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Teaching Ingres: A Sample Lesson in Active Learning

Yesterday I was invited to run a workshop on active learning to a group of faculty, librarians, and technologists in Sarasota, Florida. It was a great experience and I enjoyed my time there immensely. During the workshop, I shared the following exercise as an example of how I would approach teaching this gorgeous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (b. 1780- d. 1867) in my nineteenth-century art class. I have not yet used this assignment, but I explained how I break down a topic into an active learning experience for students.

First, it is important to identify your learning goals. WHY are you teaching whatever it is you are teaching? What, specifically, do you want students to know about it? Thinking about what I want them to get out of the presentation of whatever topic is "up" for the day changes my focus from delivering facts about the image (which I could do in a lecture) and helps me think about how I could possibly get them to the answer by doing something. For this painting, I want students to come away the following: How the senses of Sight, Hearing, Touch [and maybe even Scent? or Taste?] are expressed in the image. In addition, I want them to understand the importance of this painting and Ingres as a painter to later artists.

To meet the first objective, I would put students into groups or pairs (depending on the size of the class) and have them look, analyze and view the painting, thinking about how Ingres activates the five senses with specific visual cues in the painting. I would give them time to talk about them, and write them down. Then we would discuss as a class.

In terms of the senses, Sight is clearly being activated because, it is a painting. But so is the sense of Touch. The textures are exquisite, from the fabric of the drapery hanging on the left, to the softness apparently on the sheets, to the flesh of the Bather as she sits with her back to us. But there is also Hearing in this painting; there is a small fountain and bath between her leg and the curtain. If you look closely, you see that the fountain is trickling with water. You can nearly hear it. The rest of the painting is so quiet, you can imagine the sound of that trickle of water.  You could make a case for Scent in this painting as well, as the exotic almost wafts literally from the painting itself. The only sense that is not overtly evident is Taste, although one could make a case for taking a sip of the water, or, if the sensuality of this painting is not overt enough, kissing this bather.

I would then move to this comparison to talk about my other goal for this image, which is Ingres’ importance and influence in the art world. I would ask each student to write about this comparison (below): Man Ray’s photograph Le Violin d’Ingres from 1924 and Ingres' Bather. Man Ray's photograph is clearly an homage to the great painter. Each student would write individually at first on the comparison.

After five minutes or so of comparison writing, I would have them share their ideas with a partner or in a group. We would then discuss as a class, with every pair or group member adding to the conversation. Conversations are always richer after giving students a chance to think first, then share with a couple of other students, and then share with the class as a whole. I would also collect their writings as a chance to see how well they are improving as writers or just a check to see where they are as writers (this is not graded).

I would hope that students would see the obvious reference to the Ingres painting in the photograph. I don't want to give the titles of the painting or the photograph prior to the exercise, only because titles can nudge students into interpretive decisions, and I want those interpretations to always be based on visual analysis. But it's not only the title that alludes to Ingres directly, other elements do as well: the turban, the position of the woman with her back to the viewer, as well as, perhaps, the objectification of the woman into an actual violin “to be played” by the artist – or, perhaps, by the viewer - especially since the woman in the photograph, Kiki, Man Ray’s favorite model, is shown with no arms. It is also said that Ingres was a passionate violin player as well as painter, and the phrase "Violin d’Ingres” has become an idiom in French that means “hobby.” This last I would have to tell them. But after looking for the five senses, and then further looking and writing in the comparison, that idea is much more likely to stick with the students than if it was yet another element in a lecture on the topic.

This is how I would structure this class. I have found that shifting from "lecture topic" to "learning goals" helps free me from thinking that I must provide the answer and evidence and facts.

What questions might you ask of the next topic you are teaching and how might you reframe the activities in the class to get the students more involved in the learning?

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