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Symbolism, Prepositions, and Description: The Art of Vanitas

Subject:Art, English Language Arts, ESL

Grade Level: 9-12

Description: Students discover the world of the 16th and 17th century Dutch still-life painting known as vanitas. These paintings are a collection of objects that hold symbolic meanings to represent the temporal quality of life.

How it Works: Through a variety of modalities, students use adjectives and prepositions in order to respond to and write descriptive sentences about the vanitas. They explore symbols, when applicable, and create their own personal vanitas with objects that are important to them. Finally, they write artist’s statements to accompany their work of art.

Final Project/Product: An excellent culminating event can be mounting and exhibiting the student work. Students can set up a gallery exhibition on a bulletin board and invite parents and the school community. Viewers can guess at what certain objects symbolize, and put responses and questions in a box or in a sign-in album as in a real gallery. Other ELLs can visit the exhibit to write about the work and practice their understanding of adjectives, prepositions, and symbolism.

Overall Value: The best feature of this program is that it takes a classic art form and links it to the contemporary, bringing a new sense of appreciation for what might have otherwise been falsely perceived as old and irrelevant. The lessons employ the use of websites from notable collections that span the globe, bringing the students access to dozens of artworks and contemporary, multicultural artists who work in this genre using innovative techniques to address current societal themes. It allows students to appreciate everyday objects with a new sense of value when considering things in light of time passing.

English Language Learners: Linguistic: The improper use of prepositions is one of the most common sentence-level errors. These prepositions frequently reoccur in even very advanced ELL writers. By using vanitas as content, students will be motivated by the content of the artwork to refine their usage of the prepositions of place.

Tips for the Teacher: This unit can be done with or without student art production, as it can be taught as art history lessons. Vanitas is often fascinating to adolescents and can be used as a means to produce language using adjectives and prepositions when writing descriptions.


 Standards Addressed
Students actively engage in the processes that constitute creation and performance in the arts.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: Art
Students respond critically to a variety of works in the arts, connecting the individual work to other works and to other aspects of human endeavor and thought.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: Art
Students read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts
Students read, write, listen, and speak for literary response and expression.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts

Day 1: Introduction to “Nature Morte”
Students will become aware of the world of vanitas and the historical background and philosophy of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century.
Students will be introduced to the genre of still-life paintings.
Students will be able to identify the ten basic prepositions of place.
Students will be able to demonstrate comprehension of the spatial relationships via prepositions of place.
Everyday objects such as fruit, flowers, half-burned candles, and other objects that are seen in vanitas
LCD projector and computer
Computers with Internet access (If your school does not have computer access for each student, you can print images and distribute to the class)
Vanitas, nature morte, temporal, ”carpe diem”, and the prepositions of place: in, on, above, behind, next to, under, on top of, in front of, besides
Procedure 1
When students walk in the room, have a still-life set up using compositional elements such as a half-full tall glass or bottle, fruits or vegetables half eaten, bones (i.e., from eating chicken), etc.
a. Ask students to describe what they see.
b. Students do a free write to describe what they see, using as much detail as possible.
c. Introduce the concept of a vanitas painting.
d. Have students look at traditional still-life paintings and vanitas paintings on websites below.
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (for traditional still lifes) http://nga.gov/education/american/still.shtm
Procedure 2
Students write descriptions of the online still lifes from the National Gallery.
a. Solicit from students if the objects in the still-lifes hold certain meaning and what they may represent or mean to a person as a set of objects.
b. Ask students to volunteer to share their writing about the still-lifes.
c. Collect papers.
Procedure 3
Chose a notable still-life to talk about.
a. Demonstrate how prepositions are used to describe the piece, i.e., the bottle is next to the orange, next to the table there is an old chair, etc.
b. Distribute a written description of your still-life, have students circle the prepositions.
Procedure 4
Use TPR (totally physical response) to have students move around the room until you say “Freeze”.
a. Look at the real-life tableau and point out relationships, i.e., Julian is next to Jackie, Harry is behind Sally.
b. Instruct students to change positions by using the imperative: John, stand next to Billy; Bobby, put your pencil on top of the table, etc.
c. Laugh.
Have students reflect on at least one object that is meaningful to them. If possible, have them photograph the object or bring it to school (if it is not valuable—many will use their cell phones or iPods as most cherished objects). Students write about why the object holds meaning for them.
Read the in-class writing. Have students use details in their descriptions that include HOW the objects were arranged. Circle prepositional phrases and words in their writing. Use this writing as a baseline assessment to evaluate the student’s preliminary writing with regard to proposition usage.

