Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
5 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff


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Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment Overview
Timeline: Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment
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Lesson Overview

Students will gain insight into the influence of the Enlightenment on American society and government by comparing Neoclassical objects from the Getty collection to American civic architecture of the time.

Learning Objectives

• Students will be able to discuss the moral and political ideas of the Enlightenment.
• Students will be able to articulate how the Enlightenment and Neoclassical style influenced democratic thought in American institutions.


• Images and photocopies of artworks below
• Information about artworks, found in the Image Bank
• Overhead projector
• Pencils and paper
• Images of Neoclassical American buildings, such as:

• U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.
• University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
• Redwood Library, Newport, RI
• First Baptist Church, Providence, RI
• Massachusetts State House, Boston, MA
• Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

Lesson Steps

1. Using the background information provided, introduce the Enlightenment to the class by presenting its main philosophical ideas.

2. Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group one image from the Getty Museum. Have each group analyze its assigned work of art for 10 to 15 minutes. You may give students some of the Questions for Teaching, found in the Image Bank for each object, to guide their analysis. Students should describe how pattern, texture, line, shape, and symmetry are used in their assigned artwork. Ask students to discuss how artists used classical motifs and designs in their compositions, describe the types of materials used, speculate on where their object might have been placed, and explain where they see concepts from the Enlightenment expressed in the work. Each group should designate one person to take notes during the analysis.

3. After the discussion, one representative from each group will present the group's analysis to the class. After each presentation, ask the class to expand on or add to the analysis. Then share the background information about the works of art and artists with the class.

4. Pick a few examples of Neoclassical American architecture. Use the examples listed above or other civic buildings and institutions that were built in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. As a class, compare and contrast the Getty objects with the selected American buildings. Students should identify similarities and differences (symmetrical composition, use of architectural elements, treatment of figures, etc.) in designs, materials used, and what was being depicted. Ask students to discuss how the featured Getty artworks relate to the American architecture. Share the functions or purpose of the civic buildings with the students.

5. Explain to students that many of the nation's founding fathers traveled to Europe and met with the great philosophical and political thinkers of the time. Inform the students that our political leaders wanted to instill many of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the roots of early American society and politics. Discuss with students aspects of American democracy: the promotion of inalienable rights by having a chief of state who is not a monarch; the representative legislative body; and the beliefs in progress, the autonomy of the individual, and the right to civil liberties.

6. Discuss how American architects express Enlightenment beliefs and the founding fathers' ideals for American democracy in their buildings. Have students identify what images or design elements lead them to their conclusions. Continue the discussion by asking students to analyze the political statements made by the use of Neoclassical design in American architecture. (Have students speculate about why the founding fathers chose these architectural forms. Students should refer to their own analyses of the architecture and the fundamentals of design in the classical and Neoclassical styles.) What messages do these buildings provide to the general public about the state of American society? What messages do they convey about the nation's political beliefs?

7. Divide students into pairs. One student should take on the role of an Enlightenment philosopher, and one should act as a Neoclassical architect. Using pencils and large sheets of paper, have students design a front elevation plan for a school, library, courthouse, city hall, or other public building. The philosopher should keep in mind the main principles of American democracy and the Enlightenment. The architect should research and keep in mind Neoclassical design elements and fit them to the philosophical ideas. Both students should work together to come up with a cohesive design that visually expresses the civic statement and purpose of the building. Students can use the featured Getty artworks for inspiration and design motifs. They may also research Neoclassical objects from the Getty Web site for inspiration.

8. After students complete their designs, set them up around the room and have the class speculate about the purpose the buildings serve and what ideals each expresses. Have each group explain its designs and the process of creating them.

Musical Clock / D. Roentgen
Long Case Musical Clock, German, about 1876


Observation of student discussion and cooperative work for inclusion of the following:
• Newly acquired vocabulary.
• Identification of the main principles of the Enlightenment and of American democracy, and the reflection of these concepts in art and architecture.

