Chicago Humanities Festival Teachers’ Guides

These study guides, developed to accompany the annual Terra Foundation Lecture on American Art at the Chicago Humanities Festival, explore topics such as humor in postbellum American art, the visual history of women at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s relationship to the emerging technologies of the nineteenth century.

All Terra-supported lectures and resources are available online at:

“More Than Meets the Eye: An Exploration of George Inness’ Landscape Paintings” by Kelsey Rotwein

At first glance, George Inness’ landscape paintings seem fairly innocuous, peaceful, and staid. Brooks burble, trees wave in the wind, and small figures traverse trails. But as art historian Rachael DeLue reveals in her lecture “Rediscovering the American Landscape,” something innovative and surprising is at work in these images. DeLue explains that contemporary critics labeled Inness’ paintings “strange,” “incomprehensible,” “perplexing,” and even “nightmarish.” In order to understand their reactions, it is necessary to explore the similarities and differences between Inness and other landscape painters of the era. Through these activities, your students will get the chance to investigate, interpret, and appreciate American landscape painters of the mid-nineteenth century.

“Women, Art, and Participation at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago” by Annelise K. Madsen

In the 1890s, more than two decades before women had gained the right to vote, American women were working hard to pursue higher education, to break into male-dominated professions, and to participate in civic life.  In this lesson plan, teachers and students will explore the role of women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a huge event staged along Chicago’s lakeshore that attracted millions of visitors to the city over its six-month run.

“Rebecca Solnit: Eadward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” by Joe Iverson

What did the world look like before the advent of modern technologies? Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, traces how nineteenth century technological advancements in photography, railroads, and telegraphs accelerated communications and transportation and radically altered how people at the turn of the century understood their world. Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic motion studies were among the first of these advancements, providing the basic technologies that would grow into the motion picture industry. With applications in art, anatomy, and perception, these images and their associated technologies that now saturate contemporary life continue to provide insight for how we experience the world. In these activities, students will apply Solnit’s discussion of Muybridge’s photographs and advancing technologies to explore relevant parallels in visual arts, literature, and science.

“Humor in Postbellum American Art” by Jennifer Greenhill

The market for humor expanded rapidly in the United States in the years following the Civil War. By the 1890s, this taste for comedy had erupted into a “plague of jocularity,” as one writer put it, and prompted art critics to try to contain it in the realm of so-called high art. But why was humor so threatening? What kinds of humor were out of bounds and for whom? Jennifer Greenhill, who teaches the history of American art at the University of Illinois, College of Fine and Applied Arts, discusses the artists who walked the line between levity and gravity. Through techniques adopted from the platform comedians of the day—such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward—these visual humorists struck the funny bone by playing it straight.

“Thinking Big: An Educator’s Guide to the 19th Annual Chicago Humanities Festival” by Erika Doss

The impact of the Great Depression was felt far and wide in the 1930s, and so were New Deal efforts to restore American productivity and national spirit. In her lecture “Picturing New Deal America: Visual Art and National Identity,” art historian Erika Doss surveys art “work” produced in the United States under various New Deal federal work relief programs from 1933 to 1945. New Deal artists such as Berenice Abbott, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, and Grant Wood created significant public artworks in schools, hospitals, and libraries as a part of a larger effort to provide much-needed economic stimulus to American citizens. Through the lens of our country’s visual culture, Doss examines the ways that New Deal artists captured the tensions between class, race, gender, and labor, and the changing understandings of public participation, and the dynamics of national identity during a most challenging era.