Fifth Grade - Visual Arts - Overview - March

This month the Visual Arts lessons again tie in with the History curriculum. The students continue to look at works of American painting in the 19th century. In Third Grade, the students following the BCP/Core curriculum are introduced to genre painting through European artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. In Fourth Grade, they look at the other strand of narrative painting, commonly called history painting, through two paintings depicting important events of the colonial period in this country, Washington Crossing the Delaware and The Spirit of '76.

The students will consider a genre painting by American painter George Caleb Bingham that depicts a scene on the Missouri River, part of the history of the westward expansion of the United States in the early 19th century. They will be asked to note the differences between the genre painting and the 19th-century American landscape paintings they looked at last month. The second genre painting they study this month is not as well known as the Bingham, nor as frequently reproduced. It is a genre painting from the same year (1845) by William Sidney Mount that depicts eel fishing in Setauket, Long Island. The figures in the scene are an African American woman and a young white boy. We have reproduced the painting in black and white (see Lesson 26) to help you identify it. If it is not possible to find a good reproduction of the Mount painting, we suggest showing the students some of the other genre paintings from the period that are found in the Suggested Books for the two lessons. (In May we will follow the History curriculum with the later phase of westward expansion and look at paintings that have to do with the end of the American frontier, cowboys, and native Americans as depicted in the 19th century.)

The last two Visual Arts lessons for this month are activities utilizing their understanding of genre paintings. For the third lesson, the students will devote a full period to creating a kind of "genre painting" that combines drawing and collage. Finally, they will be asked to copy either the Bingham or the Mount paintings for the last lesson. We rarely ask the students to do this kind of art activity, but in this case both paintings present a special challenge of capturing reflections in bodies of water that the students have not had a chance to consider before.

Fifth Grade - Visual Arts - Lesson 25 - American Genre Painting


Recall the meaning of the term genre painting.

Discuss the difference between landscape and genre painting.

Look carefully at a genre painting of George Caleb Bingham.

Compare the artistic use of the rivers in two American paintings.


Classroom-size map of the United States.

Reproduction of George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, see Suggested Books

Suggested Books

Student Titles

Sullivan, Charles, ed. Imaginary Gardens: American Poetry and Art for Young People. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

This book has been recommended before for its remarkable selection of poetry and paintings. It makes good independent reading for fifth graders. A color reproduction of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is on p. 35.

Teacher Reference and for showing illustrations to class

Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Bingham's Fur Traders is reproduced in color on p. 174, and another of Bingham's genre paintings, Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, is on p. 192.

Massey, Sue J. And Diane W. Darst. Learning to Look. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

A full-page color reproduction of George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is on p. 250 (slide 23 in the sleeve of the book). A full lesson built around the painting is given on pp. 247-256.

Pavese, Edith M. American Highlights/Los Estados Unidos. New York: Abrams, 1993.

This book has an interesting format. Completely bilingual (text in Spanish is boxed with gray background on the same page with English text), it tells the story of American history largely through American artworks (some portraits of historical figures, but largely narrative and genre paintings, since they tell the stories of history). A color reproduction of the Bingham painting is on p. 23. Another paintings of Bingham's, called The County Election, from 1852, is on p. 63.

Wilmerding, John. Audubon, Homer, Whistler and Nineteenth-Century America. New York: McCall, 1970.

Bingham's Fur Traders Going Down the Missouri is plate 32 on p. 50. Plate 31 is a reproduction of another painting of Bingham's, Raftsmen Playing Cards, which he did two years after Fur Traders. Some of the same characters appear, with the same clothing, and a view of the same river.

Background for Teacher

The students were introduced to the term genre painting in Third Grade as painting that portrays scenes from everyday life. They looked closely at some European genre paintings from different periods. For those students without the benefit of those lessons, it will be necessary to introduce the term. You might have students suggest possible subjects for genre paintings in the 1990s (cooking, going to work, dancing, walking in the city, enjoying a picnic in a park, playing basketball in a school playground). Have them think about this as they look at books and magazines and otherwise observe their everyday life over the next few weeks in preparation for choosing a subject for their own genre paintings.

Like so many other American painters, George Caleb Bingham started out his artistic career as an itinerant portrait painter, traveling up and down both the Mississippi and the Missouri. He was born in 1811 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia but when he was only 8 his family moved to what was then called Missouri Territory. Living along the Missouri River allowed Bingham to absorb its sights and characters, which show up in his later paintings. He was self-taught until he was in his late 30s, at which time he traveled east to New York and Philadelphia to study and come under the influence of American painters such as Thomas Cole and Gilbert Stuart.

