After first looking closely at Thomas Cole’s painting Dream of Arcadia, students will imagine they are in the painting. They will then write a “Wish you were here…” postcard about their experiences. Younger students may share their experiences verbally with a partner.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 45 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe different sensations Cole helps the reader experience through his representation of Arcadia;
- discuss how the use of color influences the overall feel of the painting; and
- feel comfortable using their imaginations to place themselves in the painting and write or tell about their experiences.
- Warm-up: Point out four different objects in the room, one at a time. After each object, have students say out loud, or write down words to describe that object using all of their senses. For example, if you select a book, the students might write down colorful, hard, smooth, quiet (or noisy when the pages are turned), bland tasting (if they were to imagine tasting it), etc.
- Show students Cole’s painting Dream of Arcadia. Using the About the Art section, talk a little bit about the importance of nature for Cole and how he saw it as essential to combat the industrial world in which he lived. Ask the students how the painting reflects Cole’s love of nature and a simpler life.
- Have students identify sensory experiences in the painting (i.e. warmth, coolness, sounds, texture, smell, etc.). Encourage them to explore tiny details and look all around the painting.
- Drawing upon all of their observations, have students create a “Wish you were here…” postcard, in which they write about their sensory observations and the way they would feel if they were in the painting. Encourage them to be specific about what in the setting makes them feel the way they do. One side of the postcard should be a drawing of something in the painting.
- For younger students, you may have them share with a partner what they would do, where in the painting they would go, and how they would feel if they were visiting Arcadia.
- Allow students time to get back into small groups to share, critique, and edit their writing.
- Ask for volunteers to share their postcards with the entire class.
- Three 4” x 6” note cards for each student (in case they make mistakes)
- Assorted colored pencils for the students to share
- Pencil/pen for each student
- 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
- Reading for All Purposes
- Writing and Composition
- Visual Arts
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Invent and Discover to Create
- 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.