Art in the AP European History Classroom

Worth a Thousand Lectures

Edvard Munch's famous The Scream, painted at the turn of the twentieth century, is a painting every student knows; it is visually arresting, with its heavy, poisonous reds and yellows circulating around the truncated, deformed figure in black in the foreground. The only vaguely human figure is paralyzed by something, its moan of horror resonating with viewers and displaying a powerful visualized emotion.

But what does it mean? How is it a historical document? How can students relate the clear expression of unease to their understanding of history? For The Scream is both art for art's sake and a reflection of society. In this case, students who have examined the period before the First World War readily see the contrast between the optimism and industrial power of Europe and the fears displayed by The Scream's agonized creature. Thus, the image of this 1905 painting illustrates the paradox of the "Belle Epoque": namely, the intellectual optimism of a fully industrialized society versus its fears of a perilous future and impending war.

In a history class, it is often the most difficult task for any instructor to convey to students the zeitgeist of a particular era or illustrate the broad sweep of European culture. Abstract, seemingly insubstantial cultural movements are often lost in the political, economic, and social narrative of modern Europe. Yet they are critical for understanding the last three centuries, when public opinion, middle-class wealth, and industrialization created a unified culture readily accessible to large numbers of people. How can a class explore European society's insecurity before World War I or its post-World War II ambivalence? How do students understand the ideological and cultural force of modernism and the anger of the "Lost Generation?"

The use of the visual arts in the classroom is an extremely rewarding method of instruction. It reaches the more visually oriented learners and sparks students' enthusiasm for the subject matter. In addition, where a teacher desires to convey an understanding of long-term cause and effect or change over time, the visual arts provide ample material for the construction of a snapshot of different eras.

Using Art In Your Lesson Plans

There are several ways to incorporate art into lessons and discussions. Instructors may find it easy to fold paintings into their established rhythm of teaching. One effective method is to create a regular schedule of lessons on culture that combine an analysis of social or political circumstances with intellectual and cultural movements that spring from, reflect, or reject the era.

For instance:

  • A lesson on the mid-nineteenth century could be reinforced with the use of Gustav Courbet's The Stonebreakers (1849), especially if contrasted with the decorative and classically inspired artwork characteristic of the court of Louis Philippe or Napoleon III, illustrating the contradictions of the era.

  • A lesson on post-World War I modernism could utilize well-known surrealists such as Salvador Dalí, René Magritte (particularly the famous The Treachery of Images (which has the famous tagline "Ceçi n'est pas une pipe," 1926), the Dada movement, or cubists such as Pablo Picasso (Three Dancers, 1925, or Artist and Subject, 1928, are especially effective) to point out the rejection of pre-World War I values in the loss of form and composition in many modern works. Fernand Léger's The City (1919) and many of his other works, in which the human form is reduced to simple geometric shapes reminiscent of replaceable machine parts, can be used very effectively to illustrate the mechanization and emptiness of the interwar decades.

  • In the same way, the late nineteenth century's optimism and pessimism are readily explored with instantly recognizable works such as George Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte (1884-6) and Edvard Munch's The Scream (1905). Grounding the art in a broader discussion of changing social circumstances, such as industrialization, international tensions, and the like, reinforces the impact of the art, which reinforces the historical transformation.

A second method of utilizing the visual arts is to integrate them into individual lessons on a constant basis with the aim of constantly reinforcing the connection between culture and events. This takes additional preparation time, but the result is a powerful tool for illustrating the themes of a course or unit. Students become adept at identifying and interpreting works of art and respond well to test items or essays in which art is a critical piece of evidence. Teachers can examine the tensions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century society, such as technological progress, industrialization, and urbanization in their positive and negative aspects using the visual arts because contemporary artists explored such issues at the time.

Dozens of readily available paintings can also be used in class to illustrate the important themes of class division and the changing modes of daily life. Andy Warhol's various soup cans (most from the 1960s) are examples that may already be familiar to students; relating such works to the development of modern consumerism is relevant in both European and American history classes. In conjunction with the judicious use of advertising or propaganda, two other visual media accessible to students and instructors, the visual arts form an important and stimulating classroom resource.

Additional Resources


Museum sites

Each of the museum sites listed below contains online tours or access to electronic versions of at least a selection of paintings, brief introductory biographies, and a wealth of descriptive information. The two French museums of modern art have English language pages.

Mark Harden's Artchive
This free site contains a vast collection of electronic reproductions of famous artists, along with biographical information and an introduction to most of the major schools of modern art.
This site contains a number of informative links on different schools of art and is searchable by movement or artist name. In addition, many prominent artists have sites dedicated to their body of work, many of which are either affiliated with or approved by the artist's signature museum.

The Online Picasso Project
An extensive, almost exhaustive selection of Picasso's complete body of work, along with valuable commentary.

The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery
Again, an extensive electronic collection of Van Gogh's complete body of work.


Arnason, H. Harvard. The History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Boime, Albert. Art in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1800. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Hamilton, George Heard. Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Kern's book is a seminal work, easily accessible to students, on the culture of the late nineteenth century that discusses the intersection between society and culture. Kern emphasizes the profound effects of technology and urbanization on European thinking in a way that is both provocative and thorough. In sum his book is fine contextual support for discussing the artists of the era.

Authored by

Paul Hibbeln
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio