A Beautiful Place

Lesson Plan


Students will examine the artistic characteristics of Dream of Arcadia, discuss the meaning and significance of conservation with respect to nature, and create a public service message poster encouraging conservation of a natural space with which the students are familiar.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies


Students will be able to:

  • examine the artistic characteristics of Dream of Arcadia;
  • Locate Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Hudson River Valley on a map of the United States and locate Greece on a map of the world;
  • explain the meaning of “conservation” and reasons for conserving natural spaces;
  • create a public service message poster encouraging conservation of a natural space with which the students are familiar.


  1. Display Dream of Arcadia and challenge students to write down a list of as many things that they can identify as possible in 4 minutes. Encourage students to focus on all the parts of the painting to create this inventory. When the 4 minutes have passed, invite students to share their observations. Discuss the following: What adjectives would students use to describe the painting overall? What could have motivated the artist to paint the scene? Why? Encourage the students to provide reasons for their answers.
  2. Share with students that Dream of Arcadia was created by Thomas Cole around 1838. Cole loved the landscape of the Northeast and Midwest, and felt that the American wilderness was starting to disappear as a result of the industrialization of the nation. In this painting, Cole harks back to the land of Arcadia, a rustic, secluded area of ancient Greece. The people who lived in Arcadia lived simple, happy lives in harmony with nature.
  3. Ask students to study the painting again. What makes this scene idyllic? What do students notice about the scene? What are people doing? What is the weather like? How is this different from today? What has taken place to cause these changes? How could these changes have been prevented?
  4. Ask the students: What does the term “conservation” mean with respect to nature? Why might it be important to conserve natural spaces? Record the students’ ideas on a piece of chart paper or an (interactive) whiteboard. You may want to provide the students with additional information from a website about Understanding Wildlife Conservation.
  5. Encourage the students to think of a natural space in their community or state that they would like to see conserved. Have the students create a public service message poster encouraging conservation of the natural space, including reasons why this natural space should be conserved.
  6. When students are finished, be sure to have them share their creations and display their pieces in a prominent place in the classroom.


  • Piece of chart paper and colored markers or (interactive) whiteboard to record students’ ideas
  • Drawing/construction paper and various artistic supplies for each student
  • Map of the United States, visible to all students in the classroom
  • Access to website about Understanding Wildlife Conservation
  • About the Art section on Dream of Arcadia
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Reading for All Purposes
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
  • Social Studies
    • Geography
      • Become familiar with United States geography
      • Become familiar with World geography
      • Understand people and their relationship with geography and their environment
    • History
      • Analyze historical sources using tools of a historian
      • Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
      • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, and themes
  • Visual Arts
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Dream of Arcadia

Dream of Arcadia

about 1838

Thomas Cole

Who Made It?

Thomas Cole was born in England (1801), the only boy in a family of seven children. His family moved to America in 1818, where his father started a wallpaper factory. At the age of 18, Cole was given a book on painting and fell in love with the medium: “This book was my companion day and night, nothing could separate us—my usual avocations were neglected—painting was all in all to me. I had made some proficiency in drawing, and had engraved a little in both wood and copper, but not until now had my passion for painting been thoroughly roused—my love for the art exceeded all love—my ambition grew, and in my imagination I pictured the glory of being a great painter.” Cole was a self-taught artist who eventually became a very successful landscape painter. He spent his childhood in an industrial area of England, and upon moving to America, fell in love with the landscape of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and later with the Hudson River valley. He was not content with being, as he said, “a mere leaf painter,” and felt the need to take the field of landscapes to a higher and more sophisticated realm. He sought to bring moral and religious meaning to his landscapes.

What Inspired It?

The theme of Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia is man’s relationship to unspoiled nature. Cole felt that the American wilderness was beginning to disappear as a result of the industrialization of the nation. In this painting, Cole harks back to the land of Arcadia, a rustic, secluded area of ancient Greece. The people who lived in Arcadia led simple, happy lives, in harmony with nature. Cole creates an idyllic image of an unblemished landscape—one where people frolic in the trees, sheep roam the hillside, and children play in the gentle river. Cole was greatly inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain, a French landscape artist who painted roughly 200 years before him. “Claude, to me, is the greatest of all landscape painters,” said Cole. Cole used many of the same artistic devices that Claude used in his paintings, such as the luminous distance, the large trees in the foreground that frame the painting, and elements of architecture in the middle ground. Claude often emphasized the effects of light in his paintings—something Cole focused on as well in Dream of Arcadia.


Light & Shadow
Light & Shadow

Cole used the sunlight to create contrasts of shaded and warmly lit areas. Highlighted details create a visual path back into the painting.

Greek Temple
Greek Temple

On the cliff sits a complete Doric temple bathed in sunlight. The Doric order was the earliest and simplest of three orders of Ancient Greek or classical architecture. Notice the impossible reflection of the temple in the stream below—a detail that adds to the magical feeling of Arcadia.


The smoke rising from the front porch of the temple signifies the burning of a ritual sacrifice.

Distant City
Distant City

A city sits in the distant background, cut off from the foreground by a river and some trees. In the groves, forest, and fields of Arcadia, the humans find surroundings that are beautiful and fresh.

Pastoral Entertainment
Pastoral Entertainment

Under the trees on the left side of the painting young men and women relax, play music, and dance. Their clothing seems rural and is reminiscent of styles of ancient Greece.

Shepherd & Goats
Shepherd & Goats

The shepherd can be seen as a symbol of man’s harmony with nature through his relationship to his natural surroundings.


Despite his skill with landscapes, Cole always had a hard time painting people. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Worst of all is the inhabitants of [Arcadia]—I found them very troublesome, very—They have almost murdered me!”

Stone Pillar
Stone Pillar

The people in the left foreground are participating in a ceremony that involves a herme, which is a square stone pillar surmounted by a bust. This particular bust could be an image of Pan, who was the guardian of Arcadia. Due to the large number of flowers, it could also be a ceremony dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers.

Cole’s Signature
Cole’s Signature

Cole’s signature was discovered on a boulder in the foreground while the painting was being cleaned in 1967. Prior to this, there were questions as to whether this particular painting was the original, since it measured smaller than the recorded measurements of Cole’s work. But when it was removed from the frame, it became apparent that the canvas had been folded back for framing.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.