Grade Level: 5–6
Students will be introduced to the Greek myth of Pandora by critically analyzing Odilon Redon’s painting Pandora. They will then create their own box with both two- and three-dimensional symbols that represent an emotion to be contained inside of the box and then released to the world.
oil on canvas, 143.5 x 62.9 cm (56 1/2 x 24 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection
- Language Arts
- History/Social Studies
- Box to decorate (ex. shoebox, small balsa craft box, or construct your own)
- Jewels, buttons, miscellaneous items to decorate box
- Clay to fashion items to be contained in the box
What do you think is about to happen in this painting?
According to Greek mythology, in the beginning the earth was free from toil and misery. The land was covered with flowers and the rivers flowed with milk and honey. Earth was inhabited only by men, who had been created by Prometheus. He made them of clay and modeled them after the gods, which angered Zeus, the king of the gods. When Prometheus offended Zeus again by stealing fire from heaven to give to man, Zeus exacted revenge. He ordered Hephaestus, the god of the forge, to create Pandora, the first woman. The gods gave her many traits including beauty, curiosity, charm, and cleverness. Hence her name “Pandora,” meaning “all gifted” or, alternately, “a gift to all.”
Before he left Pandora on earth, Zeus handed her a beautiful box saying, “This is my own special gift to you. Don’t ever open it.” As Zeus anticipated, Pandora’s curiosity got the best of her, and she opened the box, ending earthly paradise. From the small chest flew troubles and woes—sorrow, disease, vice, violence, greed, madness, old age, death—to plague humankind forever. However, Zeus did not realize that hope had been secretly added to the box by Promethesus. When Pandora opened the box and released trouble and woe into the world, hope was there to help people survive.
Pandora was created by French painter Odilon Redon, who lived at the same time as the impressionist artists. While they painted the life they saw around them—the French countryside, the bustle of Paris—Redon painted from his imagination. He suffered a lonely childhood, shut away as an invalid much of the time. He once wrote to a friend, “The events that left their mark on me happened in days gone by, in my head.” He was known as a mystic and a dreamer who was interested in exploring “a reality that is felt.” That is shown here by his concentration on Pandora’s fascination with the gift prior to her opening it. Her attention is fixed on the gift box. In other paintings of the same subject, the consequences of her curiosity are more often portrayed whereas in Redon’s version, Pandora is surrounded by golden shapes, which symbolize an earthly paradise before the box was opened.
- What moment of the story has the artist chosen to depict? (The moment in which Pandora is deciding whether or not to open the box.) What makes this moment so dramatic? (We know that her decision to open the box will release plagues, suffering, and evil into the world.) Why might Redon have chosen this moment to paint?
- How would you compare the size of the figure of Pandora to the rest of the painting? Why might the artist have painted her so big? (Two answers may be: because she is the most important character in the story or because of the overwhelming consequences of her actions.)
- The figure of Pandora is often shown with a box in her hand. What does this box symbolize? (It can symbolize different things, two of them being the evils of the world and temptations that we can’t resist because of curiosity.)
- What object was painted almost in the center of the painting? (The box Pandora will open.) Why do you think the artist painted the box there? (The box is an important part of the story, and the artist wanted it to be one of the first things you see.) How does the artist use color to lead our eyes to the box? (While the rest of the painting has light, cheery, tranquil tones, the box is painted in contrasting dark browns and purples.)
- What mystery about the world is explained by this story? (It explains how the troubles and woes of life—as well as hope—came to be.)
- How was the world affected by the choices Pandora made? If you were Pandora, do you think you would make the same choice? Why or why not?
Students will design their own box to release an emotion of their choosing into the world:
- First, students should sketch symbols that represent their emotion. Remind them that color can be very important with this step.
- Next, they should chose which symbols should decorate the outside of their box in two-dimensions versus ones that might be better depicted in three-dimensions to be contained in the box. In deciding, they should ask themselves the questions: How can I design a box that would make someone curious enough to open it? How could these decorations on the outside foreshadow the inside contents?
- Once they have decided a schemata for the actual box, students can use paint, jewels, buttons, found objects, etc. to implement their designs.
- Then, using clay, students will craft objects to be contained in the box. (Remember that Prometheus modeled men out of clay in the likeness of gods!)
- Lastly, students will place their objects inside their box for the extension activity.
Each student will select one box that they are most curious about. Before they open it, they will write the emotion they think the box is trying to convey and what the contents inside may be. Then, open the boxes and see how close they came to guessing it right!
National Core Arts Standards
VA:Cr1.2.5 Identify and demonstrate diverse methods of artistic investigation to choose an approach for beginning a work of art.
VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.
VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.
VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.