The lesson plans that accompany James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty have been designed for students in grades 6-12 and include studio activities as well as classroom assignments. The assignments and activities meet the National Core Arts Standards for both National Visual Arts and English Language Arts. Each lesson will include multiple handouts and activity sheets.
James McNeill Whistler, an expatriate American artist, strayed from the accepted realism of 19th-Century art when he began to create beautiful art with neither story nor moral but was just “art for art’s sake.” This radical concept would lead to the abstractions of the 20th-Century. But first Whistler had to promote and defend his vision to critics and patrons.
In this lesson students view the PBS film James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty. After reading a short biography of Whistler and studying timelines of his life, they write an essay explaining how world events influenced Whistler. They view caricatures of Whistler and read about the public persona he created to market his art. Students identify Japanese influences in Whistler’s painting Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, view his preliminary figure studies, and create their own quick gesture drawings. To summarize their learning, they design a display of thumbnail images of Whistler’s art. (View Lesson 1)
When Japan opened to trade with the West in 1854 after centuries of isolation, Japanese art began appearing in European capitals. Asian objects and the composition and harmonies of Japanese woodblock prints intrigued James McNeill Whistler and his fellow artists. Whistler incorporated Japanese flattened space, high horizon line, and limitation of color into his etchings and paintings.
In this lesson students discuss Whistler’s print, Upright Venice. They compare and contrast it to Japanese artist Hiroshige’s woodblock print View of Mogami River and Gassan Mountain, Dewa. Students read how 19th-Century artists were inspired by art from the Far East. They write answers about this reading on a worksheet. Students sketch or photograph a landscape scene and experiment with various locations of the horizon line. As a concluding assessment students write a short essay explaining how Japanese prints influenced Whistler’s art. (View Lesson 2)
In this lesson students will watch artist and printmaker Norman Ackroyd demonstrate etching in the short video Heart, Eye & Hand — The Process of Etching. Students will review the etching process using the Etching Terms and Materials worksheet. Then they will closely study Whistler’s drawing and composition in two etchings, The Lime-Burner and The Doorway. After observing how he drew lines to create dark and light values and how he often framed views within an entry. Students will draw an entry such as a gate or a door. (View Lesson 3)
Today we take abstract art for granted. In the 20th-Century it was the norm. However, in the 1850’s “fine art” conveyed a story or a moral and always had recognizeable subjects. But Whistler questioned this. Wasn’t a piece of art an object? Couldn’t it be just a beautiful arrangement of line, form, and color? As he studied Japanese composition and color harmonies, his art gradually transitioned from Realism to simplified, almost abstract subjects. This led to his confrontation with traditional art critic, John Ruskin, in a memorable trial of aesthetics — tradition vs. avant-garde.
In this lesson students view and discuss a Japanese woodblock print to discover Eastern art’s influence on Whistler. After studying Andō Hiroshige’s print Nihonbashi, Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, and Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Southampton Water, students compare and contrast the three artworks on a Venn diagram. They read Whistler’s defense of his art in an excerpt from the Whister v. Ruskin trial and roleplay this trial. Then they write a critical analysis of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket. Students paint a scene from memory using color to indicate mood and write an artist statement about their painting. (View Lesson 4)