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The Changing Landscape

Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
2–3 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom
Curriculum Home
Lesson Plans
Image Bank
Brief History of the Landscape Genre
Discussion Questions

Lesson Overview

Students learn about the evolution of landscape painting in France from the 17th to the 19th century. They will examine and compare three landscape paintings, emphasizing space, depth, and the concepts of foreground, middle ground, and background.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• define the concept and composition of a landscape painting.
• discuss the evolution of French landscape painting from Nicolas Poussin to Gustave Courbet.
• research and write a short essay about a French landscape painter that describes his or her unique painting techniques.


• images of the three landscapes listed below
• heavy paper or canvas, pencils, paint (acrylic or water-soluble oils), and paint brushes
• reference resources found in the Bibliography

Lesson Steps

1. Explain to students that they are going to look at how two different artists have painted the landscape at different times in history. Do not reveal the titles of the works to students.

2. Use the following questions to discuss Nicholas Poussin's, Landscape with a Calm. Refer to the Image Bank, by clicking on the thumbnails above, for answers to the questions.
• What is the subject of this work?
• What do you see in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the painting?
• What techniques do you see that the artist used to separate the foreground, middle ground, and background? Have students point out some examples. (The three areas—foreground middle ground, and background—are known as the "zones of recession" because they depict a recession into space within two-dimensional space. Objects in the foreground appear larger than those in the middle ground or background. This is known as scale or relative size. The artist uses overlapping to give a sense of spatial depth, for example objects in the foreground overlap objects in the middle ground. Poussin used atmospheric perspective to give a sense of receding space. Colors in the foreground are darker and have more contrast, while colors in the distance have less contrast and become bluer in the distance.)

3. The questions above are designed to get students to discuss the following techniques artists use to convey depth: relative size, overlapping, and atmospheric perspective. If students are having difficulty recognizing and discussing the concept of relative size, use the activity in Step 5 of the lesson From Foreground to Background.

4. Ask students what title they would give to this work. Once they have shared some answers, discuss Poussin's title, Landscape with a Calm. Why do you think the artist called it that?

5. Ask students if they think that this is a real place that they could actually visit. Refer to the background information on the painting found in the Image Bank. Discuss the reasons that Poussin created ordered, imagined landscapes.

6. Inform students that they will now be looking at a landscape painting created much later by another French artist. Show students Courbet's Landscape near Ornans and use questions similar to those used to discuss the Poussin. Ask students to note similarities and differences between the two works. It may be necessary to refer back to the Poussin image.
• How is this painting similar to the previous painting we looked at?
• How is this painting different from the previous painting?
• What do you see in the foreground, middle ground, and background of this painting?
• Where does the foreground stop and the middle ground begin in this painting? How can you tell? (In this work the transition from foreground to background is difficult to see clearly. The shadowed area in the lower right of the painting marks the boundary between foreground and middle ground. The path sharply curves away in the middle ground where the rock outcroppings are also found.)
• How did the artist create the illusion of depth in this painting?
• How would you compare the use of depth in this work to depth in the painting by Poussin?
• What elements of art does Courbet seem to have been most focused on? Where do you see these elements in the painting?
• Why do you think the two paintings are so different? (Courbet was more interested in areas of contrast in the landscape and in the textural surface he created to communicate the rock face. He emphasized his use of paint in the picture, whereas Poussin has painted a scene of illusions using his painting techniques to create perspective and a naturalistic space, like a window into the world.)

7. Give students some background information on Landscape near Ornans, Courbet, and the shifts in 19th-century French landscape painting (found in Brief History of the Landscape Genre and in the Image Bank). Print out the information, then pass it out to the students and have them read and discuss it in small groups before discussing it together as a class.

8. Finally, ask students to consider the landscape Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, also by Gustave Courbet. Use similar questioning strategies as used with the previous Courbet landscape. It may be necessary to refer back to the other two paintings already discussed.
• What do you think is the subject of this painting? What do you see that makes you think that?
• How is this painting different from the previous painting we looked at?
• How is this painting different from the painting by Poussin?
• Can you find the foreground, middle ground, or background in this painting?
• Why do you think Courbet created this image so close-up with no surrounding details? What do you think he was most interested in?
• Did Courbet even attempt to create an illusion of spatial depth? If so how? (Rather than using zones of recession and atmospheric perspective to create depth in the work, Courbet created a shallow depth for the cave with the curved lines that arch from the lower left to the upper right of the painting. These swirls of rock face and the thin blue stream running in from the left-hand corner of the canvas, lead the eye into the blackness at the back of the grotto, towards the center of the canvas.)
• Aside from space, what other elements of art did Courbet seem to focus on in this painting? Where do you see them in the painting? Are these elements different than the ones he seemed focused on in the previous painting? (Courbet was even more concerned with contrast and texture in this work, than in Landscape near Ornans. The textural surface really takes over in this work. The scraped surfaces became a signature of how Courbet approached many of his landscape subjects.)

