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15 Artworks to Spark Conversation in Your Virtual Classroom

Explore the artworks below and discover conversation starters for your students. This resource is also available as a slide presentation

Jacob Lawrence, Daybreak - A Time to Rest, 19671967

Jacob Lawrence, Daybreak - A Time to Rest, 1967, tempera on hardboard, Anonymous Gift, 1973.8.1

Find these details in this painting:

Baby in mother’s arms
Harriet Tubman’s feet
Walking stick (a symbol of the walking stick that Tubman used)
Ant (a symbol of something small that carries a large load on its back)

Do you think this artwork shows strength? How? Reflect on your heroes. What are their strengths?

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This sculpture, a stylized, metal spider with elongated, spindly legs, looms over a green hedge row in an outdoor setting in this horizontal photograph. The legs splay out from a cocoon-like body that tips down to our right. The legs are knobby at the joints and sinewy along their length. It looks as if pieces or cords of metal were woven together for the legs and the cylinder of the body. The metal is dark but appears white in this color photograph where the light illuminates it. Rows of hedges, a line of trees with dark trunks and lime-green leaves, and a black metal fence run behind the sculpture in the background.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996, cast 1997, bronze with silver nitrate patina, Gift of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, 1997.136.1

Imagine if this sculpture came to life. How would it move? How might people react to it? What do you think the spider would want to do?

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for pre-K kids here

Seen from the lap up, a young woman with creamy white skin wearing a goldenrod-yellow dress sits reading a small book, facing our left in profile in this vertical painting. The deep, scooped neckline of her rich yellow gown is edged with lace and decorated with a mauve-colored bow at the bust. Her chest is covered by sheer white fabric under a ruffled, pleated collar. The ruff is tied at the back with a mauve bow, which is the same color as the bow that ties up her chestnut brown hair. She has a delicate nose and rosebud mouth, and she tips her head down to read the book she holds. She sits against an oversize pillow painted with pale lilac and deep rose-pink. Her left arm, closer to us, is draped over a railing that extends across the width of the canvas. The space behind her is indistinct. She sits before a teal-colored wall and a strip of light caramel brown to the right suggests another wall against which the pillow rests. The artist’s loose, lively brushstrokes are visible throughout.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Young Girl Reading, c. 1769, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Mellon Bruce in memory of her father, Andrew W. Mellon, 1961.16.1

Look carefully at the young girl depicted in this painting and imagine how she feels. What would you would like to ask her? Write down five questions and then exchange with a partner. 

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for English language learners here

Two large dogs approach a man lying unconscious and mostly buried in the snow in this horizontal painting. The head of the man lies towards us, at the lower center of the composition, and the dogs seem close to us. In the center of the painting is a large tan and white dog with short glossy fur and floppy ears, its jowly mouth hanging open and pink tongue visible. It paws at the snow partially covering most of the body of a man wearing an olive-green coat with a fur collar and white shirt, directly beneath the dog. The dog looks up toward our right, and its body and white tipped tail recede diagonally into the picture toward the left. There is a red blanket with black edging thrown over the dog’s back and the hound wears a wide, fur-lined silver collar ornamented with metalwork lions and bells. The second dog, a dark brown brindle color, sits to the immediate left of the first dog. It gazes downward toward the center at the prone person and bends its head down to lick a bare pale, pink hand that protrudes from underneath the snow. The brindle dog wears a small barrel around its neck on a brown buckled leather collar. The man’s dark brown hair falls over the snow. His pale grey face is upward, and his shoulders are visible while his arms splay out, and the rest of his body, extending into the picture, is snow covered. The man’s eyes are closed. His right hand (on our right also), with a tan leather glove, reaches out toward us from the snow, while a green velvet cap with a red ribbon lies underneath the hand. The scene is enclosed by large, angular steel and blue-grey boulders and rock formations, with two craggy pine trees above. Beyond lies a mountain landscape with a V-shaped pass at the center top framed by the steep ascent of jagged, snowy hillsides and a sliver of blue sky at the very top. At the right in the middle distance, three bearded men wearing black caps and what appear to be clerical robes hurry toward the dogs. The nearest of the clerics holds up a staff with a cross on the top and facing toward the left side of the painting, waves or signals to someone beyond view.

