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19th-Century America in Art & Literature

In the United States, the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous growth and change. The new nation experienced a shift from a farming economy to an industrial one, major westward expansion, displacement of native peoples, rapid advances in technology and transportation, and a civil war. In these lessons, works of art from the nineteenth century are paired with written documents to be used as primary sources for students to reconstruct the influence of technology, geography, economics, and politics on daily life.

Down on the Farm

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will explore life on a nineteenth-century farm by analyzing a painting of Mahantango Valley farm and researching the Manual of Agriculture (1862). They will then write a journal entry of a day in the life of a young person on this farm.

Toys Now & Then

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will be introduced to a popular toy from the nineteenth century—the hobbyhorse—through a painting by Robert Peckham and a contemporary popular children’s verse. They will then complete research on other toys from this time period, selecting one to compare to its closest modern-day equivalent. Then, they will draw a portrait of themselves with a favorite toy or object.

Little House in the Valley

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will explore nineteenth-century life in the White Mountains of New Hampshire through a tale of a family who lived there by analyzing a painting by Thomas Cole and reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will then write a comparative essay and complete a mathematics worksheet to enhance their perception of American life in the nineteenth century.

Rolling on the River

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will explore how westward expansion increased the number of jobs available in the nineteenth-century, including being a flatboatman through a painting by George Caleb Bingham. Working in pairs, students will write a letter to their partner from the standpoint of a person moving westward. Then they will construct a poem in the guise of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” about a modern-day job.

Head Chief of the Iowas

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will learn the history of the Iowa tribe. Each student will then select a different tribe and complete research on the impact of the “Trail of Tears” on this tribe. Using Catlin’s portrait of White Cloud as their inspiration, they will create a self-portrait including symbols and emblems that represent who they are and what they care about.

The Impact of Inventions

Grade Level: 5–8

A promotional painting by George Inness will introduce students to a new invention from the nineteenth century: the locomotive. Then, they will research another invention from the nineteenth-century and the impact it had on the lives of the American people. Students will illustrate two advertisements: the first as a promotion of the positive impact of the invention and the second as a public service announcement warning about potentially harmful side effects.

The First African American Regiment

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will be introduced to the first African American Regiment that fought in the Civil War through a memorial sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. They will compare and contrast the experiences of these soldiers through their portrayal in letters, films (the motion picture, Glory, and a documentary film), and poetry, before writing their own poem using the sculpture as their inspiration.

Create portraits and construct panoramic landscapes using naive paintings from the NGA with Faces & Places

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project

Register for evening and weekend teacher professional development workshops and apply to participate in the summer teacher institute