Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Realistic Impressions: Investigating Movements in the Visual Arts


The Lesson


"Basket of Clams," by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)

"Basket of Clams" by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910).

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Libray of Congress.

Impressionism, Cubism, Realism, Neoclassicism, Mannerism. When we visit a museum or flip through a book we often see these terms, along with the word movement (or sometimes style). But what makes a painting an example of the Impressionist or the Neoclassical movement?

This lesson plan will help students to understand the idea of movements in the visual arts, and begin to differentiate between some of the most well known movements in Western art- particularly in painting. This lesson can be taught in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson plans What’s in a Picture? An Introduction to Subject in the Visual Arts and Portraits, Pears, and Perfect Landscapes: Investigating Genre in the Visual Arts.

Guiding Questions

What is an art movement? What are some the characteristics of the most famous movements in Western art?

Learning Objectives

  • Define artistic movement in the visual arts
  • Identify the movement of a variety of works of art
  • Recognize and explain identifying features of some of the most famous movements in Western art

Preparation Instructions

Movements in art refer to a philosophy or a style in painting or sculpture that is followed by a group of artists—with varying adherence—over a set period of time. Movements proliferated particularly in Europe and America during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the list of movement names is extensive. Many of them will be familiar to you and your students, and this lesson plan will focus primarily on some of the best known movements. Information on many of these movements is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. This lesson will concentrate on Impressionism, Realism, and Romanticism. Below are links to information about some of the most well known movements:

Abstract Expressionism
Harlem Renaissance

This lesson provides a guide for introducing students to the concept of artistic movements in the visual arts, however the discussion of individual movements will be limited. You may wish to delve more deeply into some of these movements in conjunction with larger lessons about the relevant time periods- such as a world history lesson investigating the rise of Neoclassicism and the French Revolution or an introduction to Romantic painting in a literature lesson on Romantic poetry. The above links provide an introduction to background information on some of these movements.

Note: Movement is a term that is most often used in reference to European and American art, and as a result this lesson will concentrate on art from these areas.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Real Impression

This activity will introduce students to the concept of movement in the visual arts, as well as to a limited number of movements in Western art with which they may already be familiar.

  • Show students the following pair of images. First, ask students to identify the subject and genre of the two images. You may wish to refer to the EDSITEment lesson plans What’s in a Picture? An Introduction to Subject in the Visual Arts and Portraits, Pears, and Perfect Landscapes: Investigating Genre in the Visual Arts before beginning this activity. Students should note that the two images are of the same genre and similar subjects. However, the two paintings are also strikingly different. Ask them to write down everything that is different about the two paintings, concentrating on the way in which they depict their subjects.
  • Ask students to describe what differences and similarities they can find in these two images. Why do they think that the paintings—which are both still life paintings, and which have very similar subjects—are so different? Students may note differences in the palette (the range of colors that are used), the brushstrokes, and the level of ‘realism’ that is present in each painting. Each of these components is an important identification marker for various artistic movements. Have students complete this PDF comparison chart of the two paintings.
  • When students have completed their comparison charts you may wish to introduce them to the artists who created these works and the movements they represent:
    • Joseph Decker was born in Germany, but he and his family immigrated to America when he was a child. He spent much of his life living in Brooklyn, New York. His work is typical of realism, a movement which began in the 19th century in reaction to Romanticism, an earlier movement which tended to depict fantastical, imagined or idealized subjects. By contrast, realism sought to depict the world accurately, or “realistically,” rendering images of every day life, objects and situations, as they were seen—including their imperfections.
    • Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a French painter who, along with Claude Monet, founded the Impressionist movement in the 1870s. This still life painting is an illustration of this movement. Impressionist works are generally exemplified by a focus on painting from life and the natural world, as well as the short, choppy brush strokes which dappled color on to the canvas. The effect was said at the time of some of the Impressionists’ early exhibitions to give the impression of the subject rather than a clear image: an interpretation which provided the name for the movement and its adherents.
Activity 2. What's in a Movement?

Students should be able to pick out the numerous differences in the ways in which Decker and Renoir have approached their subject. But are these differences just the result of personal preferences or styles, or are they representative of an artistic movement? In this exercise students will look at additional images of the movements these artists represent in order to gain perspective on the scope of artistic movements and the difference between the stylistic choices of a movement and personal choices in style and expression.

