Focus on Original Art

Teacher: Susan Mudle
North Port Glenallen Elementary School, North Port, Florida, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
Grade 4
Museum field trip

Seventeenth-Century Comparisons

Context of the Video Lesson

Still Life with ParrotsThese fourth-grade students have been engaged in a six-week study of seventeenth-century Dutch culture, with Still Life with Parrots (late 1640s) by Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606-1683/84) as the focal work of an interdisciplinary instruction and assessment unit developed by the Florida Institute for Art Education (see overview of the Comprehensive Holistic Assessment Task [CHAT] under Background). The ten-session unit includes art history, art criticism, art making, and aesthetics as well as connections to language arts, science, geography, and social studies.

The museum field trip was designed as an application and extension of classroom study. During the field trip, students engage in active and interactive learning activities using original works from the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.


Works of art often reflect or express ideas and values of the society in which they originate. Dutch still-life paintings of the seventeenth century reveal much about the people, culture, and time, including the Dutch fascination with the marvelous, exotic, exceptional, and unique in both the natural and human-made worlds.


Still Life with Cats and MonkeysStudents will:

  1. apply knowledge gained from study of Still Life with Parrots to study of another Dutch Baroque painting, Still Life with Cats and Monkeys (c. 1635), by Frans Snyders (Flemish, 1579-1657);
  2. interpret Still Life with Cats and Monkeys in terms of subject matter, composition, and historical context;
  3. express in writing and drawing the most marvelous, wondrous, or exotic aspects of Still Life with Cats and Monkeys; and
  4. compare the two artworks and debate which one best represents the Dutch interest in the marvelous during the time when the works were created.


Museum collection of original works of art on exhibit.
Objects to represent discussion categories, with questions attached:
Objects / Category
Silver pitcher and red feathers / Subject matter
Oranges / Color
Dark red velvet cloth / Composition
Conch shell / History
Wine glass / Meaning

Basket to hold the objects. Mat on which to place the objects.
Cloth to cover the objects.
Cards with characteristics of Baroque paintings.
Time line.
Poster with information from the museum label and poster of assignment.
Worksheet showing frame for drawing activity.


Foam boards.
Pencils and colored markers (obtain museum permission for use in galleries).


balance: symmetrical/asymmetrical
elements of art: line, shape, color, texture, space


Note: Arrangements for the field trip to the art museum were made weeks in advance, and collaboration with the education staff of the museum was ongoing.

Make preparations in the museum galleries before students arrive. In this lesson, for example, place easel in gallery opposite the painting Still Life with Cats and Monkeys.
Place sealed letter from the parrot on the easel (see letter under Background).
Put labeled objects on a mat under the framed poster of Still Life with Parrots. Cover the objects.
Place worksheets, foam boards, pencils, colored markers, and viewfinders on a mat near the painting.


Note: This lesson is written from the perspective of a particular location, museum, and pair of paintings. Teachers can apply the procedures to their own locations and settings.

