The Maier Museum of Art
at Randolph College

Art & SOL Tour: People, Places, and Ideas in American Art (Grade 5)

The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College has an impressive collection of 19th through 21st century American art. These works provide diverse visual expressions of our cultural heritage. Discover how American artists have portrayed people, places and ideas. Experience how art affects us individually, and contributes to our understanding of the world.


Standards of Learning addressed:

GALLERY 1: 1800 – 1850

Highlights: early portraiture, early landscapes, depicting America

Early portraiture

From colonial times into the nineteenth century, owning art was a luxury for most Americans. For those with the means and desire to buy art, portraits preserved the likenesses of family members and community leaders and conveyed status. This gallery contains a portrait of Mrs. Polly Hooper by Gilbert Stuart, who also painted several portraits of George Washington – his most famous portrait is of George Washington, a painting used as the source for the engraving of Washington on the one-dollar bill.

A portrait of Lynchburg native, Mary Elizabeth Morgan, by Virginia artist George Fitzwilson provides a contrast in style and method to Stuart’s portrait. Fitzwilson was a limner artist, or a mostly untrained (self-taught) artist for hire. Limners traveled along routes, much like a “traveling salesman” offering their services to a growing middle class. To create the portrait of Mary Elizabeth Morgan, Fitzwilson used a “stock” method, pre-painting the landscape and body, leaving only the facial features to be painted at the time of the sitting. Limners charged less than trained artists, making them attractive to the growing middle class because portraits in the home conveyed an air of refinement.  This portrait gives students an opportunity to discuss proportion and scale and drawing from observation.

Self Portrait by Louise Jordan Smith, a trailblazing teacher who founded the college’s art collection, was completed while looking in the mirror on view across from the pastel painting. The three-quarter view shows a strong resemblance to Smith.

Early landscapes

For early American landscape artists, the endless expanse of the American wilderness symbolized the country’s potential for greatness. Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and John Frederick Kensett led the way with paintings of panoramic views rendered with precise detail. These serene and awe-inspiring vistas, in which a small figure often communes with nature, were intended to evoke elevated thoughts and feelings as well as immense pride in America. These landscapes provide opportunities to identify atmospheric perspective, foreground/middle ground/background, focal point and overlapping shapes.

Virginia artist Flavius Fisher’s painting Dismal Swamp is a luminous depiction of Lake Drummond, the freshwater lake at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp, a marshland in the Coastal Plain (Tidewater) region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, was first surveyed by George Washington in 1763. He and investors purchased the area to “drain the swamp,” harvest the trees for lumber, and replant the land with crops. This region provided refuge for Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier in the 1600s, and later enslaved people seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad. For many, the Great Dismal Swamp became a permanent home, where they established hidden, self-sufficient communities called maroons. Today, this region is a national wildlife refuge.

Lynchburg in 1845 by Augustus Köllner shows the city viewed from the Amherst side of the James River at a point in Lynchburg’s history when tobacco, our major industry, was transported on the James River. The landscape is detailed drawing in ink on pages pulled from a sketchbook.

John James Audubon was an ornithologist and artist fascinated with the habits of birds. He created a detailed catalog of American bird species, a massive four volume book called Birds of America. Rather than depicting scientific rendering of birds, as other ornithologists had done, Audubon rendered birds in their natural habitat, in painstaking detail.  Marsh Wren, an engraving on hand colored paper, accurately depicts three birds and their oval-shaped nest. The Coastal Plain (Tidewater) region of Virginia is a temporary residence for Marsh Wrens during the spring and fall migration periods.

GALLERY 2: 1850 – 1910

Highlights: Developments in portraiture, American Impressionism, experiments with texture

Developments in American Portraiture

The popularization of photography in the mid-1900s contributed to changes in art. Since photography could depict the world more accurately than painting, painters shifted from representing reality to portraying emotions and impressions of the subject. Students will compare portraits.