Bingham returned to Missouri and painted genre scenes of life on the two rivers he knew best for most of the 1840s and 1850s. He had become very interested in politics and painted several depictions of American political life and elections in the area, as well as serving in the Missouri state legislature for a term in 1848. He continued to paint and hold various political offices throughout his life and died in 1879. The first full-scale retrospective exhibition of Bingham's work was held in 1990, reminding people about his work, which had been nearly forgotten since his death.


Begin the class by reminding the students about the paintings they have looked at recently. If you have reproductions available, show the Cole and the Durand paintings to the students and ask: What kind of paintings are these? (landscape) Are the painters European or American? (American) What century were they painted in? (19th) Are the landscapes they portray in the East or West? (East)

Next, show them George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Going Down the Missouri without any preliminary information about it and ask them to tell you what they see. (Accept any observations that can be supported by physical evidence.) Tell them that the river in the picture is the Missouri and the date it was painted is 1845. Have someone show the course of the Missouri River and its confluence with the Mississippi on the map of the United States. Ask whether anyone remembers from History lessons what was important about the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the 19th century? (They were major arteries for transportation and travel.) Ask them to look closely at the painting and see whether there are clues that would tell us what this boat is carrying. (They will notice two figures, a man with a hat and a boy, one live animal tied to the boat, a dead duck or other water bird, and two small satchels or bags for carrying things. It is unlikely they will guess that these people are fur traders, but encourage guesses about what they are transporting.)

Tell them that the name of this painting is Fur Traders Going Down the Missouri and that it was painted by an American painter who grew up in Missouri by the name of George Caleb Bingham. Tell them some biographical information about Bingham, then turn again to the painting and ask: What do you notice about the expressions on the two figures?

Are they similar or different? (different)

How would you describe their ages and expressions? (adolescent boy with dreamy cheery expression, middle-aged man looking sour, bitter, worn, etc.)

Where are the figures looking? (directly at us)

Do they look energetic or lazy? (pretty laid back)

How did the painter make the whole scene look pretty calm and laid back? (fog, colors are not at all brilliant or vibrant, river is very calm, lots of sky with puffy clouds, only one persona is needed to move the boat, the boy is in a lounging position.)

Where do you think the furs that have been trapped are in this picture? (probably under the raised part the boy is leaning on)

What kinds of lines do you think predominate in this painting? (horizontal--boat, course of the river, line of tops of trees in background) Remind them that the artist's use of predominantly horizontal lines also reinforces the feeling of a calm, laid back scene.

Ask the students whether they think this is a landscape painting? (no) Why not? (Although there is a lot of landscape in the painting, the main focus is the boat with 2 figures looking directly at us.) Ask what kind of painting they think this is (genre). Remind them of other genre paintings they have seen (by Rembrandt and Vermeer in Third Grade, for example). Ask them what makes something a genre painting (shows a scene from everyday life, usually with very ordinary people, tells us something of what particular people wore and activities they did at a particular time and place) Tell them to begin thinking of what kind of scene they would choose to portray in a genre painting of today. Say to them: A good way to decide is to look around you and observe what is happening, what people are doing on the streets, in the playground, in the Baltimore harbor, wherever you find yourself.

If there is time and you have a reproduction of Cole's Oxbow that the students studied last month, show it to them again at this point and ask them to consider the way the painters use the rivers in the Cole and Bingham paintings. The most important thing about the river in Cole's painting is that it is the diagonal that organizes the composition--everything is different on either sides of the river: the colors, the kinds of weather, the terrain, and yet the river is also the diagonal that leads our eye from the foreground, through the middle ground, into the background. In the Bingham painting, the river is the horizontal that sets the mood of calm, stability, and repose that is the overall impression we get from the scene. (We have not talked about the reflections in the water, because that comes up in the next lesson, but if the students notice and comment upon it, they are correct that the reflections add a mysterious quality to the whole painting.)

Fifth Grade - Visual Arts - Lesson 26 - American Genre Painting (2)


Recall the meanings of the terms narrative, history, and genre painting.

Determine the main difference between a history and a genre painting.

Observe closely a genre painting by William Sidney Mount.

Describe the activity portrayed in the painting.

Recall a history painting depicting an event from the American Revolution (optional).

Write a paragraph telling the stories of two narrative paintings.


Reproduction of William Sidney Mount's Eel Fishing at Setauket, see Suggested Books

Classroom-size map of the United States

Reproduction of Emanuel Leutze's George Washington Crossing the Delaware (optional)

Reproduction of Fur Traders Going Down the Missouri (from Lesson 25)

Suggested Books

Student Titles

Axelrod, Alan, commentary. Songs of the Wild West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Association with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center is responsible for this wonderful book, filled with 19th-century genre paintings. It is a good browsing book for fifth graders and we will recommend it again in May, when the history curriculum moves to the later phase of westward expansion.

