Teaching Students To Derive Meaning From Art

One of the most valuable things a student should learn regarding artwork is that their opinion is valuable, especially if it hasn’t been clouded by other people’s opinions.

Being able to look a ta piece of art and analyze it for context and then become enlightened to the artist’s message will enrich the students as well as others. As a teacher you’ll need to take the time to ask the students right off the bat, how they themselves feel about a painting.

Not what their parents, friends, or media says, but how they feel inside. This nurturing approach builds a student’s self confidence and self esteem, as well as educates them in the true value of art and that is that art well done conveys one or more messages of great value to the cultures of the world.



A Masterpiece’s Centuries Old Message

If there ever was a work of art that dug up all kinds of debate and controversy, it’s the famous painting by legendary artist, George Caleb Bingham. His “Fur Traders Descending The Missouri” has stirred up one debate after another since it was created in the mid 1800s.

The painting depicts a canoe on the river, a calm river, with several men in the canoe, their furs, and a strange animal at the bow of the boat. It’s that ‘mysterious black cat” that has brought this painting into the realms of controversy. The children see it and remark about the cat and it brings them to question its position in the painting, it’s use as a pet on a fur trapping excursion and to the trained eye, this dark creature seems to be balancing the boat in the most curious way.

A deeper examination into the painting shows that at the back of the boat, there are the men and their furs. Physics dictate that the boat’s rear should be deep in the water and the bow raised up. There is nothing in the front of the boat bu the cat.

No cat can weigh as much as two men and around 80lbs of furs and also equipment. That has had art experts puzzled for a long time. An ever diligent teacher named Joanne Kirkman decided to delve into the painting to solve this mystery and her students and the world are now better for it.

What many thought was a cat, was then referred to as an owl. The teacher figured this still didn’t answer the question and she read books that showcased the painting and artist and soon the mystery began to unravel.

She did the right thng first, asking her students their interpretations of the painting. They all chimed in thus bringing greater value to legend of the work. It was a book by legendary bird expert, John James Audubon entitled, “Quadrupeds of North America” that she got for a steal at $2 from the local library. She’d early discovered through her own research and contributions of the students, that the creature depicted wasn’t a pet cat but a black fox.


Rarity Still

Black foxes are rare 1 and highly prized for their pelts. The traders and Native Americans would trade just one black fox pelt for 40 or more pelts of other prized animals such as beavers. What was discovered is that fur trappers would use the urine of a fox to add to their traps as it acted like a lure.

So it wasn’t a major problem for the men depicted in the painting to have a fox with them. In addition, the teacher found out that in Native American cultures of the region, a black fox meant reconciliation. I’s because when one person wanted to make up with another, they would use a black fox pelt to make amends because they were so highly valued. The research also discovered that the original name of the painting had been changed. It wasn’t politically correct so, “Fur Trader And His Half Breed Son” was changed. It’s in reference to the fact that many settlers mated up with Native American women but their children would be ostracized by both cultures.

This caused quite a problem then and Bingham may have added that fox in the painting with the calm water as a message saying the reconciliation of both cultures regarding their mixed offspring should be reconciled. That’s a deep message and cleverly designed.


Joy In Success

Teacher Joanne Kirkman and her students really hit pay-dirt this time. Their investigation into the meaning of this painting enlightened all around. It showed the students how art can be cleverly created with messages embedded with skill.

That a worthwhile cause was enshrouded in the painting so that it didn’t offend the public at the time and that only people who were in the know would get the painting’s meeting. As others like Ms. Kirkman and her students look into Bingham’s painting they share the responsibility of enlightening others which is what art is all about.


  1. Silver Foxes and Black Foxes (Wikipedia) Silver fox (animal)

About The Author

Professor David Percival

Director of AHVC programme, and specialist in art and technology, including presence research, mixed and virtual reality.