Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Allegory in Painting

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842 (detail)

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842 (detail). Part of an allegorical series on the different stages in a man's life.

Credit: Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Although your students probably associate the word allegory with works of literature, such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen or George Orwell's Animal Farm, they may be less familiar with the application of allegory to the visual arts. This lesson plan introduces students to allegory in the visual arts through the works of a number of well-known artists, including Thomas Cole and Caravaggio.

Guiding Questions

How is allegory defined and used in the visual arts?

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this lesson student will be able to:

  • Define allegory and discuss its use in the visual arts
  • Identify allegorical themes in a number of paintings
  • Explain what makes an image allegorical

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What's an Allegory?

This activity provides students with a brief introduction to the definition of allegory.

Share the definition of allegory with your students from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Silva Rhetoricae, or you might use the following working definition for allegory in the visual arts:

Allegory in the visual arts is the representation of meaning beyond or in addition to the literal meaning of what has been depicted. For example, the Statue of Liberty is a statue that literally depicts a woman wearing a crown and carrying a torch; allegorically, the statue represents the concept of "liberty."

As students may be more familiar with literary allegory, ask them to mention some examples in literature. They may mention George Orwell's Animal Farm, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen.

Ask students to think about the idea that an allegory is a way of representing one object, person, or idea in the form of another object. If they are familiar with any of the literary examples of allegory given above (or others), ask them to identify an instance in the story in which one object or person stands in for another. For example, they might identify the pig Napoleon in Orwell's Animal Farm as representing Josef Stalin. What makes this representation work? Why do we recognize that one object, which is not inherently similar to the other, represents another object in this instance? After all, a human and a pig share very few qualities in common, yet readers accept the idea that a pig can represent not just a human, but an historical figure.

One of the reasons why the idea of Napoleon as a representation of Stalin is recognizable is because it is situated within a larger allegorical structure. In the case of Orwell's novella, the animals' revolution and restructuring of the Manor Farm is an allegorical representation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the refashioning of the country from a feudal to a Communist state. With that in mind, when students begin viewing allegorical paintings they should seek to find the broad theme that is the topic of the painting. Once they have identified that larger theme it will be easier for them to identify what each of the components of the image represents within that theme—as it is easier to identify Napoleon as Stalin or Mr. Jones as the Russian czar once the larger allegorical theme of Animal Farm is understood.

It might also be helpful for students to think about the types of themes that appear in visual allegories as they delve into the topic in this lesson. While allegories across all media and genres are related, they are not all exactly the same. Some allegorical paintings and sculptures bear a resemblance to the structure of literary allegories such as Animal Farm, in which one historical event or figure is portrayed as another in order to make a rhetorical statement. Many allegorical paintings and sculptures, rather than portraying an historical event or figure, are metaphorical displays of abstract concepts or ideas, such as "charity," "work," "youth," or "music." This lesson will concentrate predominately on this latter category of allegorical works.

Note: While some contemporary artists have continued to create allegorical works, this mode of storytelling in the visual arts was far more popular in earlier centuries. Allegorical painting and sculpture were particularly popular in European art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods; many of the images highlighted in this lesson come from those periods. Some earlier themes that predominated in the visual arts are perhaps less familiar to present-day audiences than they would have been to contemporary audiences. Allegorical painting and sculpture often depict broad, sweeping, and often abstract, themes, such as The Arts or The Virtues. Students should keep this idea in mind when looking at images, rather than considering images simply a portrayal of an historical event or a specific person.

Activity 2. Visual Allegory: The Arts

One allegorical topic that artists have returned to again and again is art itself. How can the concept of an entire art- rather than the process of making art, or a specific art object- be conveyed visually? In this activity students will become familiar with "the arts" as an allegorical subject.

What are "the arts"? Ask students to create a list of all the arts. Their list might include painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, theater, and others. Divide the class into as many groups as there are arts on the collective list. Have each group list the objects, symbols, or figures that might suggest their assigned art category. When they have finished, have each group read their list of attributes to the rest of the class, who will try to identify the art that is suggested by this list.

  • Were the other students able to identify each of the arts?
  • Why do you think the lists were successful or not successful at suggesting a specific art?

Staying in the same groups, have each group view one of the following works of art, from the EDSITEment-reviewed website, The National Gallery of Art. Each work should be viewed as an image only, without the accompanying identifying text, from the Student LaunchPad

Have each group try to identify the art (or arts) depicted in the piece they were assigned, listing the objects in the image that point to a specific art (or arts). When they have completed this exercise have each group exchange their image with another group. Each group will repeat the list exercise with their new image. Repeat this process until each group has completed a list of objects or symbols for all four pieces listed above. Groups should share their findings with the rest of the class.

Questions for class discussion:

  • Do all the groups agree on the identification of each art work?
  • Are their lists identical?
  • What differences are there among the lists each group created?
  • Were there any pieces that were harder to identify? Which ones, and why?
  • While certain objects and symbols in the art works may point the audience towards a particular art—for example, the paintbrush and canvas in the representation of "painting"—are images simply symbols? If not, how are they more than symbols?

