Lesson by Van Gogh Museum
This lesson contains 17 slides, with interactive quiz and text slides.
- For each student: an art work made by the student (or a photo of one)
- Writing paper
The writing assignment can also be done on a computer.
At the end of the lesson, tell the students where they can find the assignment, or hand out print-outs of the assignment.
1. The assignment can also be done during class. Keep in mind that at least 50 minutes of class time is required.
2. You can make the writing paper look old by dyeing it in coffee or strong tea. If you have the students write rough drafts of their letters first, then they can write the final drafts on the 'antique' paper with dip pens and India ink.
3. Hang up all the drawings and paintings described. Read a few of the descriptions anonymously. Can the students figure out which art work matches each description?
Vincent van Gogh was a prolific letter writer. In an era without telephones or the Internet, writing was the only way to communicate with faraway friends and relatives. Much of our knowledge about Van Gogh and his work comes from the letters he wrote and received. His younger brother Theo played an important role in preserving those letters: from 1872 onwards he saved all the letters that Vincent sent him, more than 800 over a period of eighteen years.
Start the lesson with the questions under the question mark icon. The answers are under the icons in the lower right corner.
Vincent van Gogh sent this letter in September 1872. It is the earliest surviving letter that he wrote: letter 001.
Play the quiz with the group. Then tell the students that these 820 letters are not the only ones Vincent wrote. There must have been many more. More than 650 of the surviving letters are to Theo. It's thanks to all those letters that we know so much about Vincent.
Vincent lived in an age before telephones and computers. After he and his brother Theo grew up and left their parents' home, the only way they could communicate was by letter.
(In these photographs Vincent is younger than Theo: 19 years old. This is the last known portrait photo of Vincent.)
In his letters to Vincent, Theo wrote about working as an art dealer in Paris. He often sent money, so that Vincent could spend his time drawing and painting and had no need for any other job. This is a French 100-franc note.
In his letters to Theo, Vincent's topics included his health and the paintings he was working on. He often included sketches of the paintings.
Question: Does anyone recognise the painting he sketched in this letter?
> The Potato Eaters, 1885
Vincent wrote this letter before he completed the painting.
Vincent did not only want to show that he could make a large painting with figures. For him, the painting also had a message. He wanted to show his respect for the hard lives of the peasants. (next slide)
Have some students give their answers, and then discuss the question with the class.
Then go back to the earliest surviving letter from Vincent to Theo.
Using the reproduction and the translation on the website, discuss the different parts of a letter.
This letter is damaged, but from what we know about Vincent's other letters, we can be fairly sure that the salutation was 'Waarde Theo'. On the web page for this letter you can see two columns. On the right is the original Dutch: '[Waarde] Theo' (with square brackets because the word is missing). On the left is the English translation: 'My dear Theo'.
What salutation might Vincent use in our time?
To see the answer to the question under the question mark, you can click on the icon in the bottom right corner.
(The Haanebeeks were relatives of the Van Goghs; Vincent stayed with the Roos family when he lived in The Hague.)
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Sections: salutation – introduction – body – closing
Describe and identify:
- what it is – the scene, the technique (drawing, painting, or something else?) and so on
- what colours you used
- what your work of art is about
- how you made it..
Also include a sketch of your art work in your letter.
Now give the class any other information they need to do the assignment. You can tell them who to write the letter to, or you can let them choose for themselves. You can also tell them when the assignment is due (or how much time they have, if they are doing the assignment in class).