Introducing French Students to Impressionism

Musée d'Orsay, Paris, home to many Impressionist paintings.

I hardly consider myself an expert in art history, but I do like to introduce my students to the world of Impressionism, an art form so closely associated with French painters.  Through reading The Private Lives of the Impressionists and a biography about Claude Monet, I became more knowledgeable about this form of art and the artists who created and developed it.

The Japanese bridge at Monet's Giverny residence.

Towards the end of the year, I do a two-day introductory lesson on Impressionism where I focus in on Monet, Renoir, and Degas in particular.  Here are some of my favorite resources and activities for teaching Impressionism:

These videos about Monet, Renoir, and Degas, respectively:

This video gives a nice introduction to Monet but also explains a little bit about how Impressionism as an art form came to be.

This video on Degas is a little on the short side (it's a preview for a 22-minute special), and it's obviously intended for a younger audience than my seventh graders, but I found it to be the most concise of any other Degas biography I could find.

The third video I show is an excerpt from "Discovering the Arts:  Impressionism & Beyond," which has a brief biography on Renoir in the section entitled "Styles of Renoir and Monet."  I don't show the Monet part because I like the Biography Channel video better for that.  Access to this video requires a Discovery Education account.  If your school doesn't subscribe to Discovery Education, I'm sure a suitable substitute can be found, but I just happen to really like this one.  If you have an account, you can find the video by logging in and searching for "Styles of Renoir and Monet."  The first minute and a half or so has the biography on Renoir.

Tourists admiring Impressionist paintings at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

This presentation created by Bonnie Rafferty and uploaded to TES Connect does a nice job of briefly explaining the concept of Impressionism in French and showing examples of famous works.  To download the presentation, you just need to sign up for a free TES account.  When I used it, I simplified the language to make it more comprehensible for seventh grade and added sections on Renoir and Degas.  I used to have students transfer some of the information into guided notes as we read it together, but now that we have iPads, I'm thinking of turning this into a group activity.

Clockwise from top left:  "Le bassin aux nymphéas" (Monet), "Nymphéas" (Monet), "La balançoire" (Renoir), "Répétition d'un ballet sur la scène" (Degas); all public domain works.

After showing students some works by Monet, Renoir, and Degas, and asking them about the light and colors that they see (en français, bien sûr !), I project nine or ten works on the SMART Board at once.  Students, in small groups, choose one work, and prepare three sentences about it in French:  who the artist is, what colors are present in the painting, who is in the painting or what the weather is.  They then present these sentences to the class, and the class guesses which painting they are talking about.

After students have learned a little bit about the Impressionists, I like to take them to Paris...virtually that is...and walk them through the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie.  As I take them by various works, I ask students to identify the colors they see and try and figure out who the artist is.  By this point, the students know enough about the differences between Monet, Renoir, and Degas, that they are usually pretty successful at this.  The easiest way to navigate these two museums is through the Google Cultural Institute.  It allows you to click on a work and it will transport you there in the museum.  Click on either of the museum screen shots above to visit them via the Google Cultural Institute.

View L'impressionnisme in a larger map

Finally, when time permits, I have in the past showed my students this Google Map of Impressionist work around the world.  It gives me an opportunity to show how Impressionism extends beyond France itself and just another way to tie in geography.

How do you introduce your students to art from the Francophone world?

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