9. Share with students additional background information on Courbet, the Grotto of Sarrazine Near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, and the shifts in 19th-century French landscape painting (found under Brief History of the Landscape Genre and in the Image Bank). Print out the information, then pass it out to the students and have them read and discuss it in small groups before discussing it together as a class.

10. Ask students if this landscape depicts an actual place or if it is imagined. Compare their answers with their response to the same question earlier about the Poussin painting, and with their knowledge of the other Courbet painting.

11. Finally, have students consider which style of landscape painting they prefer and feel more drawn to. Review past questions and answers with students to help them understand that between the 17th century and the 19th century in France conventions in landscape painting changed greatly. The illusionism of the 17th century gave way to the textural, painted surface, which became a dominant feature in the works of many artists who followed Courbet.

12. Have students research one of the landscape painters from the following list. Give them an assignment to write a short essay (one to two pages) that discusses the biography of the artist, the subjects he painted, and his unique painting style. Have students use books, encyclopedias, and the Internet to research their artist. The Bibliography provides research resources.
• Paul Cézanne
• Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
• Vincent van Gogh
• Claude Lorrain
• Claude Monet
• Camille Pissarro
• Pierre August Renior
• Théodore Rousseau
• Alfred Sisley
• Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes

Landscape near Ornans / Courbet
Gustave Courbet, Landscape near Ornans, 1864
Toledo Museum of Art


Students' short essays will be assessed based on California English—Language Arts content standards for writing strategies and applications, and written and oral language conventions. Students will also be assessed based on participation in class discussions and group cooperation.


To connect to the Creative Expressions component of the California Visual Arts Standards, consider having students create a landscape in the style of the artist they researched. For connections to California English—Language Arts Standards, have students exercise their speaking skills and present their research and compositions to the class.

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 7

1.0 Artistic Perception
Students perceive and respond to works of art, objects in nature, events, and the environment. They also use the vocabulary of the visual arts to express their observations.
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Describe the environment and selected works of art, using the elements of art and the principles of design.
Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design
1.3 Identify and describe the ways in which artists convey the illusion of space (e.g., placement, overlapping, relative size, atmospheric perspective, and linear perspective).

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.2 Compare and contrast works of art from various periods, styles, and cultures and explain how those works reflect the society in which they were made.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.2 Analyze the form (how a work of art looks) and content (what a work of art communicates) of works of art.

English—Language Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 7

1.0 Word Analysis, Fluency, and Systematic Vocabulary Development
Students use their knowledge of word origins and word relationships, as well as historical and literary context clues, to determine the meaning of specialized vocabulary and to understand the precise meaning of grade-level-appropriate words.

2.0 Reading Comprehension (Focus on Informational Materials)
Students read and understand grade-level-appropriate material. They describe and connect the essential ideas, arguments, and perspectives of the text by using their knowledge of text structure, organization, and purpose.
Structural Features of Informational Materials
2.1 Understand and analyze the differences in structure and purpose between various categories of informational materials (e.g., textbooks, newspapers, instructional manuals, signs).
2.2 Locate information by using a variety of consumer, workplace, and public documents.

1.0 Writing Strategies
Students write clear, coherent, and focused essays. The writing exhibits students' awareness of the audience and purpose. Essays contain formal introductions, supporting evidence, and conclusions. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed.
Organization and Focus
1.1 Create an organizational structure that balances all aspects of the composition and uses effective transitions between sentences to unify important ideas.
1.2 Support all statements and claims with anecdotes, descriptions, facts and statistics, and specific examples.
1.3 Use strategies of note taking, outlining, and summarizing to impose structure on composition drafts.
Research and Technology
1.4 Identify topics; ask and evaluate questions; and develop ideas leading to inquiry, investigation, and research.
1.5 Give credit for both quoted and paraphrased information in a bibliography by using a consistent and sanctioned format and methodology for citations.
Evaluation and Revision
1.7 Revise writing to improve organization and word choice after checking the logic of the ideas and the precision of the vocabulary.

2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
Students write narrative, expository, persuasive, and descriptive texts of at least 500 to 700 words in each genre. The writing demonstrates a command of standard American English and the research, organizational, and drafting strategies outlined in Writing Standard 1.0.
2.3 Write research reports:
a. Pose relevant and tightly drawn questions about the topic.
b. Convey clear and accurate perspectives on the subject.
c. Include evidence compiled through the formal research process (e.g., use of a card catalog, Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a computer catalog, magazines, newspapers, dictionaries).
d. Document reference sources by means of footnotes and a bibliography.

Written and Oral English Language Conventions
1.0 Written and Oral English Language Conventions
Students write and speak with a command of standard English conventions appropriate to the grade level.
Sentence Structure
1.1 Place modifiers properly and use the active voice. Grammar
1.2 Identify and use infinitives and participles and make clear references between pronouns and antecedents.
1.4 Demonstrate the mechanics of writing (e.g., quotation marks, commas at end of dependent clauses) and appropriate English usage (e.g., pronoun reference).
1.5 Identify hyphens, dashes, brackets, and semicolons and use them correctly.
1.6 Use correct capitalization.
1.7 Spell derivatives correctly by applying the spellings of bases and affixes.

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