Grades/Level: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Single Class Lesson

Author: This lesson was adapted by J. Paul Getty Museum Education staff from a curriculum originally published on the Getty's first education website, ArtsEdNet.


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Lesson Overview

This is the first lesson in a sequential unit. Students consider the ways that sculptors have represented concepts and ideals as symbolic forms in three dimensions. They compare historical examples to those in contemporary culture, and begin sketching designs for their own symbolic sculpture.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• identify and discuss symbolic concepts or ideals represented in works of art.
• Identify the use of symbolic sculptures in contemporary culture.
• develop their own symbol and sketch a plan for a sculptural form that incorporates the symbol.
• use vocabulary about sculpture in class discussion.


• Journals for note taking and sketching
• Images of sculptures from the Getty Museum's collection. Below are suggested objects for this unit. Click on thumbnails for brief historical information. Additional research may be added and other works may be substituted.

Lesson Steps

1. Show the class sculptures from the Getty Museum. Have students select one work and respond to the three questions below in writing. This exercise will demonstrate that each individual can respond to the same art object differently.
• What idea, concept, or characteristic would you guess is represented symbolically in this sculpture?
• Point out two details you see in the sculpture that support this conclusion.
• How do you think this sculpture was constructed? What material(s) do you think the artist used? What do you see that leads you to that conclusion?

2. Lead a classroom discussion in which students share their responses about each object. After discussing the students' hypotheses, share the following information from the Getty Web site about each work and have a discussion comparing the works.
• Symbolism—Tell students what the sculpture was meant to symbolize, if it is known.
• History and use—Tell students the historical background behind the image and explain how the object was intended to be displayed or used.
• Technique and material—Tell students how the artist created the sculpture and what material(s) he or she used.

3. Have students evaluate how successful each sculpture is at communicating its symbolic message using the following criteria.
Symbolic representations:
• What kinds of symbols are represented in these works? (universal experiences [death, seasons], familial qualities [ancestral accomplishments, social position], and personal qualities [bravery, wisdom, virility])
• Could you tell what was symbolized just by looking?

Dynamism and Stasis:
• These sculptures do not actually move. But artists speak of movement in a sculpture. What do you think this means?
• Which of these sculptures have movement? Which have no movement?
• How does the movement or lack of movement help convey the symbolic message of the artwork?

Technique and Material:
• Some sculptures are constructed from a material, like clay, that is built up by adding on more and more of the material to create the final work. Other works are made by taking a piece of material like stone or marble and cutting away, or "subtracting" pieces to create the work. Which artists used an additive process to create their work? Which used a subtractive process?
• Why do you think they chose a particular method?
• How does the method help the artist convey the symbolic message of the artwork?

4. As a class, come up with a definition of sculpture, with a list of elements and qualities that a sculpture can have. Chart student responses for later use.

5. Connect the discussion about sculpture to the students' lives. Students may find some of the symbolism in the Getty artworks humorous or obscure. Ask them to think about contemporary symbols of ideas, experiences, and values. Record their responses. Be sure to ask students what these symbols represent. Examples include:
• eagle on a flagpole (freedom, democracy, strength, the U.S.)
• religious symbols (e.g. a Star of David or a cross on a necklace symbolizes religious ideals)
• mascots (e.g. "Panthers" are quick, athletic, strong)
• skull and crossbones (warning, danger, pirates)
• commercial logos (e.g. "Nike" symbolizes the Greek goddess of victory, NBC peacock symbolizes that it was the first network to broadcast in color, U.S. Post Office eagle symbolizes U.S. and speed)
• Olympic rings (refers to the five major regions of the world)

6. For homework, students should decide upon a concept they would like to symbolize in a sculpture and begin sketching and writing their ideas in their journals. Their sculptures can represent themselves, their families, the school or community, a natural phenomenon, or some universal experience. Remind students that the sculptures they studied captured abstract ideas in concrete form. Their sculptures should do the same thing.
Tell students which sculpture mediums will be available for them to work with when they create their sculptures.

Winter / Unknown
Bust of Winter, French, 1700


Students should be able to do the following:
• Point out specific examples of symbolic forms that represent ideals or concepts in sculptures.
• Identify symbols in contemporary culture and relate them to historical symbols.
• Develop and sketch ideas for their own symbolic sculpture.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 9–12

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.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 9–12 Proficient

1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Identify and use the principles of design to discuss, analyze, and write about visual aspects in the environment and in works of art, including their own.
Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design
1.4 Analyze and describe how the composition of a work of art is affected by the use of a particular principle of design.
Impact of Media Choice
1.5 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work.

2.0 Creative Expression
Skills, Processes, Materials, and Tools
2.1 Solve a visual arts problem that involves the effective use of the elements of art and the principles of design.
2.4 Review and refine observational drawing skills.

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Role and Development of the Visual Arts
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
Diversity of the Visual Arts
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.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.
Make Informed Judgments
4.3 Formulate and support a position regarding the aesthetic value of a specific work of art and change or defend that position after considering the views of others.
4.5 Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about works of art.

National Standards for Visual Arts Education

Grades 9–12

2. Using knowledge of structures and functions
a. Demonstrate the ability to form and defend judgments about the characteristics and structures to accomplish commercial, personal, communal, or other purposes of art.
b. Evaluate the effectiveness of artworks in terms of organizational structures and functions.
c. Create artworks that use organizational principles and functions to solve specific visual arts problems.

3. Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas
b. Apply subjects, symbols, and ideas in their artworks and use the skills gained to solve problems in daily life.

4. Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
a. Differentiate among a variety of historical and cultural contexts in terms of characteristics and purposes of works of art.
b. Describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.

5. Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others
a. Identify intentions of those creating artworks, explore the implications of various purposes, and justify their analyses of purposes in particular works.
b. Describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.
c. Reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works of visual art.