Elizabeth A. Johnson
My unit could be titled any number of things, including "Be a Man." Ultimately, students will produce a work of art that addresses what it means to be a man or woman in America today. To begin to think about this, students will learn what "being a man" meant 150 years ago. Images to study will include those of young children through adults, from all walks of life. They will ask what was expected of men and women, and how each gender lived up to those expectations. Students will use what they learn from these images to create their own visuals. Students will be asked to describe their image orally and in writing. This way, we will be able to discuss current issues around masculinity and femininity. The images presented will serve as a springboard, too, for discussions.
Currently, I use images to illustrate a point or to grab attention. With my unit, I want to read images, to understand a concept or topic through an image. To appeal and relate to young black males, I will bring them in on a relevance side, starting by asking them "What makes a man?" From here we can discuss images in the current media, which is important to teaching any reluctant learner. They need information to be tied to something they already know and/or enjoy. Once they are in on this ground level of analyzing recent images, we will travel back in time to the second half of the nineteenth century.
There is another part of "Being a Man." Students will have to work together, to unite, to understand a concept. Structured discussions around a historically significant image will give them the opportunity to practice speaking and discussing with others in an orderly environment. It can be difficult to talk without anything in front of you. The images will allow students something to focus on beside themselves. That is to say that they will feel more open to discussion because all students will be looking at an image, not at the speaker. I think that this type of discussion–building will prove a useful scaffold for even the most introverted students.
We will ask about the realities of life in the late nineteenth century and compare these with the images. Then comes the critical question:
Why is there a difference between reality and art?
We will study how fiction impacts non–fiction. Interestingly, we will include these phenomena in the final project portraits. Students will be invited to include fiction in their image if they can include why it is there. I hope that some students use this as an opportunity to imagine something wonderful for themselves. As they explore reality versus fiction in the Victorian Era, they will question their own perceptions of truth.
Students will also think about the origin of male and female ideals and mores. Where did these expectations for men and women originate? Who designed them? Who bought into them? Have they bought into them? The images will be presented such that a timeline is understood. Though images do not need to be given in a progression, they will be related to each other chronologically so that students can see the evolution of male and female tropes during this time period. Teens are notorious for thinking that they discovered everything. I wonder if this explicit direction of looking at the origins of male and female roles will open their eyes and help them to trust the authority and knowledge of others.
Another key aspect of their portraits will be the use of symbols, both present and historical. For example, my own portrait at age fourteen would have included a woman, not a teen, at the center carrying books and perhaps a ruler. This would symbolize my future as a teacher. Behind me, thus symbolizing a part of the past, would be fuzzy groups of girls leaving me out. To the side of me and not nearly as far behind would be my parents, grandparents, and sister, probably looking at me. They might be holding car keys, a world map, and bicycles. These would symbolize the car that I would drive, thus giving me freedom and the ability to take myself places. The world map seems obvious, but it represents two things: both our ancestors and the journeys they made as well as our future travels, the evidence of the wealth those ancestors began. The bicycles would symbolize my father's store, the work and ambition that paid for everything. In this way, the portrait is rich in symbols, both obvious ones and some for which the viewer would have to know the background. All of these pieces would help answer the question: What makes a woman? Based on my portrait, the viewer could assume that a woman draws from her support, had some pain, is proud of where she came from, and has direction in her life. It is important to note that these ideals are clearly drawn from my own values. It is important not to put your own values on the students, but to allow them to see that different values exist through the images you use and questions you ask.
Teaching the idea of values is important and can be found in the Strategies section.
This unit is written to address a key question for boys: What makes a man? Boys have many answers, but few models. They have so few models that they few they see must be held to impossible standards. Boys have several worlds crashing around them in 2012: Their "hoods," the media, and their friends. The models of men in their neighborhoods are their grandfathers, fathers, stepfathers, mother's boyfriends, older brothers and cousins, and close family friends. As one student pointed out to me, "The ghetto isn't all bad. It's our home. It's our place. It's peaceful." In essence: Don't look at us and feel bad, and certainly don't think you know what you're talking about. Since then, I've been trying to listen more.
To teach content knowledge and to understand what is happening in the images and why they support the What makes a man? idea, it is important to know about the background of the images you are presenting. Here, I offer my interpretations of images with ideas learned through various sources offered in the Bibliography.
1.Hicks, George Elgar,
The Sinews of Old England
, 1857, Watercolor and bodycolor on paper, 30 x 21 1/8 inches, Friends of British Art Fund.
In this painting, three figures present themselves in ideal of the industrial age. The man is defined by his pick–axe and shovel, tied up pants, and determined and proud expression. The woman, his wife, is defined by her loving gaze, simple shoes, clean dress, and gorgeous blue willow china, neatly displayed behind her in the kitchen. Their child, a boy, is the picture of youth and innocence with his blonde hair and wooden shovel, already preparing to join his proud father. The internal framing of this family portrait contains a solidly built brick home with healthy, lively greens running up the walls. There are curious details, though. For example, why is the wife's petticoat exposed? This could be to show the many times she has added to this garment, rather than buy an entirely new one. This could show the importance of frugality and resourcefulness.
This image serves to reinforce new values during the Industrial Revolution. In 1857, the Industrial Revolution was old news, having started over 60 years prior. Also, the reign of Queen Victoria was well underway, having started twenty years earlier. Industrial workers, like the man portrayed here, were part of an international machine that bound a recently scattered class. Indeed, it created a new class of worker, the working class or blue collared workers. They valued camaraderie, hard work, and legacy, as evidenced by working so closely in factories and mines with many other men, working long hours and for most of their lives, the invention of unions, and the ethos that boys would grow up to do what their fathers did. All these values are borne out in this image. The father is looking forward to being with his co–workers as well as a bright future, the dishes would be used to impress visitors, and the young son plays with the same tools as his father. The woman supports all these values with her loving gaze and dependence on the man.
