Abstraction, c. 1914
Marsden Hartley, American, 1877–1943
Oil on paperboard, mounted on panel
24 1/2 × 20 in. (62.2 × 50.8 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph O'Connor in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Creating Graphs from Data Sets

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Collecting data
  • Creating graphs from data sets








Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

When renowned modern art collector Gertrude Stein visited Marsden Hartley’s studio in Paris, she exclaimed, “At last…an original American!” Painted in Berlin on the eve of World War I, Abstraction reflects the energy, dynamism, and promise of the era. Broad planes of flat, unmixed, yet vibrant color—a palette of primary and secondary colors— dominate the canvas and create vitality in this work of art.


The bold, clearly defined geometric shapes appear to push and pull against each other. This interaction makes it unclear whether elements are coming towards the viewer or receding back, and provide the work with a sense of coordinated movement. The dense, overlapping concentric circles, rectangles, curves, and zigzags build upon one another into a pyramid-like arrangement. This organization balances the composition and references classical painting structures, but the boldness of the shapes and colors make Abstraction strikingly modern.


Although his paintings were abstract, Hartley maintained that they were merely reconstructions of observed patterns and images from real life. The blue and white zigzag at the apex of the painting is suggestive of a snowcapped mountain, a motif prevalent in Hartley’s work throughout his career. Additionally, the stripes and disks that dominate the composition are reminiscent of military pageantry and German military regalia—objects that would have been a part of Hartley’s everyday visual vocabulary at the time he painted this work.  While vague renderings of bright flags, uniform insignia, and military emblems can be made out, the main subject remains the relationship between color and form.


When Hartley arrived in Europe in 1912, he quickly found himself surrounded and inspired by a thriving, innovative art community. Although he had been exposed to Modernist works prior to his visit, his tenure in Europe provided him with a visual and theoretical awakening that influenced the development of his own style. This painting illustrates the artist’s evolving personal method, which combined the tightly structured arrangement of Cubism’s flat planes, Orphism’s eye-catching geometric figures, and Expressionism’s dramatic color and loose brushwork. This synchronized style allowed Hartley to create a work that was both structured and expressive, and highlights the relationships of line to motion and color to emotion.


  • What words would you use to describe the shapes in this painting?
  • Notice the colors used throughout this work. Are they warm or cool colors? How does the artist’s choice to use both warm and cool colors create a sense of chaos within the composition?
  • How do the dynamic brushstrokes and broad planes of flat, unmixed color energize the composition?
  • How would you describe the tone of this work? Use evidence from the work of art to support your reasoning.
  • How does the artist create a sense of energy with the work?
  • Describe how the shapes are arranged within the composition. How does the artist create disorder for the viewers through the display of the shapes?
  • While at first glance this work appears to be abstract, it is in fact based on observed patterns and images from real life. What real life objects do you think could be included in this composition?
  • How would this work be different if the artist only used two or three colors?
  • While the color and shapes create a tone of dynamism, how does the artist add a sense of structure to the composition. Notice the pyramidal arrangement of objects.  Why do you think stability is important within the scene?


  • This work was painted around 1914 in Berlin on the eve of World War I. How could this work reflect a viewpoint of the time period it was painted in?
  • How does the artist project a sense of hopefulness and promise of the era into the work of art?
  • Why do you think the artist intentional created a sense of confusion through the use of jarring color and harsh shapes?
  • How does this underlying tone of disorder counter act the sense of optimism in the painting?
  • While this work does include recognizable shapes and objects, many scholars believe this work is a study in the relationship between color and form.  How would this work be different if viewers could more easily recognize the objects?
  • Even though the artist includes recognizable signs and symbols, the objects and figures are highly abstracted. What is your theory on why the artist included recognizable figures at all? Explain your reasoning.
  • The blue and white zigzag at the apex of the painting is suggestive of a snowcapped mountain, while the stripes and disks that dominate the composition are reminiscent of military pageantry and German military regalia. How does knowing what the objects represent change your opinion of the work of art?
  • Considering the elements and tone of this work of art, do you think that the artist is highlighting military pageantry or critiquing it? Explain your answer.

Questions to Ask

  • What colors do you see?  Optional: Using a box of crayons, match colors of crayons that are reflected in the work of art (for example: crimson, maize, sky blue, etc.)
  • Where do you see a repetition of colors and/or shades of those colors?
  • How do the color choices affect the overall meaning of the work of art?
  • If you painted this, would you change any of the colors? Why?


  • Have them list all of the colors they see on a sheet of notebook paper. Tally how many times you see specific colors in the work of art.  For example:  Red, Yellow, Blue, Black, Peach, White, and Orange.
  • Creating multiple graphical representations of the data collected from the painting.
  • Use this painting as a warm-up to engage students in making observations relating to collecting data. Students will then create a frequency table based on the number of times that specific color is in the painting. They will take this frequency table and use it to create a bar graph, a circle graph, and a line plot. This allows the students to gain confidence and practice thinking for themselves.


There can be many interpretations of the frequency of the colors. It depends truly on how students count and define the colors. Allow the students to be different as long as they justify their work.


The following is an example of what could be done:  (PDF coming soon.)



1.                                                            The Frequency of Colors in the Art



Light/Medium Blue

Dark Blue/Black






2. The following would be displayed in a bar graph. (Discuss with the students that bar graphs are used when comparing two or more things. We are comparing the frequency of the colors).


3. 9 + 10 + 8 + 6 =  16.5



4. The student would draw a flat, horizontal line at y= 16.5 to represent the average. This line will be above some and below some naturally.


Student Instructions: Follow the four-step process.

1. Create a chart or table that represents the colors in the painting and how frequent they occur.

2. Create a graph that could visually represent this data.

3. Using your graph, write an equation to find the average frequency and solve.

4. Draw a line on your graph that represents this number.

5. Write true/false statements based on their graphs.

Content Area Connections
• Students will be practicing collecting data, and then taking that data and representing it graphically – in this case, as a bar graph, circle graph, and line plot.
• Students will be presented with graphs in all levels of math.
• This lesson is cross-curricular and applicable to science and social studies

Optional: Students may be given a paper copy to identify the colors and mark them.








Subject Matter Connection

Students will be looking at and interpreting graphical representations in the classroom. They must take the time to really read the graphs and observe what they are saying. This allows the students to gain confidence and practice thinking for themselves.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.