Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Composition and Content in the Visual Arts


The Lesson


While not every painting tells a story, those that do must find a way to convey a narrative—events that happen in time—in just one, static image. How do artists create a story that provides a message or provokes emotions in that single frame? This lesson will help students analyze ways in which the composition of a painting contributes to telling the story or conveying the message through the placement of objects and images within the painting.

Guiding Questions

  • How does the composition of an artwork help convey a particular story and/or message?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify different kinds of narratives used in a number of art works
  • Discuss the artist’s use of compositional elements to further the story and/or convey a message within a work of art
  • Explain the relationship between composition and content in a number of works of art

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson is designed to help students unravel the connection between composition and content in the visual arts. Students should have had an introduction to composition in the visual arts before embarking on this lesson. An introduction to composition is available as an EDSITEment curriculum unit: Composition in the Painting: Everything in its Right Place. This lesson on narrative compositions will help students begin to see how compositional elements that they have learned about in earlier lessons are applied to tell a story; it is, however, an introduction, rather than an exhaustive treatment of the topic.
  • Bookmark the websites you will use, and download or print all materials included for teaching this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Cornering the Composition

In this activity, students will be shown one of the ways in which a painting's composition plays a role in telling the image's story.

Begin by having the class view:

Students who have completed the first lesson of the EDSITEment curriculum unit: Everything in its Right Place: An Introduction to Composition in the Visual Arts will find this image familiar. Have students draw the compositional shape of Carracci's painting on the line drawing of this image available from the Student LaunchPad. Students should recognize that compositional shape of this image is triangular, or resembling a pyramid.

Then ask students the following questions about the compositional shape of Carracci's painting:

  • Is the compositional triangle centered in the canvas?
  • Are all three corners of the compositional triangle contained within the canvas?
  • What is the focal point of the painting? Is the focal point in the center of the canvas?
  • Where are the two children and the cat within the compositional triangle?

Then have them consider what is going on in Carracci's painting: What is the "story?"

  • What action occurs in this painting?
  • Who or what is doing the action? Who or what is reacting?
  • How do the positions of figures within the composition convey who or what is acting or reacting, and how they are doing it?

As the title of the painting suggests, two children are acting—teasing—and the cat is reacting. In drawing their compositional triangles, students will probably notice that the triangle is not centered on the canvas, but is placed to the right side. The boy sits at the apex of the triangle, leaning over the cat, while the girl leans in from the left corner of the triangle towards the animal. The right hand corner of the triangle—where the cat is placed—falls off the edge of the canvas. While the cat is flush against the right side of the canvas, the empty space to the girl's left emphasizes the closed and cut off right-hand corner of the compositional triangle, compressing the cat. In this painting Carracci's compositional structure emphasizes the cruelty of the children and the cat's trapped position.

Ask students to think about what kinds of emotions this composition evokes as they answer the following questions:

  • What actions do you think took place before the moment Carracci depicts?
  • What do you think will happen after this moment?
  • What part of the story has Carracci pictured in his image?

Students should identify the moment in the "story" of the two children teasing the cat as the climax: the children are using the scorpions to tease the cat and the animal has yet to react. Without yet knowing what will happen—will the cat continue to tolerate their teasing? Will it lash out at the children?—the story is left at its most tense point.

  • How does Carracci's decision to depict the moment of greatest tension in the narrative affect the way the viewer responds to the children and their actions?
  • How does the appearance that the cat has no outlet of escape affect the way in the viewer feels about the children and their actions?
  • How does the title of the painting affect your opinion of the children? What impression of the children does the word "teasing" leave you with?
Activity 2. What's the Story?

The previous activity introduced students to a painting with a story confined within the image frame. The next exercise introduces students to a painting based on a story that originated in a text, rather than in the imagination of the painter. Have students view:

What is the focal point of this image? Students may access the line drawing and diagram of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the painting's composition. Students will notice that there are no figures placed in the center of the piece. Instead, that space is taken up by a dark gallery set in the distance.

Working individually or in small groups, students may diagram the composition of this image, available as a JPEG print out from the Student LaunchPad. What is the painting's composition? Triangular? Oval? Another shape?

Students may notice that the figures in the painting form an uneven figure eight. Yet the focal point does not fall on the center of the figure eight. Have students work together to create hypotheses to answer the following question:

  • Why do you think Gentileschi structured this painting's composition in this way?