Sir Edwin Landseer, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2019.120.1

Find these details in this painting:

Dog collar with bells and lion
Small keg of brandy to revive the wounded traveler
Red blanket marked with “St B” to warm the wounded traveler
Monks from the nearby St. Bernard monastery

What do you think might happen next? What does loyalty mean to you? Discuss when and where you feel loyal. Why is this an important trait?

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Luis Meléndez, Still Life with Figs and Bread, c. 1770c. 1770

Luis Meléndez, Still Life with Figs and Bread, c. 1770, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2000.6.1

What foods do you see on this table? What favorite foods would you add to the table? What foods do you know how to make?

Explore this artwork and more in a resource for English language learners here

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 18901890

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 2013.122.1

Imagine yourself standing in this field and describe your surroundings. What do you notice—any sounds? What’s the weather like? Do you see any plants or animals?

Explore more about French impressionism here

A man wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a long lance rides a horse on a narrow path alongside a ghoulish, skeletal creature wrapped in snakes and a goat-headed, horned creature, all set again sheer, rocky outcroppings that nearly fill this vertical engraving. The scene is created with fine, silvery lines built up in hatching and crosshatching to make deep shadows, and is printed on cream-white paper. The armored man rides toward our left in profile with the lance resting on his right shoulder, farther from us, and the other hand holding the muscular horse’s reins. The lance extends off both sides of the paper and is wrapped with a fox’s tail near the top. The man’s face is wrinkled with deep set eyes staring straight ahead. He has a prominent, bumped nose and wide mouth closed in a line, with the corner we can see pulled slightly up. The visor of his helmet is pushed up but his eyes are shielded from the creatures beyond the horse by the flaring sides of his helmet. Armor covers every inch of his body, including his hands and feet, and a long sword hangs at his left hip, closer to us. Spanning the width of the composition, his muscular horse walks with one front and one back leg raised and its chin pulled back, also looking straight ahead. A long-haired dog runs in the same direction between the horse’s feet over a lizard scrambling in the opposite direction. Seen between the armored man’s body and his horse’s head, the ghoulish creature at the side of the dirt path wears a spiky crown entwined with a snake and another serpent winds across his shoulders. The creature looks towards the armored man with round, piercing eyes, a hole where the nose should be, and a nearly toothless, gaping maw. He has a long, lanky beard and hair, and he holds up an hourglass topped with a clock-like dial. This creature also rides a horse, whose head hangs close to the ground. To our right, the goat-headed creature looks toward the armored rider with round eyes and its long snout slightly open to show fangs and teeth. Horns curl down to its shoulders and one long, sharp horn, dotted with spikes at the base, curves up and back over the creature’s face. The creature seems to rest against a pointed halberd, like a double-pronged spear, as if it was a walking stick. Beyond the group, rocky outcroppings push into the sky. The branches of barren trees and bushes are outlined against the blank, white sky and their craggy roots poke out of the rock. High on a hill in the deep distance is a castle complex or town. Near a human skull resting on a tree stump in the lower left corner, the artist signed and dated the print by including the date, “1513”, and a monogram of his initials, “AD”, on a rectangular plaque that leans against the stump.

Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and Devil, 1513, engraving on laid paper, Gift of W.G. Russell Allen, 1941.1.20

Find these details in this painting:

Hourglass (a symbol of time and mortality)
Foxtail speared on knight’s lance (stands for lies)
Dog (a symbol of truth and loyalty)
Scurrying lizard (a hint of coming danger)
Skull (symbol of death)
Death (with a crown of snakes)
Devil (with the face of a goat)
Knight’s shining armor (symbol of faith)

What does courage mean to you? Discuss with your family the different ways in which people can demonstrate courage.