Portraiture by Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and Marion Boyd Allen convey more information about their subjects’ personalities and professions than do the earlier portraits from Gallery 2, in which depicting the sitter’s likeness in a pleasing manner was usually the sole objective. Marion Boyd Allen’s Portrait of Anna Vaughn Hyatt shows the sculptor working on a clay maquette (model) of Joan of Arc on horseback in preparation for the full-size bronze sculpture that now resides in NYC. The sculpture was the first New York City monument created by a female artist.

American Impressionism

During and following the Civil War American artists adopted many styles of European art as they flocked there to study in the famous academies. Deriving their style from French Impressionists, the American Impressionists used loose brushstrokes and a combination of warm and cool colors to capture the effects of sunlight and atmosphere. The invention of the metal paint tube in 1840 by American oil painter John Goffe Rand enabled artists to transport paints. Prior to this, paint was stored in the bladders of small animals such as pigs. To capture the quality of light, American Impressionists painted outdoors, or “en plein air” (in the open air) instead of in the studio. They were not concerned with rendering precise details. Instead, they wanted to capture the impression of a moment in time. Short, layered brushstrokes are characteristic of American Impressionism. Childe Hassam’s Early Evening after Snowfall presents New York City in the winter, while John Twachtman’s Azaleas, shows a garden in the late summer or spring.

Mary Cassatt, the only American artist invited to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris, is known for her portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments. Sketch of Mother and Daughter Looking at Baby is a pastel drawing created in preparation for a painting.

Some artists experimented with paint application and instead of the traditional smooth surface they left the surface textured. Frederick Waugh used a palette knife instead of a paintbrush to create the textured waves and storm clouds in Kelp Covered Rocks. Maurice Prendergast’s signature style is characterized by a heavy application of paint, a bright palette, and flattened, stylized compositions. The Idlers depicts women from “high society” leisurely enjoying an afternoon on a lake shore.

John Sloan, a member of a group of painters from the early twentieth century called the Ashcan School, reacted against the refined subject matter of Impressionism. Instead of idyllic countryside and the leisure class images, he depicted urban themes, especially the working poor. Sun and Wind on the Roof shows a laundress at work in New York City in 1915.

GALLERY 3: 1910 – 1950

Highlights: abstraction, conceptual art, contemporary Native American Art, contemporary African American Art, mixed media


Arthur Dove was part of a modern approach to making art called abstraction in which the goal is not to show an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colors, lines, and forms to create a composition. Dove’s Cow #1 invites the viewer to “find” the cow in the painting.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s unique artistic vision or approach was to record abstract forms in nature and her surroundings. With exceptionally keen powers of observation, she recorded subtle nuances of color, shape, and light that enlivened her paintings, as seen in Yellow Cactus.

Helen Frankenthaler, known for inventing the “soak-stain technique,” large scale abstractions with thin washes of pigment that soak into the canvas, worked in a style called Abstract Expressionism. London Memos is an example of her signature transparent sea of color.

In a series called “Altered Landscapes,” contemporary Native American artist (Tewa/Hopi) Michael Namingha creates abstract, photography-based works that juxtapose geometric shapes in bright neon colors against black-and-white aerial photographs of New Mexico. The compositions, mounted to shaped plexiglass to create the illusion of three-dimensional works, address the devastating effects of the oil and gas industries [non-renewable energy sources] on ancestral lands. Altered Landscape #2 depicts the eroded [erosion] hills and canyons in northern New Mexico, known as Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. Translated from the Navajo language, Bisti (Bis-tie) means “a large area of shale hills.” De-Na-Zin (Deh-nah-zin) comes from the Navajo word for “standing crane.” This unique landscape of sedimentary rock is renowned for its diverse and well-preserved fossil record. Georgia O’Keeffe visited this area many times between 1936-1949 and made several famous paintings of the landscape, which she called “Black Place.”