It might help students to know and think about the story that is the basis for the painting. Esther has heard that her people are to be massacred. Desperate to save them, she requests to speak with her husband, the king, at a time and place deemed inappropriate. The violation of the rules of appropriate interaction between Esther and Ahasuerus could result in Esther's execution. At the moment in the story pictured by Gentileschi, King Ahasuerus has just granted Esther the opportunity to speak and she has fainted in relief that she will be heard and will not be put to death for impertinence. When she regains consciousness she will successfully plead for Ahasuerus to stop the massacre of the Persian Jews.

Have students work together in the same small groups to answer the following questions:

  • What elements of the composition help to convey the narrative?
  • What compositional elements convey the emotions of the characters? This should include elements such as the position of the figures relative to each other, or the use of negative space, rather than simply noting the position of Esther.
  • Which parts of the composition help the audience to understand which moment in the narrative is being portrayed?
  • How do you think Gentileschi's choice of subject matter-a narrative that would have been familiar to the audience already as a text and as a story-might have affected the way in which she chose to portray her characters? The story?

Gentileschi may have chosen to structure the composition of the painting in this way in order to to heighten the drama of the scene. By visually separating the figures of Ahasuerus and Esther, Gentileschi inserted a marker of the distance between the two figures that acts as a reminder of the violation of custom that characterizes Esther's request to speak. The space between the husband and wife marked by the empty center of the canvas might be a means Gentileschi used to emphasize Esther's courageous decision to risk her life to save her people.

Activity 3. A Little Off-Center

In this activity, students will examine a painting whose vague story was created to convey the painter's message—his ideas about modern, urban life.

Begin by having students view:

Divide the class into small groups of three to four students to work together analyzing the painting. Students may access the line drawing of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing Kirchner's painting.

  • Who are the "characters" in this image?
  • What "action" is going in within the frame?
  • What story or stories do you see in this painting?

Unlike the Gentileschi painting, Kirchner's image is not based on a text or a known story. Instead, it appears to be a scene taken from daily life in which Kirchner is simply showing street life of Dresden at the turn of the century. One could imagine that there are a number of stories contained within this image: For example, what is the action taking place between the little girl pictured at the center of the painting and the Is she pulling away from that hand? Is it that should would like to play, or is it that she fears the person holding her? Although it may be possible to imagine a number of stories for the "figures" that appear in Kirchner's painting, this work is unlike either the Carracci or the Gentileschi paintings, telling a specific story does not appear to be Kirchner's purpose. What is Kirchner trying to convey, if not a particular story?

Students will try to find clues to answer this question by examining the composition of the piece. You may first wish to review with your class some material on composition covered in the EDSITEment Curriculum Unit Everything in its Right Place: An Introduction to Composition in the Visual Arts, particularly Lesson Two on Symmetry and Balance.

Working in the same small groups, ask students the following questions:

  • Do you see an overall shape within the composition? Explain your answer.
  • Can you find elements of symmetry in this image? Explain your answer.

Students should note that it is difficult to discern an overall compositional shape in Kirchner's painting. They should also note that the composition is not symmetrical. Investigating the elements that answer these two questions will provide the basis for students to discuss balance in the work. Ask them:

  • Is Kirchner's painting balanced?

Students should discuss how Kirchner places compositional elements along his Dresden street. The painting is visually divided, roughly at the center of the canvas, between the pink pavement and the distant people crowded together on the left hand side of the painting, and the busy group of pedestrians clustered on the right hand side of the painting. Weight between the two sides is not evenly distributed, and this effect is represented in other ways, including differences in proportion or size. Figures on the right side of the painting appear much closer to the viewer, as they are proportionately larger and thus convey a sense of nearness. Significantly, figures on the right side also face the viewer, while those on the left side do not (the little girl with the large hat stands at the axis). Typically, just as our attention is drawn in a room full of people towards those whose faces we can see because they give us more information about the occasion and their mood, and consequently, our response to them, in works of art, faces also draw the viewers' eyes towards them. On the right side, the inclusion of faces gives a sense of identity to some of the figures, while those on the left are indistinguishable. That sense of identity lends weight to the right side of the canvas.

