; instead, it provides a launching point for further research.

This collection was created in collaboration with EDSITEment, a website for K-12 educators from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Tags: civil war; slavery; underground railroad; african-american; national endowment for the humanities; #nhd; #NHD2017

Sher Anderson Petty

In the Eye of the Beholder: Looking at Women’s Portrayal in Portraiture During the Suffrage Movement

This collection uses portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. These resources are intended to facilitate classroom discussion about how women were portrayed through art during the suffragist movement. Participants are encouraged to think about who creates portraits, what motivations may exist in their creation, how the portraits were used within the movement, and their potential impact, intended or not, on the suffragists' cause. 

Christy Ting


Women’s identities are complex, intersecting with race, class, sexuality, etc., and have often been overlooked or erased from history. What is the importance of being able to express yourself and voice your story? 

This collection features resources related to the December 5, 2019, professional development webinar, "Remaking the Rules:  Exploring Women Who Broke Barriers," hosted by educators from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.  This joint webinar is one of three in the series A Woman’s Place Is in the Curriculum: Women’s History through American Art and Portraiture. Learn how American art and portraiture can bring diverse women’s stories into your classroom, connecting with themes you may already teach. Discover strategies for engaging your students in close looking and critical thinking across disciplines.  #SAAMTeach #NPGteach

This project received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. To learn more, visit the Smithsonian American Women History Initiative website. #BecauseOfHerStory

Anne Showalter

Art as Resistance (2)

  • How may art be a tool of resistance? 
  • How have  historical movements used art to further their causes? 
  • How might current movements use art to further their causes?
Sher Anderson Petty

How Can Music Connect to Other Interests and Experiences?

That is a question the National Association for Music Education Responding standard asks students to consider. Grades 1-5 discuss a piece selected for them. Older students do the selecting. Presented here is an example for the older students, and perhaps a selection for the younger: Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, or Pastoral, which reveals Beethoven's love of nature and the sounds he heard on long walks in the country. The five movements are in public domain:  I., II., III., IV., and V. At times the music is imitative, most strikingly toward the end of  II. "Scene by the Brook," when he reproduces the calls of a nightingale (flute), a quail (oboe), and a cuckoo (clarinets). As a fun exercise for any grade, see if students can identify the three birds in the music. Recordings of their calls are also in public domain:  nightingale, quail, and cuckoo. (A composer reviewing this exercise heard one of the birds, the cuckoo, "repeating a descending major third, D# to B." Try it on piano!)

Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

How Does Daily Life Inform the Creation of Music?

The National Association for Music Education Connect #11 standard asks students to consider how the experiences of a composer might be heard in a composition. In other words: How can music, without lyrics, be autobiographical? A famous example is Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, or Pastoral. Beethoven drew inspiration from long walks in the countryside. In the Pastoral, he sought to describe that inspiration, and even titled the movements as if they were chapters in a book: 1) Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Countryside,” 2) “Scene by the Brook,” 3) Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” 4) Thunder, Storm,” and 5) Shepherd’s Song After the Storm.” You can hear all by following the links.  The movements are represented below by five Smithsonian artworks. Students might match the pictures to the movements, or might choose their own pictures on this site. For info on these, click the pictures or the text box to the right of the rightmost picture.

Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Picturing Musical Forms: AB and ABA

The National Association for Music Education General Music standard asks grades 6-8 to show familiarity with AB (binary) and ABA
(ternary) forms in composition. An example of a composition in AB form is the saraband. Commonly given examples of ABA are the
minuet and a certain kind of rondo. Below are three Smithsonian objects that might help students imagine those forms. The first
first is a print titled Sarabande. The second is a 1920s Viennese textile design called Menuett (Minuet).  The third is a painting titled
Rondo. Show the works toillustrate a discussion of the musical forms. Or, after a discussion, work together to deduce which of the pictures
is the "saraband," which the "minuet," and which the "rondo." For a few thoughts, see READ MORE or click the text box ↙or the pictures.


The artwork titled Sarabande is by Caroline Stone (b. 1936). The Smithsonian American Art Museum describes it as an abstract allegory of musicpresumably an allegory of the saraband (or sarabande). Do students see in this work a relationship between an A and a B?  What is the relationship between the violet squares and the tan squares?  Or the two squares that cross as they recede?

In the AB musical form, wrote Aaron Copland, "there is a general correspondence between the first and second parts. The A and B seem to balance one another; B is often little more than a rearranged version of A."

An examples of a saraband in public domain is one in Johann-Sebastian Bach' s Cello Suite No. 1, performed by Pablo Casals. Do students hear a mere restating of the A in the B, or do they hear a development of A in the B? Do they see mere repetition of the squares in the artwork, or do they find some kind of development?


