Habits of Mind

  • Observe Details

Modes of 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

  • Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem.
  • To develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world, students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work.
  • Draw evidence from a variety of resources to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • Analyze data to formulate reasonable explanations, communicate valid conclusions supported by the data, and predict trends.
  • Design and implement comparative and experimental investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, formulating testable hypotheses.



  • Students create an inventory of observable genetic traits of the family members in the painting.
  • Using the PDF images of Jean Lannes and the Duchesse de Montebello, record the physical characteristics of their faces.  Observe and list the facial features of each child, creating a graphic organizer to record the data. Conclude which features are similar to the parents by diagramming Punnett squares (see attached PDF). How is this related to your initial observations of this portrait?
  • Students need to write an observational conclusion about the people in the painting. (Must include the evidence to support their story)
  • Talk about what is observation and what is assumption.

To observe is to look at, listen to, touch, taste, or smell something, attending to details of the resulting perceptual experience.  Observation generates the data required to develop a well-thought out conclusion. Observing is one of the most important Habits of Mind in the science classroom. Observing is the core skill of scientists. The goal is for the student to observe characteristics of living organisms and discover evidence for the underlying traits that are governed by genetic material. Define heredity as the passage of genetic material from one generation to the next generation. Good observations are the basis for excellent conclusions. Observations that are scientifically-based and backed by evidence are the data used to write conclusions.

  • What does each figure’s clothing and body language communicate about individual personality and interests?
  • Notice the subtle facial features of the family— can you tell they are related? If so, how?  They are all clearly individuals—this is very hard to do as an artist.
  • Who is missing from this family portrait? The father, but he is there in the statue. Notice the oldest son is looking towards it. We are given clues to how the father died (cannonball at his feet, as well as the end of his sword).
  • How long do you think it took to paint this? Many months, or even a year perhaps. Do you think it was really painted outside? No, it was done in a studio and Gerard filled in the background later.
  • What is the setting of this family portrait? What do you see in the background? Is the setting integral to the picture?
  •  Look at some of the objects held by the children in this painting? What do these objects imply about the individuals?
  • Consider the composition of this work. What does it reveal about the family structure?

  • Notice the creases in the Duchess’ dress—those wrinkles are an additional signal (albeit subtle) that this family is wealthy. She can afford to buy this beautiful dress and keep it folded away for most of the year. Dresses during this time were kept folded in chests.
  • Notice the quality of the light falling on the family. This is not genuine outdoor light, it is too bright and flat—it looks artificial compared to the soft outdoor feel of Bouguereau’s Elder Sister (even though that was painted indoors as well).

  • Take 5 minutes to write down observations about this painting.  Remember: observations are facts.
  • Where do you think this painting was painted?
  • During what time period was it painted?
  • Who do you think the people are in the painting?
  • Why do you think the painting was painted in this location?

François Pascal Simon Gérard presents a scene of devotion and affection with this family portrait. The Duchesse stands at the center of the work, surrounded by her children in the park of their country estate at Maisons near Paris. Gérard portrays the matriarch not only as a devoted mother but also as a great beauty. Her delicate features and classical stature are mirrored by her five children. The Duchesse’s position in the center of the composition emphasizes her role as the center of the family group.



This painting has all the hallmarks of Gérard’s style, including the highly finished surface, the brilliantly rendered textures, the classically balanced composition, and the slightly idealized characterization of his subjects. The tall figure of the Duchesse dominates the pyramidal composition, with the children grouped around her in a natural manner. Gérard rendered each child as an individual, providing explicit detail of their costume and toys. The park of Maisons, vividly rendered, serves as a grandiose backdrop for this elegant family. Gérard is best known for his formal portraits in the neoclassical style. However, his portraits were not the typical stiff and lifeless depictions seen in “official” portraits but rather tender, lively characterizations. This painting stands out among Gérard’s works as virtually unrivaled in size, scale, and quality.


The young daughter, looking a bit older than her eight years, clings to her mother's side, while the four boys, all dressed in suits modeled on military uniforms, range in age from ten to thirteen.  The family is missing their father, Jean Lannes, the first Duke of Montebello, one of Napoleon's greatest generals. The monumental statue to the far left of the work is a clue to the whereabouts of the father. Jean Lannes was killed in battle in 1810, four years before his widow commissioned this portrait from Baron Gérard, the leading portraitist at the French court.  This magnificent portrait makes its first impression with its great size, and the figures are nearly life-sized.  He has carefully and subtly grouped the family in a pyramid, formed by the mother at its apex and the children beneath the statue of their departed father, creating a funerary monument as a respectful homage to a lost hero. Notice how the older son looks upward towards the symbolic statue as a way to direct the viewer’s attention.


Jean Lannes was mortally wounded by an Austrian cannonball, which we see included in the statue at the foot of the figure as a symbol of his death, and his martyrdom to the cause.  His loving and devoted wife kept her place at court and was universally praised for her modesty and beauty.  But the death of Jean Lannes changed everything.  After the loss of his devoted general, Napoleon's wars passed from defeat to defeat, from Russia to Waterloo.  In 1814, the year this portrait was painted, Napoleon was sent into exile and the Duchesse de Montebello quietly withdrew to her estate. The Duchesse chose to record the moment in this portrait and also to make a statement about her family's new life. They are far from the pomp and majesty of the imperial court that Gérard was famous for painting. They wear their military fortunes on their sleeves in the boys' suits, but the wars are over, to be remembered as a statue in a park.

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