In these ways, a man, according to this image, is social, hardworking, and cares for his family by providing for them. He might even be seen as loving through the way that he holds his wife and allows his son to hang on to him. His face is young, but lined with determination, further defining manhood for this class. What will the future hold for the young son? Prosperity and grace, just like his father.
2.Millais, Sir John Edward,
L'Enfant du Regiment
, 1854–1855, Oil on prepared paper, laid on canvas, mounted on board. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.
On the surface, this painting focuses on the experience of a child during this time of great change in Western Europe. Painted at almost the same time as
The Sinews of Old England
, Millais paints a very different portrait of childhood and what it means to be a man. Clearly, the focus of this painting is not on the man in effigy but on the girl. From this, we can ask What contributes to the making of a man or a woman?
There are subtleties to this image, but together they point to a clear interpretation. When first exhibited, some believed the to be a boy (Rosenfeld 61), which points to Millais' ability to manipulate subjects for broad interpretation and appeal. Whatever the gender, this child has a broken arm and bare feet. In the context of resting on the effigy of a soldier and being shrouded in a military uniform, it can be speculated that this child was injured during fighting. This is further revealed when examining the background of the painting. Here, several soldiers are carrying muskets over a wall while they begin to join the fighting. They are looking away from the girl as if she is cased inside tenuous walls, possibly about to be overtaken. She is further seeking protection, though, from the soldier on whom she rests and the jacket that is covering her like a blanket. With all the advances in the world at this time and with some citizens buying into and possibly experiencing the prosperity and pride of the Industrial Age, how can citizens grapple with the image of an injured child?
Millais often painted images that speak to the theme of the plight of the individual in historical circumstances (Rosenfeld 61). Maybe he was pointing out that there is always a price to pay for change. The French military uniform may not have been popular in the day due to feelings between England and France, but who can argue with the welfare of a child? It is an image that no one can dispute and with which no one can disagree: Children were paying the price of military and industrial success. Of course, most viewers of the painting would have been, and still are, between the ages of the small girl and the ancient soldier, begging the question, where am I in this scene of inevitable conflict? We were once children and ultimately will all be as ancient as the tomb.
3. Brown, Ford Maddox,
, 1852–1863, Oil on canvas, 53.9 x 77.6 inches. City Art Gallery, Manchester, UK.
This is a complex image of work from the nineteenth century. From it subject to its execution, this painting is entirely about the positive, commanding nature of work and how it creates an identity for men. This image is particularly useful for students because the workers are contrasted with everyone else in their surroundings. While many images from this period paint a similar story of the worker, this one places it in the context of a city scene where this new class of worker is viewed favorably against those who are assumed to be powerful and enviable. A closer examination of the image flips that idea on its head, as well, pointing out the still tenuous nature of labor for the working class.
In this picture, the men in the foreground are building a new street in the middle of the city. In the background the viewer can see various types of businesses as well as their patrons. This city scene and its upgrading are the context for the laborers. Surrounding the workers are people of all classes and situations. The woman in the left foreground carries flowers for sale. Not an industrial job and not part of the camaraderie of work, she is depicted in tattered clothes from her hat to her bare feet. The men do not notice her.
What does it mean to be a man in this image? Values inherent in this picture include industriousness and sacrifice. For example, industry is depicted in the various types of work the men are doing: shoveling, grading dirt, working in the ground, and transporting heavy tools. The dog in the foreground could be interpreted a symbol of fidelity, though not in the typical sense. In this image, the men are faithful to their work. As to sacrifice, the men are dirty and hot from the sun. Small children are being watched by a woman in the foreground as they look on to the laboring men. One child tries to help by pushing a wheelbarrow. He is already practicing to be like one of these men.
4. Wright, Joseph,
A Blacksmith's Shop
, 1771, Oil on canvas 50.5 x 41 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
In Joseph Wright's
A Blacksmith's Shop
, men and boys gather together around a glowing ingot of iron in the ruins of a church in the dead of night. The men create or react to the yellow–hot metal, some in control of it, some turning in pain from the heat and sparks. Despite the intensity of color at the heart of the painting and the fiery subject matter, it is a scene of control. It is a celebration of labor and work.
Wright has filled the image with symbols that elevates the men out of a shop and into the realm of hero. First, there is a carved angel flying above the arched, stone doorway, showing us that this is a church. Without the angel, though, it is clear that we are in a church. The angel shows God's attention to these men and their labors. Also, there are three sources of light: Two glowing iron rods and a full moon breaking from behind clouds. The moon hints to a heavenly purpose for this work, a morality assigned to hard, physical labor. Further, this late night sojourn adds a mysticism to the work to show that it is not menial, it is not something easily learned or carried out. This is skilled work that only a few can do. Next, the presence of multiple generations is common in eighteenth century European art, especially children. This is a connection to another painting discussed,
L'Enfant du Regiment
. In each, the theme of legacy and the regeneration of life is present. Here, One boy stares proudly and boldly into the fire, though noticeably wincing at the heat. The brave face, though, speaks to the pride he feels in what might be his father, the one wielding the hammer. The children also create meaning for the workers and a reference to their virility, a typical trope of English folklore (Daniels 52). The old man sitting in the foreground is further proof of the hero–status of the working men. This old man is a traveler whose horse needs a mended horseshoe. Horseshoes are also visible on the wall. Interestingly, Wright studied and created many images of mythology, often incorporating the poses of these figures into genre paintings like this one. The postures and poses of blacksmiths in this image are clearly reminiscent of classical statues of Greece and Rome.