Lesson Plan

Weir Farm: Home of an American Impressionist

Red house in autumn landscape on Weir Farm

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Subject:
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 6 Standard 1B: The student understands the rapid growth of cities and how urban life changed.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Objective

1. To describe how American Impressionism replaced earlier forms of landscape painting at the end of the 19th century;
2. To describe the techniques associated with Impressionism;
3. To explain the importance of his farm to Weir’s creative process;
4. To investigate the work of artists currently working in their own community and where they get their inspiration.

Background

Time Period: Late 19th century and early 20th century 
Topics: This lesson could be used in studying the Industrial Revolution, America’s back-to-nature movement, the rise of middle-class culture and values, or as an introduction to American art history.

Preparation

Sunny north light streams into the small wooden studio built high on New England’s rocky landscape. Paintbrushes, canvases, and sketchbooks still clutter the artist’s work space. The acrid smell of oil paint pervades the atmosphere and brings to mind a time when an artist found creative energy at this rural escape from city life. Outside, the rolling green landscape is intersected by picturesque stone walls. The sweeping hillside is further punctuated by blossoming fruit trees and mature oaks and sugar maples. It is not hard to imagine a distinguished gentleman in a three-piece tweed suit standing before an easel, a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other. This is clearly the home of an artist. This is Weir Farm.

Weir Farm, in Branchville, Connecticut, exemplifies the "quiet marriage of art and tended landscape that so clearly defined the American Impressionist movement." The painter Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) acquired the farm in 1882 and summered at this country retreat for nearly forty years. During a period when railroads were expanding, populations were increasing, and America’s agrarian system was being replaced by industry, Weir was one of a group of artists who found comfort and inspiration in the quiet everyday settings of New England, and, in many ways, defined our vision of the American landscape.

Lesson Hook/Preview

Between 1870 and 1890, the country’s population increased from 40 million to 63 million people (nearly a third of these new residents were immigrants). The urban population grew much faster than the rural; by the year 1890, the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had populations exceeding one million. Railroads crisscrossed the continent, not only making a national economy and mass market possible, but also introducing residents in highly populated areas to the possibility of commuting to work. But what most people saw as progress also brought problems. With the Industrial Revolution came crowds, noise, foul air, and, in some people’s minds, questionable morality to the city.

Reacting to these issues, many city dwellers embraced a back-to-nature movement which gained great strength at the end of the 19th century. Middle-class Americans turned to the country club, the dude ranch, and the summer retreat to escape the problems and pressures of the city.

Julian Alden Weir was part of that movement. Born in 1852 in West Point, New York, where his father taught drawing at the United States Military Academy, Weir studied painting in Europe and became a major figure in popularizing the style that became known as American Impressionism. His farm in Branchville, Connecticut, served as his retreat from his winter home in New York City. As early as 1877, Weir had written to his parents from Europe exclaiming, "Nature seems more rich than ever and full of charm, which one can only appreciate by being away from it. The city life, where one is imprisoned amongst walls, makes one’s faculties more appreciative." In 1882, after he had spent nearly five years in New York City, Weir traded 10 dollars and a painting for the deed to 153 acres in the Connecticut hills.

That farm became Weir’s primary summer studio and was home to his family for the next four decades. What drew Weir to the farm was the inspiration he derived from the landscape. He believed the opportunity to "experience nature" helped him to grow in both mind and spirit. Weir built a painting studio, twice enlarged his house, and continuously rearranged the landscape to suit his highly discerning eye. The farm also became, in a sense, an extensive palette; its buildings, stone walls, and gardens were all elements in the painter’s evolving composition. It provided subject matter for much of Weir’s work as well as that of his friends, many of whom were also leading figures in American art.

By 1890 Weir and his colleagues were increasingly painting outdoors, focusing on landscapes as subject matter. Unlike earlier generations who sought to make their subjects look real, they used a technique characterized by laying pure unmixed color on the canvas with dabs and broken brushwork to create a sense—or impression—of intense flickering light. Also, unlike American landscape painters of the previous generation (such as Moran or Bierstadt) who sought out the extraordinary, untamed and dramatic, the American Impressionists painted the familiar, cultivated landscapes located in their own backyards. Through their eyes, these ordinary domestic places in Connecticut and elsewhere in New England became part of everyone’s sense of what was beautiful in the American landscape.

Procedure

Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.

Vocabulary

Impressionism
Back-to-nature movement

Additional Resources

Weir Farm National Historic Site
Weir Farm National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's web pages to
 view Weir's art work, tour the farm, and learn about Weir's life.

Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail
The Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail provides a guided visit to ten museums boasting some of the finest American Impressionist paintings in the world. The site also details the places where the movement was born, the places where artists lived, and where they created images that linger in the mind.


Online Tour of the History of Impressionism
This online tour explores turn of the century France and the interesting concepts that defined the Impressionist art movement.


American Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art 
Explore the National Gallery of Art's online tour to learn about the history of Impressionism in America and to view images by different Impressionist painters.


Internet Modern History Sourcebook: The Industrial Revolution
Use the Internet Modern History Sourcebook, created by Paul Halsall at Fordham University, to read a variety primary source materials to learn more about the Industrial Revolution.


For Further Reading
Students and educators wishing to learn more about the American Impressionists may want to read: Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, 1991) or William Gerdts, American Impressionism (New York: Artabras Publishers, 1984). For more specific information on J. Alden Weir, try Dorothy Weir Young, The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), Doreen Bolger Burke, J. Alden Weir: An American Impressionist (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), or J. Alden Weir: A Place of His Own (Storrs, Connecticut: William Benton Museum of Art, 1991), an exhibit catalog available at the William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut.

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Last updated: July 31, 2018