  1. Students enter the gallery and discover that the painting Still Life with Parrots is on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They also discover a note on the easel from the parrot, similar to other notes they have received in their classroom.
  2. A student is selected to read the note, in which the class is invited to examine Still Life with Cats and Monkeys. Next, the teacher reads her letter from the parrot. Students are asked to turn their backs to the Parrots painting, close their eyes, and listen to the magical words. The objects (that have "spilled out" of the Parrots painting) are uncovered and ready to surprise the students when they turn around.
  3. Each object has a question attached to it. Individual students take an object and read the question, which is a springboard for discussion:
    Pitcher or feather: Subject matter
    What objects do you see in the painting?
    Orange: Color/Sensory qualities
    How does the artist use color, line, shape, or texture to lead your eye around the painting?
    Velvet cloth: Composition
    How does the artist balance the painting?
    Conch shell: History
    What are the essential facts about this painting? (Read the label.)
    Wine glass: Meaning
    Is this an everyday scene or is it something extraordinary?
    The teacher will amplify each part of the visual analysis and guide the students in interpreting the painting (see visual analysis guide under Background).
  4. Following the visual analysis and interpretation of the painting, the teacher engages students in several related learning activities in the museum gallery.
  5. Writing and drawing: Review with students the use of adjectives to describe the qualities of objects and ask them to apply their knowledge to describe objects in Still Life with Cats and Monkeys. Hand out sheets of drawing paper with a border representing a frame and ask students to write descriptions of exotic objects depicted in the painting on the frame. Next, direct students to choose one of the exotic objects and draw it inside the frame, using a viewfinder if they choose (a viewfinder is a four- to five-inch paper square with a three- to four-inch square open center). Remind them to hold it at arm's length. They will use a pencil first to make a sketch and then add color. Share work when finished.
  6. Great debates: Ask students, "Which one of these paintings is the most wondrous and exotic and best represents Dutch/Flemish life in the seventeenth century?" Assign half of the class to advocate Still Life with Cats and Monkeys as the best representative and half to advocate Still Life with Parrots. Each group will take turns making a case for their painting, pointing out qualities that relate to Dutch life and culture.
  7. Aesthetic decisions: Remind students that museums have curators who make decisions about acquiring paintings for the collection and exhibiting paintings in the galleries. Pose the question, "What if you were a curator at this museum and you were asked to choose only one of these still lifes to put in the museum--which one would you choose? Why?" After a lively discussion, help students categorize the kinds of reasons they gave for their selections, i.e., quality, subject, preference, artist, color, popularity of the work with the public, etc. Discuss which reasons might be most important considering the painting's contribution to the public. Also discuss more practical issues related to acquisition decisions, such as cost in relation to the budget, place of the selected work in relation to the rest of the museum's collection, condition of the work, and possible expenses for restoration.
  8. When the class is back in school following the museum visit, conduct a discussion with students, eliciting their perceptions of the field trip and reinforcing intended learnings.


Note students' attendance and participation in activities in preparation for, during, and following the museum field trip.

Collect and review each student's work in the drawing and writing activities. For example, did each student write adjectives that accurately describe the specified parts of the painting? Did students draw selected sections of the painting with an acceptable degree of accuracy, according to the assignment?

Note participation in museum gallery activities. Were students alert and interested? Did most or all students engage in discussions? Did students understand and complete the gallery activities?

If you choose, develop a questionnaire or quiz, possibly using slides or reproductions of selected paintings. The questionnaire might focus on specific facts and basic understandings related to the lesson, organized in short answer form. It could also ask questions that require judgment and generalization in the form of brief written responses.

Note CHAT unit summary under Background and related assessment activities.


Letter to the Teacher from the Parrot

Dear Mrs. Mudle,

I want to thank you for bringing the students to my painting and helping them learn so much about it. Since they did so well with Still Life with Parrots, I would like to ask them to accept another challenge. First, turn your back to my painting, sit down, close your eyes, and listen to these magical words about Still Life with Parrots.

Still Life with Parrots is exotic and fantastic, full of wonder but realistic. Full, so very full, brimming over with luscious colors, delicious fruits, varied textures, and traces of faraway places. You can almost taste the fragrant oranges, whole and part. See the grapes and cherries and pomegranates, rich and juicy. Feel the velvet of the tablecloths and the cold of the pillars. Hear the buzzing of bees and the sound of the distant sea. You are here now. Feel yourself in the seventeenth century, loving the exotic freshness of the still life, the glory of the voyages, the desire to find out more about the wonders of the world!

Open your eyes and look at the still life in front of you. How is it similar to Still Life with Parrots? You are right, there are similarities and there are differences. Will you accept the challenge to learn more about this painting?

Now, Mrs. Mudle, have your students turn around to receive their part of the challenge.

[Students will turn around, objects will be on the floor in front of the Still Life with Parrots reproduction. Teacher will say: "Look! We mentioned how full the painting appeared and how the objects looked so real that they might spill out. It has happened! I guess that is what the parrot meant by magical words!" The parrot continues.]

Each of these objects from my painting is a symbol of a task that will help you discover how Still Life with Cats and Monkeys is similar to and different from my painting. Let's begin our journey into Still Life with Cats and Monkeys, c. 1635, by Frans Snyders.

The Parrot

Visual Analysis Guide
A suggested sequence for visual analysis

Subject matter: What objects do you see in the painting?

You listed the objects from nature and those made by humans just like we did when we studied Still Life with Parrots. Would you say that there are more objects from nature or more that were made by people?

Did any of you think that there were objects that were marvelous or exotic? Which ones? Why?

When we studied Parrots, we talked about how point of view determined whether you thought something was exotic. So if you were a Flemish person living in the seventeenth century, would these things be exotic? Are they exotic to you personally today? Why or why not?