Jacob Lawrence, one of America’s best-known African American artists, looked back to the Civil War era for inspiration when he created John Brown’s Arsenal, depicting the abolitionist’s famous Harpers Ferry, Virginia, uprising in an unexpected way. Lawrence grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, an arts movement that was inspired by the Ashcan School and sought to combine realism, ethnic consciousness, and Americanism.


Regionalism was also philosophically related to the Ashcan School and arose in the 1930s. Rejecting abstraction, Regionalists were especially devoted to capturing scenes of rural life. They felt the places and people of America’s heartland truly captured the American spirit. Their outlook has often been linked to the country’s isolationism between World War I and World War II. Thomas Hart Benton was the most vocal proponent of Regionalism, and his painting Preparing the Bill illustrates a distinctly American scene. The image is an example of narrative art, inviting students to “read” the visual text to determine character, setting and plot.

Mixed Media and Contemporary African American Art

Benny Andrews was one of ten children in a family of sharecroppers from Plainview, Georgia. The first in his family to attend school beyond seventh grade, Andrews created figural works using an innovative collage technique. English Teacher is an homage to his High School English teacher and the importance of education in his life. The mixed-media portrait demonstrates how portraiture has evolved since the early 1900s.

Betye Saar, one of the most significant African American female artists active today, is known for combining found materials and personal objects into collage. Nevermore reminds viewers of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and provides students an opportunity to consider what life was like for enslaved Africans in colonial America. The work includes a thin dress made from netting, worn by her aunt, held up by two handmade paper ravens, and black coral. This mixed-media work is another example of ways artists in the 21st century depict ideas, and in this case, using found, non-traditional materials.

Conceptual Art

Conceptual Art is art that emphasizes ideas as much as, or more than, the physical product. Conceptual artists believe that the idea is as much a work of art as the finished piece. Hans Haacke is a world-renowned conceptual artist who addresses many ideas in his work including funding for the arts, which is explored in a maquette that he created for a large sculpture called Gift Horse. A maquette is a French term that refers to the scale model that is 3-dimensional that a sculptor makes before creating the larger, finished sculpture. (As seen in Portrait of Anna Vaughn Hyatt in gallery 2)

GALLERY 4: Contemporary Art

Highlights: contemporary Native American Art, contemporary portraiture, mixed media, ceramics, Harlem Renaissance, social justice issues such as climate justice and racial inequality

This gallery contains many examples of how contemporary artists continue to work in “traditional” themes such as “landscape” and “portraiture,” but in new ways that often address contemporary issues.

In Evolvers, Contemporary Native American photographer Cara Romero questions the impact of renewable energy sources like wind farms, or a group of wind turbines, on Indigenous land in the southwest. She uses digital photography in a style called magical realism.

Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz uses futuristic imagery to recall events from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. His large clay vessel, Convergence: Spirit World Army, was created with traditional Pueblo methods and materials.

Mama Can Sing: You Put the Devil in Me, a serigraph print by African American artist Faith Ringgold, combines image and text to celebrate the music and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, a time she remembers from her childhood.

Aminah Robinson’s work is grounded in the African concept of Sankofa (or learning from the past to move forward).  She was known for combining traditional art materials with found objects and everyday materials such as buttons, cloth, leather, twigs, shells into mixed-media compositions that tell stories of the African American experience, as shown in Untitled: Water Street Series.

THORESEN GALLERY: Contemporary Art

The 112th Annual Exhibition, Back to Front: Artists’ Books by Women, will focus on contemporary artists’ books, works of art in book form or inspired by the idea of a book. Students will be given a small handmade bookmaking project to take home. 5th grade teachers may use this project as a follow up activity in the classroom.

Examples of the works students will see and discuss:

Artist Colette Fu uses her photographs to create elaborate “paper-engineered” pop-up books that tell stories, often about her Chinese heritage. The exhibition will include two works by Inge Bruggeman that come from The Active Reading Series. One work, Deposits, includes a book that is meant to be read while ascending/descending a short ladder. The Accretion of Identity by Julie Chen explores how family, community, and everyday interactions help to create our sense of identity using playful, origami folded components.

