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Rousseau, The Snake Charmer

The Snake Charmer. 1907. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Oil on canvas, 66 ½ x 74 5/8 inches.  RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

9th–12th Grade Post-Impressionism Activity
Visual Analysis across Genres


In this lesson students visually analyze Post-Impressionist images in class and individually and use the format of ekphrastic poetry to write a descriptive composition about a Post-Impressionist painting.


Postcards of Post-Impressionist paintings
Copies of ekphrastic poems
Materials to draw with, e.g., paper, pencil, magic markers


Students will:

  1. use visual arts and writing to explore the content of art; and
  2. write rich descriptions or poems (in particular, ekphrastic poems) in response to artworks.


Landscape (setting, wild, developed, natural, cultivated, urban, rustic, modern), figure/portrait (features, costume/clothing), expression (happy, sad, bored, wistful, angry, serene), mood (lighthearted, melancholy, desolate, busy), foreground, middleground, background, ekphrastic poetry (see Resources for definition from the Poetry Foundation)

Before the visit:

1. Preview the vocabulary categories above, providing a visual example of each concept through Post-Impressionist images. Conduct a whole group discussion/exploration of one Post-Impressionist painting available online (e.g., Paul Gauguin, Portrait of the Artist with The Yellow Christ), using Visual Thinking Strategies to help build an understanding of the story of the painting. After each answer, prompt students to identify what they see that makes them respond in that way. Chart responses that can be used to write the story of the painting and/or a response to it. Students can practice using the four-square graphic organizer to record the details of the painting during the discussion.

2. Distribute Post-Impressionist images to pairs or small groups of students. Students will identify a painting they like and that seems to contain a story, interaction, scene, voice, and expression. Independently or in small groups, students use the four-square graphic organizer to record information about their impressions of the painting. Students will identify:

  • who (subjects/people);
  • what (actions/relationships);
  • when (time period, time of day/year);
  • where (setting); and
  • why (why it is happening/why the painter chose to paint this).

In additon, you will be asking students to do the following:

  • Give one or more specific examples from the painting that support their responses
  • Make a list of descriptive words from the painting, e.g., names of objects, actions, place, time of day, emotions being expressed
  • Write down what they notice about the artist's use of color and line in the painting. What feeling or experience does this use of color evoke?
  • Write down three words they would use to tell the story of this painting

3. Introduce students to the concept of ekphrastic poems and read examples. Students can use the analysis steps adapted from "Backing Into Ekphrasis" by Honor Moorman to make sense of the poem and the painting it was written in response to.

  • Students read the poem quietly to themselves without stopping. They then jot down words or phrases that they think get at what the poem is about. they can also jot down any questions they have.
  • One student reads the poem out loud, and the class shares what they noticed on the second reading.
  • Students read the poem to themselves a second time and take notes about their response to the poem.
  • Students sketch what they imagine the painting might look like based on the poem that was written in response to it.
  • Students write a one-sentence summary of the poem.
  • Students watch a slideshow or review prints or postcards of the paintings written about, and they match the poems to the appropriate painting.

Comparisons across Genres

Share additional ekphrastic poems and the paintings they were written in response to with the students. For example, the class might study the Van Gogh painting Starry Night by first listening to Starry, Starry Night by Don McLean or reading The Starry Night, a poem by Anne Sexton. At this point, the class can create a T-chart of the similarities between literature and visual art.

Literature and visual art comparison

  • Author's word choice and form, Artist's brushstrokes, color, medium
  • Author's subject/main idea, Artist's subject
  • Literary genre, Painting genre
  • Author's point of view, Artist's perspective
  • Author's setting, time, place, Artist's setting, time, place
  • Author's purpose, Artist's purpose

Students will use their notes and copies of the painting of their choice to write a rich, descriptive passage, a narrative vignette, or a poem capturing in words the event, situation, people, and mood of the painting and/or the narrator's response to it. Remind them that they are writing about what they see and imagine in the painting, which Marilyn Hollman calls “a piece of the world already shaped.” (Hollman, Marilyn J., “From Art to Poetry: ‘Prance as They Dance.’” English Journal 78.3 (1989): 24–27.)

Ask students to write in either of two voices:

  • First person, speaking in the voice of one of the people, animals, plants, landscape features, or objects in the painting, or as the narrator viewing the painting. This can include a direct address to another person or thing in the painting, to the artist, or to the viewer.
  • Third person, as a narrator describing the larger action. This can include the viewer's response to the art through description.

Remind students to use specific descriptive language to give the reader a feeling for the emotions, perspective, and actions of the character(s) represented and of the emotions and feelings of the viewer in the voice of a narrator. To refer to parts and aspects of the paintings, ask students to use their art vocabulary.


Students mount word-processed poems, descriptions, or narrative vignettes under an image of their painting, their own sketch, a print, or postcard. Because more than one student will write in response to the same painting, these can be grouped together. These can also be produced as an online exhibition or a small book. To present the work students can perform their written works to a slideshow of the selected paintings.


Ekphrastic poetry:

Visions: Paintings Seen through the Optic of Poetry by Marc Hofstadter, especially the poems in the book based upon the California Art Museum of Oakland's exhibition All Things Bright and Beautiful: California Impressionist Painting

Cezanne's Ports by Allen Ginsberg in response to Cézanne's painting L'Estaque

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981) or

Starry, Starry Night by Don McLean Lyrics available here.

Van Gogh's Bed by Jane Flanders in response to Vincent's Bedroom in Arles by Vincent van Gogh (

General ekphrasis resources:

Language Arts Standards
9th – 10th grade: RC 2.5, LR 3.2, 3.5, 3.7, 3.8, 3.11, WS 1.2, SA 2.4
11th – 12th grade: RC 2.5, LR 3.1-3.4, WS 1.2, 1.5, WA 2.1, 2.3, LSS 1.4, SA 2.1, 2.5

Visual Arts Standards
9th-12th grade: 1.4, 1.5, 4.1, 4.2, 4.4, 5.2