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Made with mostly square or rectangular pieces of patterned paper in shades of asparagus and moss green, sky blue, tan, and ashy brown, a man with dark skin sits in the center of this horizontal composition with a second person over his shoulder, in the upper left corner of this collage. The man’s facial features are a composite of cut-outs, mostly in shades of brown and gray, as if from black-and white photographs, and he smokes a cigarette. He sits with his body angled slightly to our right and he looks off in that direction, elbows resting on thighs and wrists crossed. His button-down shirt and pants, similarly collaged, are mottled with sky blue and white. One foot, on our right, is created with a cartoonish, shoe-shaped, black silhouette. The paper used for the other foots seems to have been scraped and scratched, creating the impression that that foot is bare. A tub, made of the same blue and white paper of the man’s suit, sits on the ground to our left, in the lower corner. The man seems to sit in front of a cabin made up of green and brown pieces of paper patterned with wood grain. In a window in the upper left, a woman’s face, her features similarly collaged, looks out at us. One dark hand, large in relation to the people, rests on the sill with the fingers extended down the side of the house. The right third of the composition is filled with papers patterned to resemble leafy trees. Closer inspection reveals the form of a woman, smaller in scale than the other two, standing in that zone, facing our left in profile near a gray picket fence. She has a brown face, her hair wrapped in a patterned covering, and she holds a watermelon-sized, yellow fruit with brown stripes. Several blue birds and a red-winged blackbird fly and stand nearby. Above the woman and near the top of the composition, a train puffs along the top of what we read as the tops of trees. The artist signed the work in black letters in the upper right corner: “romare bearden.”

Romare Bearden, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1967, collage of various papers with charcoal, graphite and paint on paper mounted to canvas, Paul Mellon Fund, 2001.72.1

What is the first thing you see when you look at this work of art? Why do you think it caught your attention?

How many people can you count in this picture? Describe what they are doing.

What colors do you see? Where else does that color appear? Find other colors and patterns that repeat throughout the picture.

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for pre-K kids here

This nearly square, abstract painting is filled with circles within circles, like nested rings, each of a single bright color against the ivory color of the canvas. Each ring is made up of a series of short, rectangular strokes and some bands are narrower while others are a bit wider. The majority of the rings are crimson and brick reds, and they’re interspersed with several bands of lapis blue, two army green rings, and two pale pink rings. The single pumpkin orange band is the smallest, innermost ring at the center. There is one aqua colored ring just inside the lone white ring, which is the first to get cut by the edges of the canvas. A few red, green, and blue rings beyond the white band are only seen at the corners of the canvas.

Alma Thomas, Pansies in Washington, 1969, acrylic on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Vincent Melzac), 2015.19.144

Alma Thomas drew inspiration for her paintings from the colorful garden views from her window. What do you see in the painting that reminds you of flowers?

While she was painting, Thomas would envision herself in an airplane. What could these dabs of color represent as seen from above? What is in the center?

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We seem to hover over the greenish-blue surface of a river as it rushes towards a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that curves away from us in this horizontal landscape painting. The water is white and frothy right in front of us, where the shelf of the riverbed seems to change levels near the edge of the falls. Across from us, the water is also white where it falls over the edge. A thin, broken rainbow glints in the mist near the upper left corner of the painting and continues its arc farther down, between the falls. The horizon line is just over halfway up the composition. Plum-colored clouds sweep into the composition at the upper corners against a lavender purple sky. Tiny trees and a few buildings line the shoreline to the left and right in the deep distance.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.10

Imagine you are painting this picture. Where are you standing? What do you see? What do you hear? Don’t miss the rainbow!

Make a six-word story about how you feel when you look at this view. Work together or write your own.

