Ventriloquist, 1983
Jasper Johns, American, born 1930
Encaustic on canvas
75 × 50 in. (190.5 × 127 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Creating a Visual Autobiography

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

  • Analyze a work of art
  • Create original works of art
  • Interpret symbols, icons, and other visual representations










Connecting to the Work of Art

Ventriloquist is representative of Jasper Johns’ increasingly contemplative and autobiographical works of the 1980s. This painting is filled with personal references that become a somber reverie on the artist’s physical and psychological environment. Inverted and hard to decipher, the images are uncanny surrogates for the intensely private and reserved artist. Johns becomes the “ventriloquist,” projecting his voice and speaking through the work of other artists and his own previous work.


This painting is an image of the wall above his bathtub, a setting that is indicated by a faucet and a laundry basket in the lower right-hand corner. On the wall of the scene, Johns has included objects that refer to the work of other artists, including a nail-and-shadow reference to Georges Braque’s trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) works, still-life compositions, and a Barnett Newman print (shown in reverse in the upper right). Also depicted are pieces of George Ohr pottery from Johns’ own collection. They float over a copy of Barry Moser’s illustration from the 1979 edition of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. But perhaps the most recognizable images in this highly personal scene are Johns’ famous American flags. The green, black, and yellow flags depicted here are the opposite colors—on a color wheel—of the traditional red, white, and blue flag. Johns frequently used opposite colors to create optical illusions within his works of art.


Although this painting is largely autobiographical, Johns touches on universal issues of illusion, perception, and deception. Illusion is present in every aspect of the painting, from the inverted Newman print to the well-known optical illusion found in the vase in the lower right corner, whose outline forms the silhouettes of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Johns cleverly plays with the viewer’s perception of the painting’s two-dimensional surface by layering the images, as seen, for example, in the taped image of the flags which partially cover up a piece of pottery. Johns’ fascination with illusion and perception is apparent in his frequent use of trompe l’oeil, the technique of copying an object with such exactitude that the object depicted may be mistaken as real. Johns paints in a naturalistic style, and, in this work, he uses his favorite medium: encaustic, wax that is heated, colored, and applied to the canvas using a brush.


In 1954, Johns began painting his series of canvases depicting the American flags, maps, targets, and stenciled lettering for which he is now famous. His repetitive depictions of everyday images, “things the mind already knows,” are both a reaction to and an attempt to explore the hidden connotations of mainstream, popular culture and imagery. Johns is considered a leading figure of the American Pop Art movement that emerged in the late 1950s. Besides painting, Johns has explored printmaking and sculpture, often working to keep viewers guessing at his materials and techniques. Throughout the span of his career, Johns has created a body of rich and complex work. His attention to popular imagery sets new standards for American art.


  • Jasper Johns cleverly plays with perception and illusion. Here, he layers objects on the painting´s surface. Pieces of pottery seem to float before the flat surface of a hinged, folding screen. The pottery comes from the artist’s large collection of works by George Ohr (1857-1918), a Mississippi ceramicist who referred to himself as the "greatest potter who ever lived." Notice how Johns signs and dates this painting. Why do you think he chose to use a stencil rather than his own handwriting?
  • Look carefully to find the image of a whale that is partially hidden amid the lines of the screen. The artist had recently read the 1979 edition of Herman Melville´s Moby-Dick with illustrations by the noted artist Barry Moser. Johns references one of Moser´s prints with this detail. Describe what else you notice.
  • In the 1950s, Johns used the American flag as the subject of some of his most important and famous paintings. Here, he presents a poster taped to the flat background depicting two green, black, and yellow American flags. These colors are the opposite of red, white, and blue, and they refer to a specific optical illusion. (If you stare intently at the flags here, then close your eyes, you should see a red, white, and blue flag.) What else did Johns incorporate to emphasize this illusion?
  • The artist included a 1961 lithograph by Barnett Newman in the upper right corner of the painting. Johns owned this work and, for this painting, has meticulously copied Newman´s abstract composition—only he has reversed its order. Why do you think Johns include works by other artists in this painting? Was he trying to copy them? Explain the reasoning behind your answer.


  • There is an image of the wall above Jasper Johns’ bathtub. List all of the objects in this painting. What do these objects say about the artist? What do you think the other rooms of his house look like?
  • What types of objects would you include in an autobiographical painting?
  • What does a ventriloquist do? How does the artist use the title of this work to give the viewer a hint about its meaning?
  • Color is an important part of creating the illusion of depth and movement in paintings. Which colors in this work jump out? Which ones recede?
  • The detail of a nail casting a shadow on the wall shows the artist’s fascination with illusion. This device, called trompe l´oeil (or trick the eye), is meant to fool the viewer into thinking it could be an actual nail. Many painters used trompe l´oeil elements, and Johns borrowed the image of a nail from the still-life compositions of French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963). Why do you think Johns would include the trompe l´oeil nail in his painting?
  • A 1977 "Silver Jubilee" vase sits atop the wicker basket within the painting. This vase was produced to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II´s ascension to the throne of the United Kingdom. Look carefully at the blue and white edges of the vase. They depict the profiles of the queen and her husband, Prince Phillip, facing each other. The inclusion of this object is an example of Johns´ expression that "You can see more than one thing at a time." Does this quote apply to other elements in the painting?