In answering the last question, students should point out that rather than just showing a paintbrush and letting that symbolize painting, the art of painting has been personified. These art works show an important component of many allegorical paintings and sculptures: the representation of an abstract concept in human form, carrying objects associated with or representing that concept. In the case of Boucher's Allegory of Painting, the art of painting is shown in the guise of a woman holding a paintbrush and painting an image on a canvas.

Activity 3. Visual Allegory: Virtues and Vices

As your students will probably recognize from the previous activity, allegory is often used in painting to depict an abstract concept. In the following activity students will become more familiar with allegory to depict ideas through representative objects.

Many allegorical paintings depict the virtues and vices. Although students may know the definition of virtues and vices, they may not be aware that specific virtues and vices belong to the Classical philosophical tradition. In addition to these Classical virtues and vices, several additional virtues and vices were historically important and widely recognized in most Western cultures. Collectively, these formed the subject matter of many important paintings and sculpture during earlier periods, such as the Renaissance. This list of the virtues and vices is available in the Student LaunchPad, as well as in a PDF here. Have students read through this list, and then work together as a class to find definitions for each of the virtues or vices listed.

Divide the class into groups assigning each group one virtue and one vice from the list provided above. Each group should list objects, figures, or details they would include in a painting of their assigned virtue or vice. When they have finished creating their lists have each group present their ideas to the rest of the class.

Then, assign each group one of the following paintings, available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The National Gallery of Art. Students should view the images without the museum information through the Student LaunchPad.

  • Andrea del Sarto's painting of Charity
  • Barthélemy Prieur's sculpture of Justice
  • Jacopo Ligozzi's depiction of Avarice

Each group should try to identify the virtue or vice depicted in their assigned piece. Although some may be easier to identify than others, each group should write down the visual evidence they found for connecting their image with a particular virtue or vice. Each group may then share their findings with the rest of the class. After exchanging their findings, you may want to share with the class the titles of each image, along with the explanatory information accompanying the images on the National Gallery website.

Activity 4. Visual Allegory: The Tale of Man

Not surprisingly, one of the most common subjects in the visual arts is the world of humans: from portraits of historical figures, average Joes, and characters from literature, to depictions of historical events and religious narratives, a tremendous number of paintings and sculptures focuses on the human form. In this activity students will encounter a series of paintings that encapsulate man's journey through life allegorically.

Students will view the following images, from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The National Gallery of Art, first without their titles, as they appear in the initial set of links within the Student LaunchPad. Note: These paintings should be viewed in order, as they are meant to be viewed as a group rather than as individual works.

As they examine Cole's paintings, students should complete the accompanying organizational chart, available from the Student LaunchPad. Once students have completed the chart, raise the following questions:

  • Which objects or figures appear in all of the paintings?
  • Which objects or figures only appear in one of the paintings?
  • What is the overall theme that runs through all of these paintings? Explain your answer, citing evidence from the painting.

Once students have discussed and answered these questions, share with them the title of the paintings. Although at first glance these paintings may appear to be simply images of figures within a somewhat fantastical landscape, the title should tell students that the paintings are meant to be understood as depicting the stages of human life. Students should note that as allegorical paintings, each of these images represents a concept rather than simply an individual. For example, although the first in the series depicts a child, it represents a larger concept: the period of life that we call childhood.

Divide the class into four groups assigning each one of the four paintings and the following questions:

  • What details in this painting point to a specific time of life?
  • What, besides the age of the figure tells you what stage of maturity is represented by this painting?
  • Why do you think that the figure is shown on a river?
  • How does this painting convey the idea of a specific time in the life of man?

Assessment

Assign each student one of the following works of art:

Students should view the images, without their accompanying museum text, from the Student LaunchPad. Students should examine their assigned image, listing all the objects, figures, and landscape elements that might suggest the allegorical meaning of the painting. Remind students that the allegorical subject of their painting might be one of the arts, a vice or virtue, or a reference to time (as Cole's ages of man as well as times of day or seasons of the year). Based on the list of attributes that they gathered, students should attempt to identify the allegorical subject of their art work. After identifying their painting's subject, give one of the partners the link to the museum description (artist's name, title of work, and a brief description of the image). Partner readers should identify each attribute noted in the description, and then identify the image title and artist to their partner, paraphrasing the museum description.

OR

Have students write a brief essay explaining the following allegorical painting from The National Gallery of Art:

Their essay should explain the symbolism contained within the image, and should also address the following questions:

  • Who are the two men on horseback?
  • What is the one on the right carrying?
  • Who (or what) does the woman in the chariot symbolize?
  • Why do you think that the painter decided to show the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as an allegory rather than as a portrayal of the actual event?

Extending The Lesson

Depiction of the human stages of life is not the only kind of time represented allegorically. The four seasons is another important allegorical subject represented in the visual arts. For example, have students view :

Ask your students what details they would include if they were going to paint the four seasons. They can list objects, figures, or landscape elements they would use to represent each of the seasons. They might also look at seasonal images by Corrado Giaquinto, from the National Gallery of Art:

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Student Resources
Media