Students will examine the artistic characteristics of Dream of Arcadia, discuss the meaning and significance of conservation with respect to nature, and write a letter to the mayor, city council, or other appropriate leader(s) encouraging conservation of a natural space with which the students are familiar.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaSocial 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; and
- write a letter to the mayor, city council, or other appropriate leader(s) encouraging conservation of a natural space with which the students are familiar.
- Warm-up: Display Dream of Arcadia and invite students to look carefully and share what they observe. What do they notice about the painting? What colors do they see? What types of vegetation do they recognize? What might it sound like in Arcadia? What might it smell like? Have the students ever visited any place that reminds them of Arcadia? What adjectives would they use to describe the painting? Encourage the students to provide reasons for their answers.
- Share with students that Dream of Arcadia was created by Thomas Cole around 1838. Cole was born in 1801 and spent his childhood in an industrial area of England, then moved to the United States in 1818. Cole fell in love with the landscape of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and later with the Hudson River Valley. Have students locate Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Hudson River Valley on a map, and invite them to share what they know about the geography of this region of the United States.
- Ask the following questions to establish Cole’s theme and attempt to make this landscape idyllic: What does it mean to be “idyllic”? What things do you notice that make this painting seem idealized? What do you notice about the scene? What are people doing? What is the weather like? How does Cole use the light to make it look ideal? Why do you think Cole chose to make the painting look like this? How is this scene different from today? What has taken place to cause these changes?
- Explain that Cole 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.
- Ask the students: What does the term “conservation” mean with respect to nature? Why might it be important to conserve natural spaces? What are some local examples of conservation? 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.
- Encourage the students to think of a natural space in their community or state that they would like to see conserved. Have the students write a letter to the mayor, city council, or other appropriate leader(s) encouraging conservation of the natural space, including reasons why this natural space should be conserved. Challenge students to think about their personal reaction to this space changing to add emphasis in their letters.
- When students are finished, ask them to share their work. Conclude with a discussion comparing and contrasting the impact of using a painting to communicate this message with the impact of writing a letter. How can messages be sent in multiple formats? Why do you think Cole chose to send his message through art?
- Piece of chart paper and colored markers or (interactive) whiteboard to record students’ ideas
- Lined paper and pen/pencil 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
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Social Studies
- Become familiar with people in the world who are interconnected by geography
- Become familiar with United States geography
- Become familiar with World geography
- Use geographic tools and sources to answer spatial questions
- Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
- Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, and themes
- Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
- Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
- 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
About the Art
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.
Cole used the sunlight to create contrasts of shaded and warmly lit areas. Highlighted details create a visual path back into the painting.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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 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.