Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize

Scientific Inquiry

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

  • The student will be able to use the artwork to discover the process of analyzing a visual object so that it may be applied to science.
  • The student becomes familiar with scientific inquiry, ways of formulating questions, and ways of proposing explanations.



Perform a scientific investigation that explores whether a work of art with a varied color palette or a monochromatic work of art have different emotional resonances.

  • Research Question: Do two copies of the same work of art, one in color and one in black and white, evoke different emotions or different intensities of emotion?
  • Experimental Procedure:
    • Print out two high-quality copies—one in color and one in black and white—of each work of art. All prints should be of the same size and quality.
    • Divide class into two groups. Give each person in Group I a copy of the original work of art. Give each person in Group 2 a copy of the color-enhanced work of art.
    • Students observe the image and record responses on sheet.
    • Analyze findings. Did the color or black and white image tend to evoke stronger, or less robust emotions? Did patterns of responses differ along gender lines? Formulate other questions to analyze responses.

Conclusion: Compare and contrast findings by recording response data on a chart. Write an analysis of how color seemed to affect a person’s emotional response to an artwork in this activity.

Science is the use of evidence to construct testable explanations. Students make connections and comparisons between visual stimulus and their response to it. Students analyze concepts or material items on the basis of observational evidence.

  • How would you describe the relationship between the women and the children? Using elements from the work of art, how do you know that this is a mother and her children?
  • What effect does the lack of separation between the bodies of the children and the mother add to the artwork?
  • Notice the background of heavy crosshatching, a technique in which varying densities of parallel lines intersect one another to create areas of darkness. How does the use of this technique heighten the emotional energy of the work?
  • Describe the use of light and shadow in this drawing. How does the dramatic lighting add to the mood of solitude and reflection?
  • Why do you think the artist stripped the details from the figures?
  • Notice how the artist chose to not portray the faces of the figures. How would this work be different if viewers could see their faces? What do you think their expressions would be like?

  • While the lack of details helps the viewer to focus on the figures, how does it also add a sense of universality to the drawing?
  • The artist stated that he created this drawing during a frustrating time in his life. Do you notice a tone of frustration and hopelessness infused in this work of art?
  • The title of this work is The Cradle. How does the title and the embracing figure of the women create a tone of protection? In contrast, how does the darkness that surrounds the figures create an impending sense of doom and despair?
  • While the artist did not include many details, he drew the mother’s arms as sturdy and muscular. What can we infer about the nature of the woman due to this additional detail?
  • Despite the underlying tone of darkness and the despair, how does the figure of the women depict strength and resilience?


What it means to me: I analyze the weather to determine what to wear when I leave the house.

What it means in science: To examine in detail the true nature of something and to be able to explain it.

Example, Step Process:


  1. Identify Your Perspective: What are you looking at/into? What are your biases that you may already have formed previously? Be sure you see clearly – make sure you see it as its true self.
  2. Understand What You Are Seeking To Find: What is the piece/situation that you are analyzing? What is your goal in analyzing? Is there something you are trying to make sense of or discover?
  3. Determine What You Need To Know: To meet your goal above, what do you need to do to execute? Are there certain elements that you need to define? Is there vocabulary that you need to obtain? What details will help you understand better?
  4. Collect Information: Follow through with the material that you decided was needed in order to gain deeper understanding.
  5. Turn Info into Knowledge: Make sense of your information. Connect it to experiences/prior knowledge. Connect it to information that other experts have determined.
  6. Decide Whether To Add Judgment: Make an educated judgment or decision on your situation based on your newly formed knowledge.

After you work this process with the image, you can place Janet Fish, Kara, next to it and practice analyzing the two works of art together.

The Cradle expresses sympathy for the oppressed and destitute. John Biggers considered himself primarily a draftsman, and here he demonstrates his fine mastery of drawing. Central to the work is the depiction of the mother, who cradles her children within her arms. This conveys the immense responsibility motherhood brings, as the woman shields her three young children from the impending darkness. Although the mother appears to be in despair as she holds her children close to her breast, her thin, elongated arms reveal sturdy, worked muscles suggestive of a dogged strength and resilience.

Drawn only in crayon, the background is composed of heavy crosshatching, a technique in which varying densities of parallel lines intersect one another to create areas of darkness. This method allowed Biggers to heighten the emotional energy of the work through the expressive background. His dramatic play of light and shadow, with black streaming from behind the figures, intensifies the mood of solitude and reflection. The curved lines of the children echo the curled body of the mother, who envelops her offspring.

Form, rather than detail, is prioritized. By rendering his forms stripped of detail, the artist draws attention to the essence of his figures, reinforcing the pensive solitude and peaceful stillness of this work. The mother and children speak to a universal theme of a mother-child relationship. Composed during a time of difficult transition for the artist, he found an outlet for his frustration in drawing: “I began to work with crayon. My mood must have dictated my sketching the rough contours of a primordial mother image. I thought, ‘A mountain of refuge, ravaged by time, yet remaining both strong and tender—protecting life—poised to absorb hostility without flinching.’” The Cradle exemplifies Biggers’ intrigue with motherhood, especially with regard to African-American women. He not only saw motherhood as an enormous responsibility, but he also considered women to be at the heart of African and African-American culture.

Throughout his career, Biggers was strongly influenced by African and African-American culture and traditions. He believed art was not only an individual expression of talent, but also, for him, “a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people.” Biggers promoted this philosophy in both his work and his teaching.

Biggers, who moved to Houston in 1949 after receiving a position to establish an art department at Texas Southern University, presented this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s annual exhibition of Texas artists, where it won first prize.

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