The Chicken, c. 1926
Chaïm Soutine, French, born Russia (present-day Belarus), 1893–1943
Oil on canvas
40 1/4 × 29 15/16 in. (102.2 × 76.1 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown in honor of John A. and Audrey Jones Beck

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
VIDEOS

Art and the Scientific Method

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, and be careful about making assumptions.

This Curriculum Connection also includes Tômatsu Shômei, Beer bottle after the atomic bomb explosion, 1961.

Curriculum Objectives

  • The student will be able to use the work of art to practice using the scientific method.
  • Plan and implement comparative and descriptive investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, and using appropriate equipment and technology.

GRADE LEVEL

6

7

8

SUBJECT AREA

Science

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Amongst smeared brushstrokes of dark organic hues, the bright body of a fowl emerges in this painting by artist Chaïm Soutine. Dangling from its right ankle, the bird’s body is splayed, each limb being pulled down by its own weight. Thick, overlapping strokes relay the frenzy of the bird’s vigorous movement. While at first glance it seems as if the chicken is struggling against death, Soutine's painting is a celebration of the animal and flesh, a theme that allowed him to explore his obsessions with life and death.

Soutine was highly influenced by the works of the Old Masters and focused his attention on still-lifes, in particular those with carcasses of beef and poultry. Using thick, layered, frantic brushstrokes and a mix of dark and bright colors, Soutine’s depictions of life, death, and decay are brooding and whimsically visceral reflections of life’s struggles and the horrors of war. His application of paint and choice of subject matter bridged the gap between more traditional methods and the developing Abstract Expressionism.

This dead creature, a provider of life, is a bloody lump that is rendered fascinatingly beautiful by Soutine's brutal, swirling, painterly brushstrokes. His ferocious brushstrokes appear as if he is attacking the canvas with his paintbrush. This forceful style of painting heightens the sense of drama and spectacle. His Expressionist style coupled with his palette of seemingly jarring and garish colors was unique in Paris at the time he was working.

Soutine, who was raised in a Jewish household in Lithuania, struggled with poverty and hunger from childhood into early adulthood when he lived quite meagerly as a student in Paris during WWI. Food within Jewish culture plays an important role in both secular and religious rituals. Reflecting this, his paintings become a celebration and exploration of food in a more universal sense. While the chicken struggles against life and death, the artist also explores the chicken as nourishment and a source of food. Soutine places worth on the chicken through his choice to paint the chicken on a large scale. He also emphasizes the chicken through the close cropping of the composition and the hazy, nondescript background. While the abstraction of the chicken’s image prevents a life-like image of the foul, the motion and emotion crafted through color and brushstroke honors the roles of food in society and in Soutine’s own life as both nourishment and a symbol of culture.

Considering his childhood shortage of food, this painting is a celebration of someone finally able to afford luxuries like meat on a regular basis. Despite the abstract nature of this work, the artist was able to afford to purchase meat so that he could paint from real-life. The artist would hang up a piece of meat in his studio and, regardless of the annoyance of his neighbors and its attraction of flies, would leave the meat on the wall as he studied and painted it. His obsessions with life and death allowed him to slowly observe and record the decaying meat while celebrating it through paint.

Observations

  • Describe the painting. Be sure to notice color, brushstroke and composition. What do you think the subject matter is? Use evidence from the painting to backup your answer.
  • This work of art is titled The Chicken. Were you able to identify the animal as a chicken? What characteristic of chicken that you already knew is present in the painting?
  • How would you describe the mood of this work? What elements in the work add to the mood?
  • Could the word “jarring” be used to describe the tone of this work? Explain your answer. What other words could be used to describe the tone of this work?
  • How does the artist create motion in the painting? Do you get the sense that the chicken is moving or still? Explain your answer using elements from the work.
  • Describe what atmosphere the thick brushstrokes add to the painting? How would this work be different in the artist used tiny, precise brushstrokes to create a more realistic version of a chicken?
  • Consider the background. How does it relate to the chicken? How does the abstracted background add a sense of mystery to the work?
  • Does the placement of the chicken remind you of anything?
  • How would this work be different if you could make out what was in the background? What if the composition was not as cropped?

Interpretations

  • Did you expect the mood of this work to contain more anxiety?
  • Consider that artists make very conscious choices. What theory could you make about why the background is blue? What associations do we have with the color blue?
  • Some would say that the colors in the painting are jarring. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • The artist, Chaim Soutine, grew up in a Jewish household where food was scarce but still an important part of their traditional religious rituals. How does knowing about this relationship with food in Soutine’s childhood change how we see this work?
  • This work could be viewed as a celebration of roles of food in society, and in Soutine’s own life, as both nourishment and a symbol of culture. Do you agree with this statement? Justify your answer using elements from the painting.
  • What you know about the world in the early 1900s that could affect our interpretation of The Chicken?

Assessment

Idea to Introduce: Scientific Method

*Steps 1 – 3 will be completed before conversation starters.

The Scientific Method

1. When following the scientific method, there really isn’t a perfect path to follow.   

Many times you have to go back to previous steps and continue to ask questions, do research and restate a new hypothesis. Things change as you explore, probe and delve into the unknown. Put the diagram on the projector screen and allow the students to discuss the different paths that can be taken when using the scientific methods.

2. Observe both works of art centering on the “3 R’s”: React, Respond, Revisit. For each work of art, have 3 large posters with headings: 1. React 2. Respond 3. Revisit. Divide the class the half. Give each person in each group several post-it notes.  Use different color notes for each group. One group observes The Chicken and the other group observes the Beer bottle after the atomic bomb explosion while answering the following questions:

REACT:

  • What do you think and feel when you first observe this work of art?
  • Write each feeling/thought on a post-it note and place on “React” poster.

RESPOND:

  • What parts of the work of art contribute to these thoughts/feelings?
  • What initial inferences did you create?
  • Can you make any additional observations?
  • Record responses on post-it notes and place on “Respond” poster.

REVISIT:

  • Give them a copy of the background information on each work of art: where it was taken, time frame, etc. (this counts as the background information or research). Tell them about the bomb if they cannot come up with it based on the info given.
  • Can you apply any knowledge to make sense of the information that I just gave you about the work of art?
  • How have your initial inferences changed?
  • Draw a conclusion, using new information.
  • Write new discoveries on post-it notes and place on “Revisit” poster.

3. Now, each group looks at the other work of art with accompanying posters.  Repeat “React, Respond, and Revisit” with original color of post-it notes.

*4. As a class, discuss the works of art, using the ‘conversation starters’.

5. Compare and contrast the two works of art, using the posters to create Venn Diagrams.

6. How does this activity relate to the Scientific Method?

Subject Matter Connection

Teaching our students to be reflective about their impact as well as their own development is key to helping them become successful. It is when you make connections within that you really begin to develop a deeper sense of understanding.

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

  • Food and Feasting in Art
    • This reference book on food in western art includes descriptions of food depicted in a figurative context, in allegory and still life, the places and rituals of dining, and the dining table and its furnishings. As this book points out, food in art can provide many clues about the scene in which it is depicted, including scenes from literature and history, mythology, religion, and everyday life.

      MFAH Catalog Number: BK630

The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:

Mercantil Commercebank

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