Color/Sensory qualities: How does the artist use color, line, shape, or texture to lead your eye around the painting?

Can you tell me the most important or interesting colors, lines, shapes, and textures you saw? (Emphasize diagonal line and shapes.)

Where are the focal points of the painting? Why did the artist want the viewer's attention drawn there? What did the artist do to lead our eyes there?

Composition: How does the artist balance the painting?

Is the composition symmetrical or asymmetrical? Explain. Can you see examples of repetition? Movement? Contrast? How does the artist use these principles to convey his ideas? What ideas do you think the painting conveys?

History: What are the essential facts about this painting? (Read the label.)

Report about the artist, the time, and the place this work was done. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Do you think this artist, Frans Snyders, might have known de Heem? Explain.

Do you think this painting is or is not Baroque? Why? (Students will be directed to look at cards that describe Baroque characteristics.)

You have already said that Still Life with Cats and Monkeys was done around 1635. Let's see how it fits on the time line we did in class with Still Life with Parrots. Where would we put it? Does this help identify it as a Baroque painting?

Meaning: Is this an everyday scene or is it something extraordinary?

Why do you think the artist chose cats and monkeys and the other things to put in a still life? Explain your answer.

What kind of feeling or mood do you think this painting has? What creates that feeling?

What is this painting really about? Is it just a picture of cats and monkeys messing things up or are there larger ideas?

Could the monkeys stand for something else? The cats? The game and fruits? Explain. Would you call this painting marvelous or exotic? Would you interpret the meaning of Still Life with Parrots as an example of how people are inspired and fascinated by the marvelous, exotic, exceptional, and unique in both the natural and human-made worlds? Explain your answer.

Comprehensive Holistic Assessment Task (CHAT)
Unit Overview

Still Life with Parrots by Jan Davidsz de Heem
Grades 3-5

The focal work for the CHAT is a Baroque painting from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art by one of the foremost painters of Dutch/Flemish still lifes in the seventeenth century.

Goals of the Unit

  1. Students will interpret the meaning of Still Life with Parrots as an example of how people are inspired and fascinated by the marvelous, exotic, exceptional, and unique in both the natural and the human-made worlds.
  2. Students will interpret Still Life with Parrots as a reflection of seventeenth-century Dutch/Flemish society influenced by exploration, trade, and discoveries of new territories.
  3. Students will create works of art that convey ideas and feelings about the wonders of nature and the human-made world.


In the first lesson, students will be asked to imagine that while they are visiting the Ringling Museum of Art they magically travel on the back of a parrot into the painting to respond to the bird's plea to tell everyone why they should stop and "really look" at this intriguing work. After writing about their exploration, they receive instructions for a secret mission to use a viewfinder to select and draw the most fascinating thing in the painting. In the second lesson, students interpret the work through classification and inquiry strategies and learn about the artist. In the third lesson, they discover the characteristics of Baroque paintings by comparing works of art, creating a time line, and listening to Baroque music.

To understand the cultural context of the painting, students look for clues about Dutch life in other artworks and become explorers. In the fourth lesson, they play a board game that takes their ships from the seventeenth-century Netherlands to ports in Africa and the Far East to bring home precious goods and exotic cargo. In the fifth lesson, they discuss what would be wondrous, rare, or unusual today and what they would bring back from a modern journey. The marvels of the ordinary are revealed in the sixth lesson, as students examine every part of an orange--as an artist, a scientist, and a writer.

In the seventh lesson, students study works by Picasso, Magritte, and O'Keeffe and see how artists have the ability to take something ordinary and make it mysterious, unusual, or amazing. Students bring their own "special" ordinary things to arrange in a group still life and begin a sketch for their own artwork in the eighth lesson. They finish their still life and assess their own work in the ninth lesson. In the final lesson, students receive another secret mission letter, which asks that they write about the painting with added information about the artist, historical and cultural influences, and their own ideas. They also discuss how their work compares to de Heem's. A culminating activity is for students to present their interpretation as docents to tell visitors everything about the painting and what it means.

Selected References

Kahr, M. M., Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Lockett, R., ed., Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century: Images of a Golden Age in British Collections. London: Lund Humphries, Ltd., 1989.

Sutton, P. C., Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1992.

Talley, M. K., "Jan Davidsz de Heem: Vanitas Paintings." ARTnews, 92 (6), 1993, pp. 95-96.