Suggested Vocabulary

Familiarizing the students with the following vocabulary will help in preparing them for the tour. Definitions are written on a level intended for the teacher.


museum: an institution dedicated to the collection, care, study, and display of works of art, history, and natural science as objects of lasting value or interest

gallery: a room or building devoted to the exhibition of works of art

label: a small card describing a work of art, usually attached to the wall next to the artwork

school: a “school” of artists is a group of individuals linked often geographically and always philosophically. Artists in a “school” or “movement” share the same approach toward technique and/or share a similar attitude regarding the purpose of making art. Sometimes a school’s philosophy is very much in synch with attitudes in society, other times a school of artists can be at odds with the rest of society.


portrait: a painting, sculpture, drawing, or other representation of a specific, recognizable person

self-portrait: a portrait depicting the artist who created it

landscape: an artistic representation of natural inland scenery

cityscape: an artistic representation of a city scene

seascape: an artistic representation of an ocean scene

abstraction: an artwork which may depict only vaguely identifiable forms or which does not feature recognizable forms at all. In other words, when you look at abstract art you often cannot tell “what it is.”

sculpture: a three-dimensional work of art

sketch: an unstudied or spontaneous drawing or painting usually used as a draft for a finished painting or sculpture

still-life: a picture consisting predominantly of a grouping of objects

realism: to represent the external world in an objective and factual manner

representational: to represent recognizable images, but not necessarily factually or realistically. The opposite of abstract.

folk art: works usually done by a self-taught artists. Also sometimes called “naïve” art.


primary: the pure colors of red, blue, and yellow which are the source for all other colors

secondary: the colors formed by mixing primary colors; the colors orange, violet and green obtained by mixing

primary colors: red and yellow = orange, red and blue = violet, yellow and blue = green

complementary: each primary color has a complementary color which is produced by mixing the other two primary colors. The complementary color of red is green, a mixture of blue and yellow. The complementary color of blue is orange, a mixture of red and yellow. The complementary color of yellow is violet, a mixture of red and blue. Red and green are opposite to each other on the color wheel, as are blue and orange, and yellow and violet. One complementary color completes and intensifies its complementary color.


two-dimensional: possessing the measurements of length and width but lacking thickness or depth

three-dimensional: possessing the measurements of length, width, and thickness; a solid surrounded by space

foreground: the part of a picture which appears closest to the viewer

middle ground: the part of a picture between the foreground and the background

background: the part of a picture representing what lies behind objects in the foreground or middle ground


The following terms will enrich an understanding of the unique progression of American art as trends influence and sometimes blend with one another. These “isms” are not essential vocabulary for your Art & SOL tour.

Hudson River School
The first group of American landscape painters emerged in the 1820s and became known as the Hudson River School because many of them painted in and around the Hudson River Valley and the nearby Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. This was the first coherent American art movement, in the sense that the artists involved shared a similar outlook and approach to making art. They depicted panoramic scenes in precise detail, and regarding nature as a spiritual resource.

The pervasive glow of sunlight in a landscape is characteristic of Luminism, a trend among mid-nineteenth-century artists who saw light as landscape’s most important binding ingredient as well as a symbol of divine presence.

Impressionists shared a style of painting that did not hide the brushstroke nor blobs of paint on the surface. To them, light was even more important than it had been to the earlier Luminists. In fact, for many Impressionists, capturing the quality of light, often shimmering and diffused, was more important than the subject of their painting.

Artists led by Thomas Hart Benton used a robust style to celebrate ordinary working people and the rhythms of rural American life, politics, and society.

Ashcan School (also known as New York Realism or The Eight)
A group of painters and illustrators interested in capturing the gritty atmosphere of urban scenes and details of the lives of ordinary working people.

Harlem Renaissance
A movement of the 1920s that marked the first period of intense activity by African-Americans in the fields of literature, visual art and music. The center of this movement was the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.