Teacher Reference and for showing illustrations to class

Wilmerding, John. Audubon, Homer, Whistler and Nineteenth-Century America. New York: McCall, 1970.

Eel Spearing at Setauket, painted by Mount in 1845 is plate 33 on p. 51. Another genre painting done by Mount in 1841 is called Cider Making and is plate 30 on p. 48.

Background for Teacher

The students will review (from Fourth Grade Visual Arts Lessons 5 and 6) the concept of narrative painting, which has two strands: genre and history paintings. They have seen examples and discussed both kinds of paintings. Nevertheless, they have not been asked before to consider the relationship between the three terms, so we will start the class by clarifying that.

William Sidney Mount was born in 1807 in Setauket, on the north shore of Long Island, which is where his genre painting Eel Spearing is set. He went to New York City in 1824 as an apprentice to his brother, who was a sign painter. During the years he lived in New York, he studied at the National Academy. In 1837 he returned to Setauket, where he continued to paint the rural scenes of everyday life and people in the surroundings he knew so well. Mount was also a great appreciator of music. He was a gifted fiddle player and a very religious person who claimed, in the latter part of his life, to have spiritual communications with Rembrandt and other old masters. He died in Setauket in 1868. Mount painted some of the first portraits of African American musicians, The Banjo Player and The Bones Player.


Write on the board the phrase narrative painting. Below it, draw two diagonal lines. At the bottom of one write history painting; at the bottom of the other, genre painting. Ask for the meaning of the word narrative. (Help them to consider additional cognates such as narrate and narrator in terms of stories and poems they have read.) When they have concluded that a narrative work of art (story, poem, or painting) tells a story, and that is written on the board, go on to the other two terms. Ask them to recall the painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington Crossing the Delaware. If you have a reproduction, show it to them, or show another well-known history painting. At the same time, display a reproduction of the painting they saw in the last lesson, George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Going Down the Missouri. Tell them to look carefully at both paintings and then tell you whether one or both of them are narrative paintings (yes).

Ask for someone to narrate the story of each painting. They will notice how much easier it is to tell the story of the first than of the second painting, because it tells of an event well-known to everyone who studies American History. Then point to the two categories of narrative painting on the board and tell them there are two kinds of narrative paintings: one is called history painting and the other, genre painting. Ask them to apply the two terms to the paintings they are observing and tell which terms apply to them. If they have trouble, ask them whether they know any of the people portrayed in the event from the first painting (George Washington and soldiers in the colonial army). Then ask: Do we know from history who the figures in the second painting are? (no) Tell them that art historians think the boy is the son of the fur trader and that he is part Native American. This is based on the way he is portrayed in the painting, but no one knows for sure. The definitions written on the board should indicate that a history painting takes for its subject an event or scene well known from history, with one or more recognizable characters, whereas a genre painting depicts everyday occupations and happenings through anonymous people whose names are not known to us.

Next show the William Sidney Mount painting to the class, telling them something about Mount's life, the fact that this painting was done the same year as the Bingham they have just reviewed, and having one of the students find Long Island's north shore on the map of the United States. Tell them the title and ask them which strand of narrative painting this belongs to--history or genre (genre). Ask them to tell something about the use of color in the painting (bleached as if by the sun) and whether they could guess the time of day (midday--lots of bright, yellow light). Ask whether the clothing of the two figures tells us the time and place of this painting. (Answers may vary.)

Ask them: Who is the one catching eels in the painting? They may need to talk about what eels are and how they might have been caught on the water with the kind of implement Mount shows in the hand of the woman. Let them speculate about those things and then have them look at the reflections in the water and compare them to the reflections in the Bingham genre painting. Ask them what they think the reflections add in each painting. (Answers will vary. They may notice the way the reflections in the Mount painting emphasize the diagonal lines of the boy's oar/pole and the woman's spear.)

Continue to display the two narrative paintings, of Leutze and Mount, and ask the students to write the narrative account that describes what is happening in each of them. They should title each one. Write on the board: The Story of Leutze's History Painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware and The Story of Mount's Genre Painting, Eel Fishing in Setauket. Tell them to use these as titles for their narrations. They should write several paragraphs telling the story of each painting.

Fifth Grade - Visual Arts - Lesson 27 - Genre Painting Activity (1)


Discuss possible subjects for genre painting.

Plan and complete a genre scene with many people.

Include some indications of perspective in the scene.