Day 2: Singing the Prepositions
Students will recognize when they are using prepositions and how the should be used.
Students will expand their knowledge of still-lifes to encompass the cultural mores of the Dutch and why they chose certain objects that are present in the vanitas.
Students will apply the concept of symbolism in analyzing works of art.
Students will hone their active listening skills by creating drawings of still-lifes according to their partner’s description of the arrangement—dependent on the prepositions they use.
LCD and computer
Computers or printouts
Optional: music of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”
About, above, across, after, along, among, around, at, before, beside, between, against, within, without, beneath, through, during, under, in, into, over, of, off, to, toward, up, on, near, for, from, except, by, with, behind, below, down
Procedure 1
Teach students the preposition song to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (and/or just print it out).
Printed copy of preposition song http://misscantillon.com/Preposition%20Song.htm
Procedure 2
Introduce vanitas paintings.
a. Have students write descriptions of what they see in these paintings.
b. Students continue beyond descriptive sentences to include some analysis of what the symbolic meaning of the objects have when considering the theme of vanitas paintings.
Vanitas in the Rikjs Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands http://rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-A-3930?lang=en
Procedure 3
Students work in pairs to peer edit for comprehension and they circle the prepositions in each other’s writing.
a. Student volunteers share their writing by reading aloud.
At home, create an arrangement of objects in the manner of a still-life. They can be ordinary household items such as kitchen utensils. Write an accompanying paragraph to describe the objects.
Working in pairs, studnets read descriptions of their arrangements to one another. As one reads, the other draws (can be in VERY simplistic, stick-figure like drawing) what he/she hears in the description. Then the students check each other’s drawings for accuracy—if the listener understood the layout of the objects correctly.

Day 3: Creating our Own Vanitas
Students will create a vanitas and depict it in a drawing.
Students will write an artist’s statement that applies the descriptive symbolism of the chosen objects and use the correct prepositions.
Students will become aware of contemporary vanitas.
Objects for personal vanitas—hopefully they will bring their own. Be creative—a worn sneaker, watches, or anything that shows weathering or has a worn appearance.
Drawing materials (or painting/photography)
weathered, worn, renewable, recycled, found-object sculpture
Procedure 1
Examine a website showing contemporary vanitas. Notice how contemporary artists add flourishes such as insects, smoke, and shadows.
a. Students write descriptions of what they see.
b. Students circle their prepositions then peer edit with a partner.
Art Murmur Gallery http://paulpitsker.com/custom/ArtMurmur_2006-12-14.htm
Procedure 2
Students set up an arrangement of objects for their modern vanitas and do sketches. (Several students can draw one still-life at once, with each representing a different angle of the arrangement.)
a. Students write up a description of the still-life.
b. Students write at least two reasons for using the objects they chose (or, if they did not bring their own objects, they can write about two that they are interested in) and what they can symbolize.
Students can write short autobiographies that get added to their paragraph to comprise the artists statement.
Students are able to create the contemporary vanitas and add personal meaning to the objects displayed as shown in their writing with correct use of prepositions.

Day 4: Contemporary Vanitas: Sculptural Applications
Students will become aware of how contemporary artists deal with the traditional theme of vanitas. Highlight the multicultural backgrounds of the artists represented in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition via the website below.
Students will see how three-dimensional objects can represent an idea via creation of a sculpture.
Students will take an object, deconstruct it, and then fashion it back together with stitchery, glue, or other mediums that are obvious to the viewer.
Introduce the blog, “BoingBoing" that is titled “a directory of wonderful things." Originally an online magazine, BoingBoing’s content deals with items about technology, pop culture, etc. As a Web 2.0 tool, students can have interactive experiences by responding to cutting-edge cultural trends and the latest in technological gadgets.
Everyday objects of no value (can be found in a thrift store or around most art teachers' rooms)
Joining materials: needles, threads, glue, glue guns, etc.
LCD projector and computer
Computers for students and/or printouts
Procedure 1
Students examine artists who create sculptures that can be considered vanitas.
a. Students respond to the sculptural vanitas through class discussion, and/or writing.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts http://vmfa.museum/vanitas.html
Representations of loss in art, two-dimensional vs. three-dimensional, texture
Procedure 2
Highlight the artist Damien Hurst and his diamond-encrusted skull. Remind students that this work of art is selling for $100 million.
a. Have students participate in the blog discussion about the value of Hurst’s skull on BoingBoing.net.
Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2007/06/02/damien-hirsts-diamon.html
Additional readings about contemporary vanitas artists. Students can write response letters to the artists by looking up the galleries that represent them on the web, or, if possible, directly to the artist’s website.
Blog entries on Boing Boing.

Day 5: Carpe Diem-Celebrating Life
To create a display of student work with accompanying artist statements that contains descriptions of their vanitas.
Have students participate in a critique of each other's work by choosing one drawing that is interesting and writing about what they see using description and prepositions of place.
Materials for exhibiting a show--it can be as basic as thumb tacks on a bulletin board or more elaborate by mounting work on foam core or in mats; table or display case for 3-D objects
Exhibition, display, critique, feedback
Procedure 1
Students set up a display of work. Mount/mat work if desired.
a. First consider the space. Lay out any flat work on the ground and space out the work BEFORE stapling to a board or wall.
b. Hang work for a show.
Procedure 2
Students look at each other’s work and make notes.
a. They write about each other’s pieces as critiques, using descriptive words and analysis. **Sentence starters can be very helpful for ELL students, or others who are beginning to use a critical dialogue when talking about art, i.e. “I am interested in _______because…”, “I think the artist’s message is______because he/she used…”
Create invitations or brochures to invite others to the final showing of student work.
Ability to describe and analyze one’s own work and others using conventions of Standard English.

Anne Kornfeld


Newcomers High School
2801 41st Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101

Anne Kornfeld is a media diva and wearer of many colored hats. She works with immigrant youth at NHS, where she has written and implemented numerous grants for teaching media arts. She also teaches the Web 2.0 class for Teachers Network.

Important documents for this lesson plan.


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