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Lesson Plan Table of Contents

Cracking Catlin's Code

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Develop basic skills of aesthetic observation to interpret works of art within a cultural and historical context through class discussion, group work, and visual and written techniques.
  • Draw connections between an artwork's formal qualities and the artist's intended meaning(s).
  • Discuss Native American culture and leadership in the 19th century.

Standards: Visual Arts, English Language Arts, U.S. History.

Skills Addressed: Linguistic, Logical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Spatial.

Interdisciplinary Connections: Visual Arts/Art History, History/Social Studies.

Length: Two fifty-minute class periods.

Materials: A "clue bank" of formal aspects of Catlin's portraits, Internet access.

Products: Chart comparing visual "clues" with artistic meaning, a written "detective case summary," and an essay comparing and contrasting a Catlin portrait with another imperial portrait.

Content Introduction: In objects such as the "power shirts" used by tribes native to the Great Plains (see the "Symbols of Power in Clothing Worn by the Plains Indians" Lesson Plan), individuals developed a set of symbols or a "code" that represented attributes of leadership and power held by the wearer of the shirt. For centuries European artists have also used a "code" based on gesture and pose in the traditions of sculpture and painting to express a sense of power and highlight an individual as a leader. This "code," which designates leadership, is referred to by Richard Murray as the Imperial Mode on this web site.

In his portraits of Native Americans, George Catlin adopted his own "code" through which he conveyed the power and leadership qualities of his American Indian subjects. Catlin translated Native American attributes of leadership into a language that could be understood by his Western audience.

This lesson plan is designed to introduce students to the ways in which consistent patterns of gesture and pose chosen by an artist (specifically George Catlin) communicate ideas of power and leadership about the subject of the portrait.

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Lesson Plan Table of Contents

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