Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize

Analyzing Patterns in Natural Systems

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

  • Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural systems such as Earth and space. The student understands the structure of Earth, the rock cycle, and plate tectonics: identify the major tectonic plates, including Eurasian, African, Indo-Australian, Pacific, North American, and South American.
  • Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.  The student knows that natural events can impact Earth systems.



Students will begin with a color copy of this painting.  They will be asked to create a puzzle out of the painting, but are required to make each individual fish a separate piece of the puzzle. Students will need to draw a line around each puzzle piece they intend to cut.  Once they have identified the cut lines they will need to show it to the teacher before cutting.  After cutting the pieces students will lay out their puzzles and complete a walk-about to see how everyone else cut their puzzles. Students will select two puzzles to put together and write the steps required to complete each puzzle (which piece goes first, second…and so on).


Once completed, students will return to their puzzle and compare the steps to completing their own puzzle with the two puzzles they completed elsewhere. The goal is for students to have trouble separating the fish into “whole” puzzle pieces. This should elicit discussion about the tail and head of one fish not being able to remain as one puzzle piece. The students should also be able to understand that there is only one way the fish can be ordered to recreate the painting.


Classroom discussion will follow with SMART board projection of the puzzle and include cut lines drawn on board. A projection of the surface of the Earth with plate boundaries identified should be projected next to the painting… to compare as puzzle pieces. Students should break into teams to discuss the relationship between creating a puzzle out of the painting and the “puzzle” of tectonic plates on Earth.

The higher order thinking used to analyze a relationship by breaking it down into meaningful pieces is a complex task. After observing details, taking time to think and reflect, and asking provocative questions, students can come to their own conclusions and inferences to critically reflect on the painting and its subject matter. Reason abstractly and quantitatively. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions.  Students analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

  • What do you notice about this painting? What words would you use to describe the fish? Consider the artist’s choice of color and technique.
  • Describe the shapes and arrangement of the fish in this painting. Do you think you would find this arrangement of fish in nature? How does the unstable, stacked tower of fish present an unnerving image?
  • How would this work be different if the fish were neatly stacked in a row?
  • The bodies of the fish are painted in serene, slivery tones but also feature garish yellows and deep reds. What mood do these colors create within the work of art?
  • Describe the background of this work. Did you immediately notice the diagonal line of waves crashing into a moonlit beach? How does the artist direct the viewer’s attention to the grouping of fish instead of toward the dramatic ocean scene in the background?
  • The artist made use of a technique of perspective called foreshortening when he angled the fish toward the viewer. This trick makes it appears as if the fish’s tail is protruding into a three-dimensional space. What effect does this protruding fish tail have on the space of the painting?
  • The artist attempted to capture the feeling of recently slaughtered fish through his choice of compositional elements, vibrant brushwork, and optical illusions. Do you think he successfully recreated the effect of death and dying on the canvas? Why or why not?

  • How does the artist convey a sense of eeriness and mystery through the simple grouping of fish?
  • The artist had great skill and originality in his application of paint. How did he use paint to convey feelings of death, isolation, and vulnerability?
  • Although the artist uses the same color and technique to depict the carcasses of each fish, how does he capture individual characteristics of the fish as well?
  • Notice the circular strokes of jarring yellow paint that are outlined in a deep red to make up the fish eyes. The artist made use of various elements within the painting to recreate the effects of death and dying on the canvas. How does his portrayal of the eyes give the fish a sign of very recent life?
  • Consider the placement of the fish by the ocean. What if they were painted inside the artist’s studio like more traditional still-lifes?
  • When the artist painted this work, Spain was in a brutal war with France. How does this work reflect this tremulous time period?
  • Why do you think the artist chose to paint fish? What do you think they represent? Explain your answer.
  • This still-life was intended primarily for the artist’s own use and hung in his house until his death. Does knowing this fact change your interpretation of the painting?

One of Spain’s greatest artists, Francisco de Goya is famous for documenting the dark underside of a country ravaged by conflict. While his earlier works included royal portraits and biting satirical caricatures, his later works explored somber themes such as the horrors of war and disease. After a traumatic illness in 1792 left the artist completely deaf, Goya’s work took a turn for the macabre and the bizarre, realms which inspired great creativity and technical skill in him. This painting was created during a time of particularly great political and personal upheaval in the artist’s life. Goya’s home country of Spain was in a brutal war with France, and his beloved wife of thirty-nine years was also dying. During the most violent years of the war (1808–14), the artist worked increasingly in solitude, creating private works that were intended primarily for his own use. These included many masterpieces about the war as well as his haunting still-life paintings, most notably a series depicting dead animals. This painting from the aforementioned series reflects the solemn circumstances of this dark period in the artist’s life.


Illuminated by moonlight and surrounded by the echoes of waves crashing in the background, Still Life with Golden Bream portrays the bodies of six wet, scaly fish piled on a darkened beach. Silver flesh and thick, yellow eyes reflect a ghostly light, which lends an eerie and mysterious feel to the scene. Goya uses a unique composition, vibrant brushwork, and optical illusion to recreate the effects of death and the process of dying on the canvas.


The heap of glistening fish is placed prominently in the center of the painting. Goya stacked and foreshortened (to make something look like it has depth by painting it shorter and in the foreground) the fish in order to create an unstable and unnerving arrangement of bodies. Unorthodox color and paint application further enhance this compelling image. Careful examination reveals Goya’s method of painting the fish. He began by rubbing light brownish and bluish-gray pigments onto the canvas, and then highlighted the underbellies of the fish with a brush heavily loaded with white paint. The details of the gills appear to have been achieved with both a brush and a palette knife. Goya added a yellowish glaze to areas of the composition, as well as accents of red along the gills and mouths of the fish. Although Goya uses the same color and technique to depict the carcasses of each fish, he captures individual characteristics as well.


Goya´s purpose for presenting the pile of fish is ambiguous. There are no fishermen around and no nets to be seen in the painting. The fish are unsteadily stacked on top of one another, each a part of a meaningless heap. Goya´s dramatic circular strokes, consisting of jarring yellow paint outlined in deep red, give the eye of the fish a pulsing, bulging quality, a hint of its very recent life. Yet Goya rendered the fish with great poignancy, symbolically linking their demise with the terrible human slaughter that resulted from Spain’s conflict with France. Despite Goya’s productive career, he painted only about a dozen still-life paintings and none until he was 60 years old. Although the subject of this work is simple—a pile of dead fish—it expresses a gloom reminiscent of Goya´s etching series Disasters of War, which, like this still life, illustrated the atrocities committed by both the French and the Spanish in war and expressed through its somber tone the artist’s detestation of violence.

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