A portrait without a face

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Slide 1: Tekstslide
Art and designPrimary EducationLower Secondary (Key Stage 3)

In deze les zitten 15 slides, met interactieve quiz en tekstslides.

time-iconLesduur is: 45 min


This lesson is about a stolen art work that was rediscovered. It focuses on the question: can a painting of a building also be a kind of portrait?


General learning objectives
After learning about the stolen and recovered painting of the church in Nuenen, the students explore the possibility of drawing (or painting) a portrait without actually depicting the person in question.

Time required
Introduction/explanation: c. 10 minutes
Drawing: c. 25 minutes
Final discussion and clean-up: c. 10 minutes

- Decide which technique the class will use: drawing or painting. Painting will take more time: c. 45 minutes.
- Set out the materials.

These depend on the chosen technique.
For drawing:
- Drawing paper
- Pencils or charcoal sticks

For painting:
- Art paper
- Various colours of paint
- Mixing boards or empty egg cartons
- Brushes
- Rags or towels for drying brushes
- Jars of water
Optional variations
- Extend the lesson with a writing assignment, in which the students explain who is the subject of their portrait, and why. Give them a maximum number of words, so that they can use what they write as a label accompanying their art work. At the Van Gogh Museum, most labels are 50 to 70 words long.

Background information
After 14 years, two paintings by Vincent van Gogh – thought to be lost – were rediscovered. These paintings had been stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002. One of them was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884), Van Gogh's painting of the church where his father was the pastor. He painted it as a gift for his mother, who had broken her leg and could not leave the house. After his father's death in 1885, Van Gogh made changes to the painting.

For more information about the stolen paintings, see the story on the Van Gogh Museum website.

Onderdelen in deze les

Slide 1 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: This little painting is world-famous. Does anyone know why?
It was made by Vincent van Gogh.
It was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002. Fortunately, it was rediscovered in 2016. That was big news.

Slide 2 - Tekstslide

Now look at the answers in the hotspots on the picture. Have a few students describe what they see in the painting.
What do they think of it? And why?

Slide 3 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: This is the artist who made this painting, Vincent van Gogh. He lived in the 19th century and is most famous for his paintings in bright, fresh colours – like the colours in this self-portrait.

Slide 4 - Tekstslide

Continue: You can also see those bright colours here, in one of his best-known paintings, Sunflowers. Vincent painted both Sunflowers and the self-portrait when he lived in France.

Do you think Vincent also painted the church in France, or somewhere else?
Yes, in France.
No, in England.
No, in the Netherlands.
No, in Belgium.

Slide 5 - Quizvraag

Ask the group to answer this multiple-choice question.
Answer: Vincent painted the church in the Netherlands. But he did live and work in all four of those countries.
(Can you really tell from the painting where it was made? Some people can, because they recognise the style of clothing. Or they may recognise the church, which is still standing.)

Slide 6 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: Vincent painted this in the village of Nuenen, in the Dutch province of North Brabant. (The word 'Dutch' is used for things, people, and places in the Netherlands.) He chose this subject for a special reason. It's the church where his father was the pastor [alternatively: 'where his father worked']. He made it for his mother, who had broken her leg and had to stay in bed.
He wrote to his brother Theo, (next slide)
"Ma amuses herself with trifles.
I recently painted the little church with the hedge and the trees for her."

Slide 7 - Tekstslide

Complete quotation: "Fortunately Ma’s mood is very equable and content, considering her difficult situation. And she amuses herself with trifles. I recently painted the little church with the hedge and the trees for her."
Vincent to his brother Theo, c. 3 February 1884 (letter 428)

Slide 8 - Tekstslide

Tell the class: In the letter to his brother, Vincent included a little drawing of the painting. You can see it here. But if you take a closer look, you can see something strange about it. Who can see what that is?

Slide 9 - Tekstslide

Now have the students compare the painting and the drawing.
> The sketch in the letter shows only one figure, a farmer. In the painting, Vincent painted over this farmer. He replaced him with a large group of people, and there are also lots of people coming out of the church. So we can see that Vincent made changes to the painting. He had a special reason for that.

Slide 10 - Tekstslide

Continue: Experts think that Vincent made the changes after his father died. You see, some people in the painting are wearing special clothing. Back in Vincent's time, people wore clothing like this when they were in mourning [or 'after the death of someone they cared about']. The changes made the painting even more meaningful to Vincent's mother. It became a reminder of Vincent's father.
Can a painting of an object or a building also be a portrait of a person?

Slide 11 - Tekstslide

Question: Can a painting of an object or a building also be a portrait of a person? Why or why not?
> Vincent believed that this was possible. Later, he made other 'portraits' of this kind. Take a look at the next two paintings, which he made in France.
This is a kind of self-portrait by Vincent. It shows an ordinary chair in his kitchen. His pipe is lying on the seat, and in the background we see a box of onions.
You might call this an elegant portrait of Vincent's friend. It shows a stylish chair with armrests. There are books on the seat. Vincent's friend knew all sorts of things.

Slide 12 - Tekstslide

Continue: One of these paintings is really a simple portrait of himself, and the other one is an elegant portrait of a friend, who stayed with him for a while.
Question: which painting is really about Vincent, and which one is about Vincent's friend?
The answers are in the hotspots.
You might also discuss the term 'symbol' with the class.

Slide 13 - Tekstslide

Continue: So the church in this simple painting is not just any church. But you may not realise that, unless you know the story. That's something to keep in mind.
Now let's get to work!
  • Decide who you would like to portray.
  • What object or building makes you think of that person?
  • Make a drawing or painting of that object or building. 

Slide 14 - Tekstslide

Now tell the class about the painting assignment. Let them know whether they will be drawing or painting and how much time they will have.
Please keep in mind that painting will take more time.
Who would like to talk about what they made?

Slide 15 - Tekstslide

Finish the lesson by having some of the students talk about their 'portraits'. Invite other students to respond to their work (in a positive way).