Colored construction paper for background, 1 sheet for each student

9" X 12" white paper for creating figures, 1 sheet for each student

Crayons, markers, scissors, glue


Begin by brainstorming with the students the ideas they have generated for genre paintings. Have someone recall a definition and write it on the board under the heading Genre Painting. Then take down their suggestions for possible subjects, encouraging them to think of scenes and activities involving several people or even several groups of people. Continue the list until they have produced a number of different choices.

Distribute large pieces of white paper and give them the following directions.

1. On white paper draw with crayons figures that are engaged in some physical activity that you have chosen, whether they are to be running, playing basketball, dancing, listening to an outdoor jazz concert, attending a street fair or a party. Think about the kinds of clothing required for the activity you have chosen to portray, the objects (radio, basketball, microphone, sound system) that identify it as a scene from the 1990s in Baltimore, rather than another time or place. It is not necessary to arrange the figures at this point, since they will be cut out and glued down in their interaction on the piece of colored paper you have chosen for background. Make some large figures for the foreground, some slightly larger for the middle ground, and very small figures for the background.

2. Color the figures and objects with crayons and markers.

3. Cut them out and arrange them on a paper whose color serves as the best background for your scene. At this point, you may want to create other things to add--a few trees to go in the background or elsewhere, some buildings, another basketball or racket, whatever helps to make the activity more believable. Draw and color these things, cut them out, and add them to your "genre painting." Do not hesitate to overlap the figures or the objects--it only makes the sense of depth and perspective more convincing, showing clearly who is in front of whom or what. Try grouping the figures in several different ways, especially if your scene portrays a whole group of people doing the activity. Glue your cutouts down only after you have experimented with different kinds of placement.

Fifth Grade - Visual Arts - Lesson 28 - Genre Painting Activity (2)


Identify the elements of art in two genre paintings.

Focus on the animals in two genre paintings.

Note carefully the reflections in two genre paintings.

Discuss the differences in the reflections in the two paintings.

Create a copy of either Bingham's or Mount's genre painting.


Reproduction of George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Going Down the Mississippi from Lesson 25

Reproduction of William Sydney Mount's Eel Spearing at Setauket from Lesson 26

Crayons in many colors

Watercolor paints

White paper suitable for watercolor painting


If it is possible, display the two genre paintings the students have looked at in Lessons 25 and 26 so they can see both of them at the same time. Tell the students that their assignment for this lesson is to reproduce one or another of these two paintings. Ask the students to name the elements of art and write them on the board (color, line, shape, texture, light, and space). Of particular importance in these two paintings are color, line, and light. Paying particular attention to these three elements, write on the board whatever observations the students offer.

When they consider light, point out the kind of early morning fog that permeates the Bingham painting. They will need to think about the possibilities for showing that. In the case of the Mount, they will note the kind of bleached out noontime glare achieved primarily with color.

Ask them to consider the animals in the two paintings. The one in the Mount painting is clearly a dog, but there are various ideas among art historians about the animal in the Bingham painting. Discuss with them the possibilities based on the evidence (ears cat-like, wild animal caught and tamed while fur trapping, etc.).

Ask them to look carefully at the reflections in the two paintings and describe what they notice about them. (Review the fact that the reflections in the Mount painting echo the diagonal lines he has used for the implements the two people are using. There is also an area in the painting that reflects the entire hillside and a boat with people that seem to be floating in that reflection. Have them notice the darkness and length of the shadow of the animal in the Bingham painting.)

Pass out paper, crayons, and watercolors. Remind them they are to choose one of the paintings to copy. Tell them they will be using crayons to sketch and color the scenes and all the things in them, including the reflections, leaving out only the water and sky. They will need to use the crayons heavily so that it resists the watercolor when it is applied. When they are ready for the watercolors, they will need to decide on the color, then use a lighter shade of that color for the sky if they are doing the Bingham painting. In the case of the Mount, they might want to paint the sky first, then add a bit of silver-gray-white for the water. In any case, they will need to be thoughtful about how to relate the shades of sky and water.

Circulate freely to give help and encouragement. Be sure and hang their paintings prominently when they have dried.


Student Titles

Axelrod, Alan, commentary. Songs of the Wild West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.(0-671-74775-4)

Sullivan, Charles, ed. Imaginary Gardens: American Poetry and Art for Young People. NewYork: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. (0-8109-1130-2)

Teacher Reference & reproductions for showing to class

Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Knopf, 1997. (0-679-42627-2)

Massey, Sue J. And Diane W. Darst. Learning to Look. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992. (0-13-528795-2)

Pavese, Edith M. American Highlights/Los Estados Unidos. New York: Abrams, 1993.(0-8109-1930-3)

Wilmerding, John. Audubon, Homer, Whistler and Nineteenth-Century America. New York: McCall, 1970. (8415-1001-6)