  • In the previous activity students encountered images representative of realism and impressionism. Begin this study by having students view two additional paintings representative of these movements which are available from the EDSITEmwnt-reviewed National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively:
  • You may wish to show these images alongside the Renoir and Decker images of the previous activity while students answer the following questions:
    • Based on the brief introduction to the artists and movements in the previous lesson, which of these images would you say is a Realist work? Which one is an Impressionist work? Why? Explain your answer.
    • What similarities do you see between these paintings and the paintings of the previous activity?
    • What differences do you see between these paintings and the paintings of the previous activity?
  • Ask students to list their observations of the similarities and differences they see in these two pairs of paintings. Divide the class into small groups of three or four and ask each group to work together using their lists of similarities and differences to compile an inventory of defining features for realism and impressionism.
Activity 3. Move in Closer

In the related sets of images contained in the last two activities students were asked to compare examples of two movements whose features are both distinct and dissimilar. In this activity students will put their observations and inventories to work to see if they are still able to identify an Impressionist painting when it is compared with an example from a third movement.

  • Remaining in the small groups they worked with in the previous activity have students view the following two images without providing the painter’s name. Both of these paintings are part of the online collection of the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art:
  • The first of these images is an example of one of the two movements students learned about in the previous lesson—Impressionsm. Have students work together in their small groups to identify which of these paintings is an example of a movement with which they are already familiar. Ask students to explain why they believe the painting they have chosen exemplifies one of these movements.
  • Although both of these images are of the same genre and similar subjects, students should identify the Monet as an example of Impressionism. The painting contains many of the telltale signs of that movement, such as the short, observable brushstrokes and the dappled color. Once they have identified the painter of the image of France’s Fountainebleu Forest students may realize that it is the same painter that created the Valley of Nervia—and must therefore be an Impressionist painting.

Because of the sketchy sky and background in this work, some students may have instead identified the Bonington as an Impressionist work. If you have students who saw aspects of Impressionism in this work ask them to explain what those aspects are.

  • If the Bonington is not an Impressionist painting, what is it? Richard Parkes Bonington, a young Englishman who moved to France with his family in his teens, is considered part of the Romantic Movement. Working in the same small groups, have students list their observations of the similarities and differences they see in this painting.
    • How are the ways in which the two painters manipulate the paint different or similar?
    • How are the palettes used by the two painters different or similar?
    • How does each of the painters capture light in the images?
    • What is the tone of the two images, and how do the two painters capture that tone?
Activity 4. Behind the Movement

In the definition of an art movement given at the beginning of this lesson it is described as referring to a philosophy or a style in painting or sculpture that is followed by a group of artists over a set period of time. What kind of philosophy underlies art movements? This activity will help students to begin to think about the philosophical or theoretical underpinnings of some art movements.

  • In the previous lesson students viewed a Romantic landscape painting created by Richard Parkes Bonington. Have students view two additional Romantic paintings available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside the Bonington landscape.
  • Explain to students that each of these images belongs to the Romantic Movement. Keeping the same small groups from the previous activities ask students to list their observations of the similarities and differences they see in these three paintings. Have students work together using their lists of similarities and differences to compile an inventory of defining observed features Romanticism.
  • Is the style of painting the only quality that connects these images? Have students read the brief article on Romanticism that is available from the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. This article makes it clear that a concise explanation of Romanticism may be difficult to agree upon, however, it does elucidate some of the philosophical and theoretical ideas that influenced practitioners of Romanticism.

After they have read the article on Romanticism have students compile a list of some of the philosophical ideas or beliefs that were the foundation of the Romantic Movement according to the reading. This list should include features such as the focus on the imagination and on emotion; the interest in symbols of history and the romanticizing of the past; and the rebellion against social constraints and the rise of the cult of the artist. Students might also note features such as the focus on the dramatic and the tragic, as well as the attention paid to the connection between man and the natural world.

