Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Writing Narratives

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. This Curriculum Connection can be used in conjunction with Vincent Van Gogh’s The Rocks and Odilon Redon’s Les Arbres.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Describe works of art generating descriptive detail and evoking mood.

•  Write narratives with characters and dialogue set in a work of art.




•  Have students write first drafts of narratives set in this landscape.  They should develop characters and write dialogue.  Encourage students to use descriptive words and phrases to capture the mood and atmosphere of the art.

•  Review the drafts, and have students write a final version of their stories.

•  Publish stories using the computer. Display the narratives with the works of art (suggested title: Treemendous Tales).

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 Trees, Long Island, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.

  • What do you notice about this artwork? Look closely at the shapes and the use of light. How does the artist use light and dark elements to delineate different areas in the scene?

  • Is this a painting or a photograph? How do you know?

  • Does the artist want us to recognize this scene? Why or why not? What do you think he wants us to focus on?

  • Notice the lack of a horizon line and the close cropping of the photograph. How does this differ from a more traditional landscape photograph?

  • What does the black and white color tone achieve? How would it be different if the artwork had colors? What colors would you expect to see?

  • What do you think is the most important element within the scene? Discuss how the artist creates a sense of monumentality by cropping his image. What does this tell you about his view on nature?

  • What season do you think this is? Why? Does it matter?

  • How is this work different from an everyday photograph? Discuss the compositional tools and how they create an image that is both formally compelling and interesting in content.

  • What feelings does this work evoke? Look at color, composition and scale.

  • How do you think the artist creates tone in this work, even though the image is black and white?

  • How would this work be different if the artist photographed the trees from afar? Do you think the artist wanted to challenge traditional landscape photographs?

  • This artist’s style is different from that of both professional photographers and amateurs. Do you think the artist was looking to show us reality or something different? What?

  • The artist demonstrates that photographs could rival paintings in their scale, individuality, and expressiveness. What do you think about the relationship between a photograph and a painting? Is a photograph always a true reflection of reality?

This unique photograph is one of several Steichen made at this site, and it remained in the landowner’s family until it was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1986.


In this composition the luminous central chestnut tree is framed by dense black trees at either side. Steichen emphasizes the towering size of the trees through the contrast with the fence in the foreground. The blooms on the central tree appear like short brushstrokes and recall that Steichen was interested in making photographs look like paintings. The vague details and hazy atmosphere create a romantic or spiritual mood.


To make their images look more like paintings or drawings, photographers at the turn of the century would coat their own photographic paper rather than use commercially made papers. Usually the light-sensitive metal they used was silver on platinum, but here Steichen used the carbon print process to allow multiple manipulations. 


In this process, paper is coated with carbon black pigment suspended in gelatin and then sensitized. The sensitized paper is then exposed to light, which acts as a catalyst, through a negative. Gelatin exposed to light hardens; areas protected from light by the dark areas of the negative remain soft and dissolve when soaked under water. The thickness of black is carefully achieved by repeating the above process. Steichen wanted to create broad areas of rich dark black and delicate spots of white, instead of the fine details in most photographs.


To have photography accepted as an art form, photographers in the early twentieth century believed that their portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life should resemble paintings or drawings. They developed a style called Pictorialism, characterized by soft, glowing light, blurred forms, and a hazy quality.


Edward Steichen’s career spanned six decades. He worked as a photographer, painter, designer, cocurator of a gallery, and director of a major museum’s photography department. Steichen’s portraits of J. P. Morgan (1903) and Great Garbo (1928) are considered the definitive portraits of those individuals.  In 1902 Steichen became a founding member of the Photo Secession, a movement to promote artistic qualities in photographs. He worked with Alfred Stieglitz on Camera Work, one of the first photography journals. In their galleries, Steichen and Stieglitz introduced modern European art to America, exhibiting the work of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others. Later, as director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, Steichen created The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition that explored the commonalities that bind people and cultures, such as children, love, and death, as well as introduced the public to works of photography. It remains the most popular photography exhibition ever organized.

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