The minuet began as a dance—the most familiar courtly dance of the eighteenth century. The dancing couples moved along a predetermined route making alternating patterns, first the form of an S, then in the form of a Z. The Minuet fabric here is described by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as a pattern of "alternating fleurettes and curly cues and dots."

In each case, the minuet of the design and the minuet in music, the A and the B are two different things. S then Z then S again. Fleurette then curly cue then fleurette again.  ABA.

Minuets in the same Bach cello suite, performed by John Michel, are also in public domain. Do students hear mere repetition? Or, again, do they hear developments in the ABA pattern?

This might lead to questions of the different ways that pattern is used in music and in design. The fabric design was perhaps for a wallpaper. Is it the function of wallpaper to challenge us with interesting new developments in the pattern? Do we follow wallpaper, as if it were a story?

By the same token: How long can we stay interested in music with a wallpaper-like pattern?


The painting Rondo (Blue and Yellow) is a 1965 acrylic on canvas by Carmen Herrera, in the Hirshhorn Museum. The first clue that this is the rondo may be the round framing: rondo is Italian for "roundabout," and the musical term rondo refers to a circular returningwhat goes around comes around. In its simplest form, a rondo is an ABA. Composer have however built upon the form to take us farther steps away from A before we return to A. Some rondos, for example, are in the form ABACAA.

In the painting, it seems, A and B are represented by the colors yellow and blue. Students might consider: Is the painting's rondo an ABA?

A commonly given example of a rondo in music s the final movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8, the Pathetique, Students might listen to decide if Beethoven's rondo is an ABA. If they hear something more complex:

How might the painter have made the rondo more like Beethoven's?

Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Music and the Other Arts: Romanticism as Example

The National Association for Music Education Composition/Theory Connect #11 standard asks: Demonstrate an understanding
of relationships between music and the
other arts. One entree into the subject is to consider the correspondences of artistic
movements in very  different art forms. For example: Just as there was a nineteenth-century Romantic movement in literature
and painting, so there was a nineteenth-century Romantic movement in music, the beginning of which some date to 1805 and
Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. For ideas on a comparisonof the Eroica and the highly romantic, highly heroic painting
below, see READ MORE or click the text box ↘


What is Romanticism?  

Romanticism is often defined by how it differs from what came before: the Classicism of the eighteenth century. An artist considered classicist subordinates self to the traditions of the art form. The Romantic period saw a new primacy of the artist: the expression of the artist’s individual ideas and feelings on whatever the subject.  Of Romanticism in music, Aaron Copland wrote: "It wasn't enough for a Romantic composer to write a sad piece; he wanted you to know who it was that felt sad." More often than not, the composer, it seems, is the one who is sad.

What is the subject here?  

Napoleon Bonaparte is the subject of both Beethoven’s Eroica and the 1912 painting L’Empereur by the American Carroll Beckwith. Early in his conquests, Napoleon was a hero to many Romantic artists, who romanticized him as a new kind of champion: of citizenry over royalty, of merit over accidental fortunes of birth. Preparing for publication this symphony composed for “a great man,” Beethoven wrote a dedication to Napoleon. Then news came that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor—a lord over lessers. Beethoven tore the dedication page from the manuscript. The music, however, went unchanged. 

Can we call both the music and the painting Romanticism? 

That is a something for students to decide for themselves. The Eroica has been called a portrait in music— a portrait of Napoleon, originally. The painting is a kind of a portrait of Napoleon—at several removes. We see not Napoleon himself, but a statue of Napoleon. What’s more, it is a statue seen from behind. This distance from the subject might indicate that the importance here is less on Napoleon than on the artist's feelings about Napoleon.  

Conductor Kenneth Woods recently wrote that we can date the beginning of musical Romanticism to the first movement of the Eroica, its Allegro con brio. (Follow the link to a public-domain recording.) We can most clearly perceive this, Woods says, by comparing it to elements of Mozart's final symphonies, such as the famous first movement of Mozart's 1788 Symphony No. 40, its Molto allegro. (Also in public domain.)


What differences do you hear between Mozart’s first movement and Beethoven’s first movement?

If students give the simple answer that Beethoven's movement is much longer, they’ve gone right to the heart of the matter. The movement is twice as long as any movement his first audience had ever heard. This was their first indication that they were hearing something markedly new.

Beethoven’s first movement has been called a “character study.” If so, what sort of character is being studied?

The title Eroica tells us that something heroic is about to take place. The music itself is quick to follow. While Mozart's movement begins conventionally slow and soft, Beethoven blasts us immediately with two great E♭ chords, played by full orchestra. If students identify this boldness with the symphony's subject, you might ask:

Do you find similarities between the subject of the music and the subject of the painting?