  • Once students have completed their list of ideas and influences upon Romantic artists have them return to the paintings by Turner and Delacroix with which they began this activity. Ask students to work on identifying places in these paintings where the philosophical ideas that underlie Romanticism appear as they have learned about them in this activity. Do these paintings highlight the power of the painters’ imagination? Do they convey high emotion and drama? Have students explain their answers.
  • If you have time in your class you may wish to pursue a more in-depth analysis of Delacroix’s painting as an exemplary illustration of many of Romanticism’s ideals. This might be particularly fruitful for classes already familiar with Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The painting is based on Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe, which tells the tale of rival claimants to the English throne, and the bloody civil war that comes of their fight for power. Scott and Delacroix were contemporaries (Ivanhoe was published in 1819- just three years before Delacroix made his first submission of a painting to a Paris Salon), and Scott was much beloved by many of the Romantics for his sweeping historical novels, of which Ivanhoe was one. In fact, Scott is often thought of as the first person to write an historical novel—his novel Waverley, which was published in 1814. You might begin with a class discussion on the following points:

  • The basis for Delacroix’s painting is Scott’s historical novel. The painting therefore contains not only Delacroix’s vision of what the scene from the novel might look like- but also Scott’s imagining of the historical events and the period in which his novel is set. Ask students to explain how this painting exemplifies the Romantic ideal of “imagination.”
  • Romanticism put particular emphasis on history; however, it was not an emphasis on finding evidence about historical events or new information about historical periods. It was rather a pursuit of an idealized or romanticized history. How does Delacroix’s painting—and its literary source—demonstrate the Romantic pursuit of history?
  • How do Scott’s novel and Delacroix’s painting illustrate additional Romantic ideas or affinities, such as high emotion or man’s place within the natural world?
Activity 5. Sharpening your Eye

Now that students have had a chance to learn a little more about Romanticism, Impressionism and Realism, they will get a chance to put that new knowledge to the test.

Note: Many paintings contain elements of more than one movement. For example, there may be elements of Realism among the Romantics or the Impressionists, so students shouldn’t focus on searching for a pure or perfect example of each movement. Instead, they should concentrate on which movement is the best fit for each painting and why. It might help students to know the time periods of each of these movements, so that they might better understand that some of these movements were overlapping or very close in time period:

  • Romanticism: Early 1800s until around 1850
  • Realism: Around 1840 until the late 19th century
  • Impressionism: In France: 1874 to about 1890; In America: mid-1870s to the early 1910s


Students at all levels should complete either the PDF chart or the online interactive

for Activity 5. In addition, ask beginning students to choose two paintings from this list which represent two distinct movements. Have students compose short essays analyzing the ways in which each of the two images contain the criteria of their movement. They should compare and contrast the images and their corresponding movements throughout the essay.

For advanced students, or for classes with more time, you might wish to assign a more in-depth research project. There are a far greater number of Western art movements than can be covered in a short lesson, although this brief introduction to the concept of movements and to Realism, Romanticism and Impressionism may have piqued students’ interests.

Provide students with a list of art movements that does not include Realism, Impressionism or Romanticism. The list might include—but need not be restricted to—the following movements:

  • Neoclassicism
  • Expressionism
  • Fauvism
  • Cubism
  • Surrealism
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Minimalism
  • Harlem Renaissance
  • Pre-Raphaelites
  • Futurism

Students should choose one movement from the list. This movement will be the topic of a research project. Students should gather information on the movement, including the qualities that characterized works typical of the movement; the ideas that were the underpinnings of the movement; the history of the movement and its major followers. For this project- which might take the form of a class presentation or a research paper—students should use at least three works of art which exemplify the movement they have chosen, analyzing the ways in which the pieces do or do not meet the criteria of the movement. You may wish to direct your students to conduct this research- particularly for images—by using the collections available from the following EDSITEment reviewed web resources:

Extending The Lesson

Outside the Frame

Painters were not the only artists to follow artistic movements, and some movements had a broader effect than others. In this extension activity students will take a brief look at the ways in which the philosophies underlying art movements have manifested in other media, such as literature.

  • Have students view the following two paintings, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resources The National Gallery and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Students should be able to identify the images as representative of the Romantic Movement. These two images were inspired, in turn, by one of the great figures in Romantic literature: Lord Byron. You may wish to have students read passages from the literary source for these paintings: Bryon’s The Corsair.
  • How do both the paintings and the story fulfill the ideals of Romanticism? What similarities can you find between the works of visual art and literature of the same artistic movement? Why do you think both Delacroix and Cole turned to Byron’s writing for inspiration?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-5 class periods

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