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Landscapes

The landscape category is a broad one that encompasses seascapes, and cityscapes and townscapes too. Historically, the landscape has been associated with scenes of the natural world. Sometimes the landscape is devoid of figures or shows human activity as secondary to the environment. The category has become looser over time and representation can range from topographical accuracy to abstracted, or even abstract, depictions of the land and sea we navigate.

Surprised! (1891)
by Henri Rousseau (1844–1910)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimension: H 129.8 x W 161.9 cm

Despite being a famous artist, Rousseau had never had any professional training. Although there is no evidence that he ever left France, he developed his own vision of the world and became famous for his 'jungle paintings'. Rousseau took inspiration for this work, and others like it, from visits to the Botanical Gardens and the Natural History Museum in Paris. In fact, many of the plants featured in Surprised! are super-sized house plants. The imaginative use of common native plants to create an 'exotic' landscape gives a dream-like quality which is typical of his work.

Tip: if you'd like more insight into the painting before teaching the lesson, an audio description is available, which has been developed for students with blindness or visual impairment to take part.

Surprised!

Surprised!

The National Gallery, London

 

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the tiger and its surrounding landscape.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views. 

For students with blindness or visual impairment, an audio description of the painting is available to be listened to during this stage.

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How has the artist created the feel of a jungle?
  • How would you feel if you were transported into this scene? Would it matter where you landed? What sounds would you hear?
  • What or who do you think has caught the tiger's attention?
  • What's the weather like in this scene? Does the weather help you work out what's going on?
  • What does the lightning strike suggest that the tiger is about to do?

Activity: watch and discuss

In the following film, artist Bob and Roberta Smith uses his own 'Superpower of Looking' to explore Surprised!

Watch the film with your students and discuss the following questions:

  • Did Bob see anything you hadn't spotted yet?
  • What else did you notice about the painting when watching the film?
  • What did you spot in and outside of Bob's house that reminded you of the painting?

 


Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We’d suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Composition

Colour

Line 

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Stage 4: bespoke questions

To support those teaching The Superpower of Looking for the first time, this additional stage can be used when teaching the first lesson in each category.

During this stage, you can introduce knowledge from the context box while asking these bespoke questions on the painting. If you've already covered any questions through previous discussions, feel free to move on.

If it's required, guidance on what to look for can be found below the sets of questions.

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 


Comparison activity

Compare Surprised! with either or both of the following options:

  • Paul Klee's 1923 painting, Landscape with Yellow Birds. In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Space and Colour.
  • Two photographs of real-life tigers. What are the similarities and differences between the real animal and Rousseau's depiction?

Cross-curricular activities: English / Geography and Art & Design

Extend into an English lesson by following up with some creative writing.

During its original exhibition, some of the reviews of Surprised! mention prey being hunted, and Rousseau later referred to the painting as 'A Tiger Chasing Explorers'. He is also said to have reworked the canvas, and so potentially he painted over prey. Is that what can be spotted above the grass on the right? What do your students think?

Detail from 'Surprised!'

Detail from 'Surprised!'

The final version of the painting is open to interpretation – maybe it's the tiger who has been surprised? Task your students with writing about the missing elements of the scene to solve the mystery of who or what is Surprised!

 

Alternatively, extend into a Geography and Art & Design lesson that explores different climates, climate change and recycling.

If you haven't already explored climate in class previously, or need to re-cap, watch the following video from BBC Teach and discuss:

  • What type of climate do we have in the United Kingdom?
  • What other types of climates are there?
  • What's happening to climates across the Earth? Why?
  • What can we do to look after our planet?
  • Why is it important to recycle rather than throw away waste?

Now, show Surprised! to your students again and ask the following:

  • Where does Surprised! take place?
  • Where in the world would we find a tiger? Why are they native there and not in Britain?
  • What are the differences between the weather and climate in jungles and rainforest environments compared with that in Britain?
  • What sort of plants typically grow in jungle climates?

It may surprise your students to discover that Rousseau never set foot outside of France and his jungle paintings are imaginary. As explained in the context box, the plants he presents in Surprised! are a mix of domestic house plants and tropical plants he could study at the Botanical Gardens in Paris.

Task your students with taking inspiration from another country's geography, climate and/or wildlife and representing this in a collage using recycled materials. You could support this task by watching one of the 'Your World' Geography films on BBC Teach which compare and contrast different locations in Britain with different countries across the world.

The following film from The National Gallery gives a great example of how to create such a collage inspired by Rousseau's painting:

Alternatively, extend into an outdoor activity exploring your local environment by following our Andy Goldsworthy-inspired Land Art lesson plan.




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