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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist, 1887. Oil on canvas. 17 3/8 x 13 ¾ inches. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)

Getting to Know a Post-Impressionist Artist

4th–8th Grade 


In this lesson students research a Post-Impressionist artist biography and visually analyze a painting by that artist. Using notes, students compose a persuasive letter in support of that painting's inclusion in a Post-Impressionism exhibition.


Students will:

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of Post-Impressionism as an art movement by orally identifying at least two of its defining elements in a painting.
  2. Write a persuasive letter describing a single painting by a Post-Impressionist painter and identifying the characteristics that make it Post-Impressionist.


Learning packets or learning stations that include:

  • 3 to 5 images of Post-Impressionist paintings
  • Short biographies of Post-Impressionist artists
  • Excerpts from letters, diaries, or reviews of the time (see Quotes about Post-Impressionists in Resources)
  • Visual journals for note-taking and sketching


Painting, brush, canvas, oil paint, watercolor, pastel, texture, shape, color, genre (landscape, portrait, still life)

 1. Building Vocabulary

Choose two to three paintings that showcase concepts that evolved in the work of Post-Impressionist painters (such as examination of form, or expressive qualities of line, space, and use of color). Practice using Visual Thinking Strategies to discuss your selection of paintings with students, reinforcing target vocabulary and concepts by paraphrasing student observations. Create a word wall of art words or an art vocabulary chart during discussion.

2. Research and Visual Analysis

Compile learning packets on Post-Impressionist artists including a short artist biography, quotes from artists and critics about Post-Impressionist art, and image(s) by that artist (see Resources for listing of biography sources and quotes by artists and critics). In pairs or small groups, students choose one painter to focus on.

Distribute learning packets to pairs or small groups of students. While one student analyzes a painting another takes notes on biographical information and records quotes about the Post-Impressionists. Both students use their visual journals to record observations and questions. Visual analysis and note-taking may be guided by the four-square graphic organizer. After 15 minutes, partners switch tasks.

3. Persuasive Essay

With the entire class, review the elements of persuasive writing and the proper format of a business letter. Using the results of their research, ask students to write a letter to the curator of a Post-Impressionist exhibition, recommending that this painting be included in the exhibition.

The letter should be in the appropriate business letter format and include the following:

  • The name of the artist
  • The title of the painting
  • The medium of the painting
  • A very brief summary of the painter’s biography
  • A detailed paragraph describing the imagery of the painting being nominated for the exhibit
  • An argument for why it should be included
  • Extension: a counter-argument, e.g., I know we are not used to thinking of the bourgeoisie as worthy subjects for paintings, but there is probably nothing more universally appealing or emotional than watching a new mother gazing on her perfect child, asleep in its cradle.

After the Museum Visit:

Students use the four-square graphic organizer to sketch and take notes on individual paintings after their visit to the museum. If there is a break after the visit (on the bus, during lunch, etc.) students can play a guessing game with their sketches, asking other students to identify which painter’s work they sketched, and to guess at some of the words in the word bank or inventory.

Extension: Expository writing for class exhibition catalogue

Students prepare one page of a class Post-Impressionist exhibition catalogue. The elements of the exhibition page can be separately assembled and glued to an 8.5 x 11–inch page for photocopying or prepared digitally and printed out. Individual pages in the catalogue should include these elements:

  • An image of the painting to be included in the exhibition
  • The name of the artist
  • The title of the painting
  • The medium of the painting
  • The year the painting was finished
  • A brief description of the painting that clearly explains its importance as a Post-Impressionist work of art


Online sources for short biographies:

Language Arts Standards:
4th: RC 1.2, WS 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, WA 2.0, 2.3
5th: RC 2.3, 2.4 WS 1.2, WA 2.4
6th: RC 2.7, WS 1.2, WA 2.5 
7th: RC 2.1, WS 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, WA 2.4
8th: WS 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, WA 2.4

Visual Arts Standards:
4th: 1.5, 4.5, 5.4
5th: 1.3, 4.1, 4.3, 
6th: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 3.1, 4.1, 4.3
7th: 1.1, 1.4, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 
8th: 1.1, 3.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5