In the statue in the painting, the emperor Napoleon is dressed not as himself but as an ancient Roman emperor. In Napoleon's time it was a conventional honor to depict a statesman in classical ancient garb, but students might consider:

Does it seem that the painter, working a hundred years after Napoleon's death, is doing honor to Napoleon?

There might come a number of differing answers, all quite valid. On the one hand, Napoleon is not given the dignity of full representation. On the other, this view of Napoleon makes him almost a part of the painting's very dramatic sky. Turning attention to that sky might lead to the questions:

In the painting, the sun is low on the horizon, over an unnamed sea. Is this a sunrise or a sunset?

At the end of Beethoven's movement, do you hear a rising? Or do you hear a setting?

The painter Beckwith had a hundred years of hindsight on the life of Napoleon: there had been a rise and there had been a fall.  Beethoven's symphony debuted during Napoleon's ascendancy, just a few months before his triumphal victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. If students hear a triumph over adversity at the end of the movement, they might be just as surprised as Beethoven's first audience by what follows, a Marche funebre (funeral march, also in public domain).

Someone died in that first movement, and we can only assume that it was our "hero." Napoleon himself would live for another sixteen years. Who, then, was this hero?

One listener's interpretation: The Marche funebre is followed by a Scherzo, a rustic dance, which seems to tell us simply that life goes on after funerals. Beethoven would compose another six symphonies before it was time for his own funeral. And then life went on. And so did this music.

Beethoven, in composing the Eroica, was his own hero.


Napoleon Seen Against a Sky in War and Peace

Napoleon makes his first appearance in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a way that bears similarities to Beckwith’s painting, and perhaps to Beethoven’s symphony. A protagonist of the novel, young Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is wounded and falls at the Battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon’s Grand Army defeats the allied armies of Russia and Austria. Lying face up on the ground, Bolkonsky’s view has suddenly shifted rom the battle to the final view of countless numbers of war dead through the ages: the sky. Though foe to his country, Napoleon has been a personal hero to the Russian prince, who had hoped to become a great military strategist himself. Later, still on the ground, he is stirred to consciousness by the sound of the French language. It is none other than Napoleon, who has come to inspect the enemy causualties:

               “Voilà, a fine death,” said Napoleon, looking at Bolkonsky.
               Prince Andrei understood that it had been said about him, and that it was Napoleon speaking. He heard  the man who had said these words being addressed as sire. But he heard these words as if he was hearing the buzzing of a fly. He not only was not interested, he did not even notice, and at once forgot them. He had a burning in his head; he felt that he was losing blood, and he saw above him that distant, lofty, and eternal sky. He knew that it was Napoleon—his hero—but at that moment, Napoleon  seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared with what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it.  

                                                                              (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Do the clouds racing across the sky in the painting make a favorable comment on Napoleon. Or might they, as in Tolstoy, diminish Napoleon?

Conductor Kenneth Woods wrote: "Beethoven could evoke adversity like no other composer before or since, but in the first movement of the Third Symphony, hardship and struggle are clearly there to be overcome by the heroic protagonist."

Can students identify that protagonist (Napoleon, originally) as a recurring theme of the movement?

Do they hear, too, the presence of something greater (and perhaps unconquerable) in the movement, such as the sky in the painting and in Tolstoy?

What do students make of the percussive beats at about the 8:30 point of the recording? Is this conflict? Do they hear violence?

At about the 11:40 point, do they hear suspense?

If so, how is the suspense achieved?

Suspense always carries a hope for one outcome over another. Napoleon's hopes were fulfilled at Austerlitz, but Austerlitz was not his final battle. Tolstoy's Austerlitz scene comes early in a famously long novel. And Beethoven's movement is only the first movement in a famously long symphony.

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Music and the Other Arts: Expressionism and Minimalism as Examples

The National Association for Music Education Composition/ Theory Connect #11 standard asks: Demonstrate an understanding of
relationships between music and the
other arts. One entree into the subject is to consider the correspondences of artistic move-
ments in very different art forms. For example: Just as there was an early-twentieth-century movement in painting called
Expressionism and a late-twentieth-century movement in painting called Minimalism, so there was Expressionist music and then
Minimalist music. For ideas on considering the music in light of the Expressionist and Minimalist paintings below, see READ MORE
or click the text box to the right of the rightmost picture. 

What is Expressionism?

The term Expressionism is as old as the twentieth century: in English, the first recorded use dates to 1901. Twentieth-century Expressionist artists, then, were aware that they were creating Expressionist works. The term refers to expressions of emotion, rather than expressions of ideas. Expressionist art is therefore marked by extreme subjectivity.

