Before They Were Presidents

Possible Classroom Concepts: Social Studies – U.S. History ( George Washington and Abraham Lincoln), Revolutionary War, Civil War

Language Arts – Storytelling, Folklore, Historical Fiction

Possible Art Concepts: Art History – Grant Wood, Eastman Johnson

History Paintings, Portraits

Sorry this is coming after President’s Day, but I just had to cover the Chinese New Year and the “Year of the Monkey“. I guess if retailers can celebrate President’s Day all month so can we.

I am going to spend the next couple of posts talking about storytelling through art. Today I’m going to talk about paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in their youth. Through time, some artists created works in response to events occurring around the United States.

Parson Weems' Fable

Grant Wood”s “Parson Weems’ Fable”

Lets begin with the nation’s rejection of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. In response to the general public’s grief  over Washington’s death,  a parson, named Mason Locke Weems, wrote The Life of Washington the Great. In the fifth edition of the book, the cherry tree story was added. By some accounts, Parson Weems claimed that one of Washington’s distant relatives shared the cherry tree story with him. For years the story was taught in the schools, but with no documentation to prove it ever happened, the story was abandoned. Today this story is considered more of a folktale or historical fiction. After learning this beloved story  was no longer being taught in schools, artist, Grant Wood, created the painting, “Parson Weems’ Fable”, to preserve the folktale. You can find an excerpt from Weem’s book and a first hand account about Wood’s work here. Find two short but sweet explanations of “Parson Weems’ Fable” here and hereThis post has some good questions to use when viewing Wood’s painting. Find an concise informative video here. Wood also created a painting about President Herbert Hoover. Because the president came from meager beginnings and was a fellow Iowan, Wood painted “The Birthplace of Hebert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa”.  Find a great lesson about this painting here. Your students could also compare and contrast “Parson Weem’ Fable” and “The Birthplace of Hebert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa”. 

How about preserving some of George Washington’s other myths? Begin by identifying the myths. You can find some listed here. Then review the characteristics of Wood’s paintings. (Simplified shapes, repeated shapes and colors, illusion of depth)  Have each student choose a myth and draw or paint their interpretation using Grant Wood’s style.

Now let us move onto the time just following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. To help the nation heal after Lincoln’s assassination, artist, Eastman Johnson painted “Boyhood of Lincoln”. A great lesson about this painting can be found here. During my investigation of Johnson, I learned that he also had a connection to George Washington. Curious? Read about it here.

Bet you never imagined so many correlations coming from just two paintings. I know I didn’t. Hope something here is helpful. Do you have any other thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Simply, click on this post’s title and scroll down to the comment section.

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Hope to see you again real soon.


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