Beaver Pond, 1976
Oil on canvas
71 3/4 × 96 3/4 in. (182.2 × 245.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and George S. Heyer, Jr.

Habits of Mind

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown


  • 5


  • Language Arts

Writing Letters

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.


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• Teach the proper format for writing letters in preparation for writing a letter to an artist.

• Invent an address for the artist, based on the painting (e.g., Neil Welliver, Duck Trap River, Lincolnville, ME), then write a letter to the artist explaining how his painting has influenced the student.

Subject Matter

A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing Beaver Pond, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.


  • Take a close look at the foreground and background of this image. What differences do you see?

  • The foreground of this landscape is much sharper than the background. What effect do the hard and soft focus have in this work? What attention is given to the rock, the weeds and the mountains respectively?

  • From what angle do we view this scene? What effect does this have? Does the artist’s low perspective make the landscape appear larger or smaller?

  • Do you think this is a painting, print or photograph? Why?

  • This is an oil painting in a hyper realistic style, giving the work the look of a photographic. How would the work be different if the style of painting were less detailed and more gestural?

  • How does the artist create depth and three-dimensionality in this landscape? Look in particular at the use of lines and the way that the paint is applied.

  • Describe the color palette. What mood does the artist convey through the use of colors?

  • Is the dam in the foreground is a beaver dam? How do we know this, what clues does the image give us?

  • The colors are muted shades of gray and green. Does the mood created by these colors correspond with the landscape that is depicted? How?

  • The colors and composition of this landscape create a certain stillness. What words would you use to describe the character of this landscape?

  • How would this image be different if there were beavers playing in the water? What is the effect of the absence of any human or animal life?

  • The artist studied in Philadelphia with a generation of abstract artists, but turned to a more realistic style with depicting landscapes. The artist’s goal has been stated as “making a representational painting as fluid as abstract work, by combining the careful scrutiny of nature associated with traditional landscape painting with a painterly technique that emphasizes brushwork”.  Explain how, on closer look, Beaver Pond can be said to consist of a network of “abstract marks”.Do you agree with this interpretation of the work?

Work of Art

The beaver dam sits in a river or pond in the foreground of this composition.  In the distance, haze floats over the trees and mountains rise, echoing the shape of the beaver dam.  Welliver lives on the Duck Trap River in Lincolnville, Maine, and his work is inspired by the area’s landscape of rivers, lakes, mountains, and ponds.


Except for the broad areas of the sky and hills, Welliver uses linear strokes of flat paint to define three-dimensional forms.  In articulating the delicate reeds and the mass of the beaver dam, Welliver’s brushstrokes take on a calligraphic character.  He uses a limited palette of cool colors, evocative of the distilled light of the Maine countryside.  In most cases, his large canvases are painted from smaller studies done out of doors.


Welliver’s stated goal is to make a representational painting as fluid as abstract works with their emphatic brushstrokes.  He combines the careful scrutiny of nature associated with traditional landscape painting with a painterly technique that emphasizes brushwork.  On close examination, Beaver Pond is actually composed of a network of “abstract marks,” each with its specific role within the larger context of the picture.


Welliver studied at the Philadelphia Museum School, where he was trained in a strict academic watercolor tradition.  He did graduate work at Yale University with abstract artists including Josef Albers and Burgoyne Diller.  Although he studied with abstract artists and was interested in the active brushwork of painters such as Jackson Pollock, in the early 1960s Welliver turned to a more realistic style with landscape as his primary subject.  Beaver Pond and other works by Welliver combine an interest in nature and realism with an exploration of brushwork and planes of colors that characterizes modern abstract painting.

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