Evaluation of students' visual assignment for:
• Identification and use of Neoclassical art elements and designs.
• Neatness, and inclusion of at least one concept from American democracy or the Enlightenment into part of a unified Neoclassical design.

Evaluation of students' visual assignment for:
• Identification and use of Neoclassical architectural elements and designs.
• Inclusion of at least one concept from American democracy or the Enlightenment into part of a unified Neoclassical design.

Students should be able to identify in colonial American architecture:
• Neoclassical characteristics (use of ancient forms and decoration).
• Relationship of works to antiquity, both similarities (architectural elements) and differences (media, function/purpose of buildings).
• Relationship of work to Enlightenment philosophy, particularly as it applies to the founding fathers (greatness of democracy, strength of the individual, duty to family and country).

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Research and describe how art reflects cultural values in various traditions throughout the world.
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.

Grade 8
Artistic Perception
1.1 Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of works of art.

Grades 9–12
Artistic Perception
1.4 Analyze and describe how the composition of a work of art is affected by the use of a particular principle of design.
1.5 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work.

Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

7.11.5 Describe how democratic thought and institutions were influenced by Enlightenment thinkers.

Grade 8
8.1.4 Describe the nation's blend of civic republicanism, classical liberal principles, and English parliamentary traditions.

Grade 11
11.1.1 Describe the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas as the context in which the nation was founded.

Grade 12
12.1.1 Analyze the influence of ancient Greek, Roman, English, and leading European political thinkers such as John Locke, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Niccol??chiavelli, and William Blackstone on the development of American government.

National Standards for Visual Arts

Grades 5–8
Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
Students select media, techniques, and processes; analyze what makes them effective or not effective in communicating ideas; and reflect upon the effectiveness of their choices.
Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.

Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions
Students generalize about the effects of visual structures and functions and reflect upon these effects in their own work.
Students employ organizational structures and analyze what makes them effective or not effective in the communication of ideas. Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas.

Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks.
Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.

Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
Students know and compare the characteristics of artworks in various eras and cultures.
Students describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts.
Students analyze, describe, and demonstrate how factors of time and place (such as climate, resources, ideas, and technology) influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art.

Reflecting Upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students compare multiple purposes for creating works of art.
Students analyze contemporary and historic meanings in specific artworks through cultural and aesthetic inquiry.
Students describe and compare a variety of individual responses to their own artworks and to artworks from various eras and cultures.

Making Connections between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines
Students compare the characteristics of works in two or more art forms that share similar subject matter, historical periods, or cultural context.
Students describe ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with the visual arts.

Grades 9–12
Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
Students apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.
Students conceive and create works of visual art that demonstrate an understanding of how the communication of their ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes they use.

Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions
Students demonstrate the ability to form and defend judgments about the characteristics and structures to accomplish commercial, personal, communal, or other purposes of art.
Students evaluate the effectiveness of artworks in terms of organizational structures and functions.
Students create artworks that use organizational principles and functions to solve specific visual arts problems.

Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
Students reflect on how artworks differ visually, spatially, temporally, and functionally, and describe how these are related to history and culture.

Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
Students differentiate among a variety of historical and cultural contexts in terms of characteristics and purposes of works of art. Students describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.
Students analyze relationships of works of art to one another in terms of history, aesthetics, and culture, justifying conclusions made in the analysis and using such conclusions to inform their own art making.

Reflecting Upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students identify intentions of those creating artworks, explore the implications of various purposes, and justify their analyses of purposes in particular works. Students describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.
Students reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works of visual art.

Making Connections between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines
Students compare the materials, technologies, media, and processes of the visual arts with those of other arts disciplines as they are used in creation and types of analysis.
Students compare characteristics of visual arts within a particular historical period or style with ideas, issues, or themes in the humanities or sciences.

National Standards for Social Sciences

Grades 5–12

U.S. History
Revolution and the New Nation
Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.