In creating this painting Kirchner made a conscious decision to distribute the "weight" of the composition unevenly. Thus the painting presents asymmetrical balance. As they continue to work in their small groups, ask students to construct an hypothesis to answer the following question:

  • Why do you think Kirchner composed the elements in his painting in this particular way?

Students might begin by considering the effect Kirchner achieved by composing his painting in this way. What tone or mood permeates Street, Dresden? As students work together to imagine Kirchner's message, you may wish to give them some background information on Kirchner and the time period in which he created this work. You may want to give students information in pieces, allowing them time to assimilate that information before transmitting the next piece. You may also want to share further information on Die Brücke movement accessible through Art Safari.

  • Kirchner was a founding member of the German art movement Die Brücke, meaning "The Bridge." Die Brücke artists were a parallel movement to the French Fauve movement (fauve is French for "wild animal" or "beast"). Die Brücke movement began in the first years of the twentieth century and continued until around the close of World War I. Many works by Die Brücke artists focused on the distinction between life in the city and life in the country.

Ask students:

  • How does Street, Dresden depict city life? Is it depicted in a positive, negative, or neutral light? Explain your answer.
  • One of Die Brücke's main philosophical foundations was to implement a new social order in which art and life would be integrated. Students might think about the time period and consider how the desire to meld art and life was a possible reaction to social changes taking place as a result of the industrial revolution. How might these changes have affected adherents' (of Die Brücke) outlook on the social order? How does this snap-shot of life in Dresden, in this painting of pedestrians along the Königstraße—the main shopping strip—give an impression of art and life being integrated? You and your students may wish to look at a photograph of Dresden, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website, Internet Public Library, taken during the same time period in which Kirchner painted this image.
  • Many adherents to Die Brücke movement pursued bohemian lifestyles, refuting the strict social order. The group's writings often called for the repudiation of society's bourgeois values. Is there anything in this painting which might be symbolic of the social order or the values which Kirchner might have been refuting? Explain your answer. As students examine Kirchner's painting, particularly in light of what they have learned about the movement to which the painter belonged, they should begin to see that the image contains a critique of contemporary German society. As they examine each of the figures pictured on Dresden's streets they will begin to see that they all appear to be alone within a crowd. The three women in the foreground walk the street by themselves; the woman bustling toward the tram in her red dress on the left is alone; even the little girl set in the center of the composition appears alone. Although we can see that she is holding someone's hand, that person is completely blocked by the woman in the foreground, making it appear as though the little girl is there by herself. By depicting each of these figures as being alone even within the bustle of the crowd Kirchner has delivered a critique on modern, urban life: Despite being surrounded by people, each person on the street is self-contained. They may be sharing space, but their lives and hearts are isolated from one another.

Even the figures' dress becomes symbolic not only of urban life and the alienation of the contemporary world, but also of bourgeois values. Each figure is dressed in the well-tailored clothing of the burgeoning middle class, costumed with petticoats, purses, fitted jackets, and feathered hats.

As a piece that is meant as a critique of the current social order, Kirchner purposely chose to structure the painting the way he did in order to make his point: A slightly off-kilter composition for a slightly off-kilter world.


Have students write a brief explanation of the different kinds of stories that each of the three paintings they examined in this lesson tell, and how the artists used compositional elements to convey narratives and messages. Students should be sure to compare and contrast the three paintings, examining the similarities and differences in the kinds of stories and the way that the artists have conveyed those stories.


Have students choose one of the following four images, all available from The Smithsonian American Art Museum or the National Gallery of Art:

Students should read any information that the museum provides with the image and then view the image closely and make notes on the composition. Then they should write a page describing how the composition contributes to and enhances the telling of the painting's story.

Extending The Lesson

Your students may want to delve deeper into the relationship between composition and content through a research project. For this assignment your students should find an image depicting a familiar story using the following EDSITEment-reviewed museum websites:

Once they have identified an image, they should conduct research on both the painting itself and on the story depicted to uncover additional or unfamiliar aspects. After gathering this information, they may write a short essay explaining how the painting successfully conveys a subtle aspect of the story through the use of composition. They should focus on something that is not immediately obvious. Instead, they should seek elements of the composition which heighten the mood or drama of the image specifically through the placement of objects and figures within the picture frame.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)