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A white man in military uniform rides a horse in front of a regiment of five rows of Black troops in this sculpture, which is painted entirely in gold. The artist created a shallow, stage-like space with an arched top so the men are sculpted in three dimensions, though they become more compressed as they move back in space. The men and horse face our right in profile in this view. The man on the horse has a pointed, straight nose and a goatee. He wears a cap with a flat top and narrow brim, a knee-length coat, gloves, and knee-high boots with spurs. He holds a thin sword down by the side of the horse with his right hand and holds the reins of the horse with his left. The horse’s head is pulled upwards by the short reins and its mouth is open around the bit. About twenty soldiers are lined up in rows beyond the horse, and they march in unison. They carry blankets rolled atop knapsacks, canteens, and rifles resting on their right shoulders. However, the details of how their uniforms bunch up around their equipment and the way their caps have been molded and fit is unique to each person. Their ages also vary from young, cleanshaven individuals to bearded older men. Two men carry furled flags near the back, to our left, and a drummer boy plays at the head of the regiment, to our right. All the men look straight ahead, their lips closed. A female figure in a billowing robe floats above them under the arched top with her eyes closed. Her left arm is outstretched and she holds a laurel branch and poppies close to her body with her right arm. An inscription in the upper right corner is created with raised capital letters: “OMNIA RELINQVIT SERVARE REMPVBLICAM.” A longer inscription is carved into the base along the bottom edge of the memorial, also in all caps: “ROBERT GOVLD SHAW KILLED WHILE LEADING THE ASSVLT ON FORT WAGNER JVLY TWENTY THIRD EIGHTEEN HVNDRED AND SIXTY THREE.” The artist’s signature is inscribed In the lower right corner, in smaller letters: “AVGVTVS SAINT GAVDEN M-D-C-C-C-L X X X X V I I I.”

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire, X.15233

Do you see a drummer boy? A soldier carrying a flag? Canteens? Bedrolls? What else?

Imagine you are a figure in the scene. How are you unique or similar compared to others? What might you be thinking or feeling?

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Five monkeys rest and play amid a lush jungle landscape in this horizontal landscape painting. Painted with areas of flat color, thick vegetation fills most of the scene, with giant leaves overlapping in varying shades of green. At the bottom center, a large brown monkey sits upright on a rock, looking directly at us. To our left, two grey and black monkeys climb in trees, and also face us. To our right, two orange-tan monkeys swing in trees. The orange of their fur is echoed in spiky pumpkin-orange flowers to the right. Dark red leafy plants with spiky white flowers fill the lower left corner of the painting. A cloudless, pale blue sky stretches across the top of the composition. The artist signed and dated the painting with white letters in the lower right: “Henri Rousseau 1910.”

Henri Rousseau, Tropical Forest with Monkeys, 1910, oil on canvas, John Hay Whitney Collection, 1982.76.7

How many animals can you find in this painting? What other creatures might be hiding here?

Do you think this is a real place or an imaginary place? Why?

Imagine you are traveling to this jungle. What would you need to wear? What would you plan to do? What would it be like there?

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for pre-K kids here

A group of six dark-skinned people gather around a table in a house. A bespectacled, white-haired pastor sits to our left opposite a man, presumably the husband and father, who sits to our right. Two small children gather around the man, one behind him and one leaning on his knee. Between the men, a woman, presumably the wife and mother, stands on the opposite side of the table, serving food to the pastor. On the table is a serving bowl, cup, kettle, and a wooden cigar box. Behind the woman, one door of a tall cupboard is ajar. A fireplace to the right has an opening as tall as the stooping woman. A banjo rests on a stool in front of the table.

Richard Norris Brooke, A Pastoral Visit, 1881, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.136.119

Focus on one person depicted in this painting. How would you describe that person? What is he or she doing, feeling, thinking?

Explore more about this artwork in a resource for English language learners here

Densely spaced lines and splatters in black, white, pale salmon pink, teal, and steel gray crisscross a rectangular cream-colored canvas in this abstract horizontal painting. The lines move in every direction. Most are straight but some curve slightly. The density eases a bit near the edges. Two sets of ghostly white handprints are visible at the upper corners. The artist signed and dated the painting in black paint in the lower left corner: “Jackson Pollock ’50.”

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1976.37.1

Look closely at the painting. What colors do you see? What lines and shapes can you find? Step back and look again. What do you notice now?

Imagine you are artist Jackson Pollock, who invented a style of painting where he poured, flung, and dripped paint onto canvases spread on the floor. To make this painting, where did you start? What color did you use first? How did you decide when to stop?

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