Expressionism in painting is represented here by Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) in his 1922 Composition, in the Hirshhorn Museum. Kandinsky is credited with being first in a form that did not yet have a name: Abstract Expressionism. While other Expressionist painters gave a subjective cast to the recognizable world—with unnatural colors, perhaps, or exaggerated shapes—Kandinsky freed himself from the recognizable world entirely.

Expressionism in music is represented by Kandinsky's Austrian-born friend and frequent correspondent Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Like Kandinsky, Schoenberg brought to his art a new concept that required a new name: atonal music, which dispensed with a key principle of western music.

Traditional western music places primary importance on the tonic, or tonal center, of the eight-note diatonic scale, with all other notes relating to that center. Schoenberg instead gave equal importance to all twelve half steps of the chromatic scale. The traditional progression of music is a venturing out from the tonic and a return home to the tonic. In atonal music, there is no place to go home to.

Fellow composer Ernst Bloch observed that Schoenberg's new system was guided only by “Expressionslogik,” or “logic of expression.”  The 1908 String Quartet No 2.  is one of the earliest examples. (Follow the link to a public-domain recording of the fourth movement, by the Carmel String Quartet.)      

What is Minimalism?  

Though the term Minimalism dates to the 1920s, it usually refers to a style that came to prominence in the 1960s. The term means just what it looks like: art achieved with a minimum of detail. Minimalism in painting is represented by the 1962 Line Up by American artist Frank Stella (b. 1936), also in the Hirshhorn. It is one of the first in a series of Stella's works made up only of stripes of color, all of equal width.

Minimalism in music is represented by the repeated spare melodies and gradual modulations of the American Steve Reich (b. 1936). A half minute of Reich' s 1989 Electric Counterpoint is in the public domain. It is performed by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Minimalism vis-à-vis Expressionism

Minimalism might be viewed as a natural development of Expressionism. For instance: Just as Kandinsky stripped representation from emotion and left only an abstraction, Stella stripped as much as possible from abstraction, including emotion.

But therein lies a great difference. Much of Minimalism is marked not by personal expression but by impersonal detachment. Stella said of his work: "What you see is what you see." In other words: Don't look for meaning in the stripes of color. They are only stripes of color.   


After listening to the examples of Expressionist and Minimalist music (Schoenberg and Reich), show the Expressionist and Minimalist paintings (Kandinsky and Stella), without identifying anything by artistic school. Pose a question that might lead to many various answers and many more questions:

Which painting looks most like which piece of music?

If the students are musicians, ask if they can identify a tonic (a center) anywhere in the Schoenberg piece.

With all students, ask if they can find traditional organization in the Kandinsky painting. Is there perspective (for depth) to the shapes? Or do the shapes seem to exist on the same plane? Is there balance between the two halves of the painting?

In short: Can you find a center to this picture?

Of Stella's Line Up, consider: Does the painter seem to feel strongly about this pattern of color?  Of the Reich piece: Does the composer seem to feel strongly about this pattern of music?

Back to Representation

It's possible that students will immediately identify Reich's music with Stella's painting by the regularity of pattern in each, but find much more emotional content in Reich's pattern. Teachers with enough years behind them may be reminded of the train music in the 1983 Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, by the electronic band Tangerine Dream. It is not a coincidence. Though Risky Business preceded Electric Counterpoint by six years, Tangerine Dream took inspiration from earlier Reich. The counterpoint in Electric Counterpoint refers to another Reich composition, Different Trains. If students perceive representation here (the locomotion of a train) it seems they are on safe ground.

Different Trains was based on reflections on his childhood during World War II. At that time, he was taken on many train journeys between New York and Los Angeles. It occurred to him later that if he had been born in Europe, he may have been taken on a Holocaust train. Both kinds of trains are represented in the work, which leads to a question:

In Electric Counterpoint, is this a train of adventure or a train of tragedy?


Listeners have heard a common pattern in Reich's work, ABBA, which can go by a name used almost exclusively for literature and rhetoric: chiasmus. A chiasmus is a statement in which a first topic (A) is followed by a different topic (B), and then a repeat of that second topic (B), and then a repeat of the first (A).

The most common example is the witches' first choral statement in Macbeth:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.


That statement is more specifically an antimetabole, meaning that exact words are repeated. In a chiamus, only topics need repeat. Shakespeare has many, such as this in Richard III:

Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person made a Jack.


The Bible has many more, such as these from the King James Version:

The last shall be first, and the first last.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (Which is an ABBAA.)

If students are musicians, ask if they can hear a pattern in Electric Counterpoint that can be identified with A's and B's, a chiasmus or something else.

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