Connecting to the Classroom

At the onset of his career, Jasper Johns painted everyday objects, such as flags, maps, and targets. He said, "In my early work I tried to hide my personality, psychological state, my emotions…but eventually it felt like a losing battle."

Ventriloquist presents a view of Johns´ bathroom, including a laundry basket and tub faucet in the lower right and several objects that refer to his own work and sources of inspiration. The painting is largely autobiographical, and the title Ventriloquist refers to Johns´ ability to speak through the objects he has pictured.


Students will create an autobiographical work of art.

12 x 18 colored construction paper
Masking tape
"Sounds in Silhouette" music CD by Reginald Robinson

1.  Examine the work of art.

In groups, list the objects in spatial order, using the foreground, middle ground, and background.

  • How does the artist arrange the objects on a flat surface?
  • Why do you think Johns chose these particular objects to be in his painting?
  • Is the painting divided or organized in any way?  How?

Use the word "ventriloquist" as an acrostic (word square) to list and describe the objects in this painting (See Handouts section for examples).

2.  Interpret symbolism and optical illusions.

This work of art uses objects as symbols that refer to other artists´ work.  Ask students to consider the following questions as they view Explore the Art in the Learn about the Art section.

  • What is a symbol?  What symbols do you think the artist used in this painting?
  • Trace your finger along the outline of the vase.  What does the silhouette remind you of?  Do the same with the image on the left (represented in alternating colored lines).  What animal do you see?
  • What do you think Jasper Johns´ personality is like based on this work of art?  What does he like?
  • What is a ventriloquist?  How does Johns use this painting to speak?

3.  Create a work of art.

In preparation for creating a work of art, ask students to think of their favorite books, games, artists, activities, or collectibles.

  • What symbols would they use to represent these things (for example, a football could represent a love of sports)?
  • What do your favorite things tell about you?

Give the following instructions to students.  Use the template in the Handouts section as a possible model.

  • Divide a colored piece of construction paper in half.
  • Use markers and rulers to trace the width of the ruler across the left side, creating vertical columns.
  • Draw chosen symbols over the columns.
  • Choose one color and fill in the first column, leaving the shape inside that column white.  Leave the next column uncolored, but color the symbol only.  To create an optical illusion, repeat this process to the middle of the paper.
  • On the right side, draw other pictures symbolizing your favorites and parts of your favorite room.  Connect the two sides by drawing or creating a collage of a work of art that you appreciate and tape it to the middle area as Johns has done in Ventriloquist (Note: students may also download a work of art as an additional option).
  • Give your work of art a title.

4.  Talk about titles.

 As a class, have students discuss the importance of the title to their artwork.

  • Do you think titles are an important part of a work of art?  Why or why not?
  • What significance does the title of your piece have to you?
  • Why do you think Jasper Johns chose to call this painting "Ventriloquist?"

Play the track entitled "Ventriloquist" from the music CD by classical ragtime musician Reginald Robinson.

  • Listen carefully to the track.  How does the music mimic the interplay between a ventriloquist and his doll?  Whose voice do you hear?
  • What is Jasper Johns work of art saying to you?


Play a guessing game! Display student artwork and have classmates guess who created each piece. Once each work has been identified, ask students to choose a symbol from their piece and briefly discuss why it is important to them. Compare the student work to Jasper Johns, discussing their similarities and differences.

Extensions to the lesson

Music: A Musical Voice
Research the background and musical styles of American avant garde composers John Cage and Philip Glass.  Listen to musical samples.  Just as Jasper Johns speaks through his art, how do Cage and Glass do the same using music?  Can you find sections of their music that exemplify this?

Language Arts: Autobiographical Poem
Have students write an autobiographical poem that describes themselves.  Use the suggested format below.  When completed, ask students to share the challenges they may have encountered during the writing process.  Was it difficult or easy to describe themselves in only a few words and lines?  Why?

Line 1:  First name only            

Line 2: Four adjectives

Line 3: Three nouns

Line 4:  Who loves (three items, places or people)

Line 5:  Who feels (three items)

Line 6:  Who fears  (three items)

Line 7:  Who would like to see  (three items)

Line 8:  Two verbs

Line 9:  One prepositional phrase

Line 10:  Last name                 

Math: Positive and Negative
Discuss the different meanings of the words positive and negative space (found in the Vocabulary section).  Using the mathematical symbols for positive and negative (+ and - ), ask students to render them in their newly created work of art.

Science: Seeing is Believing
Optical illusions are designed to deceive the eyes.  The green, black, and yellow flag used in Jasper Johns´ painting is composed of opposite colors, meaning they are opposite of red, white, and blue on a color wheel.  Have students investigate the use of opposite colors and their scientific effect on the human eye, as well as the style of painting called trompe l´oeil (French for "trick the eye").


Subject Matter Connection

At the onset of his career, Jasper Johns painted everyday objects, such as flags, maps, and targets. He said, "In my early work I tried to hide my personality, psychological state, my emotions…but eventually it felt like a losing battle."

Ventriloquist presents a view of Johns´ bathroom, including a laundry basket and tub faucet in the lower right and several objects that refer to his own work and sources of inspiration. The painting is largely autobiographical, and the title Ventriloquist refers to Johns´ ability to speak through the objects he has pictured.

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