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20th Century Art and History: Lesson & Activities

By Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Students will find this lesson on 20th century art challenging as well as interesting. So many changes in art occurred between 1900 and 1999 that everyone should be able to find some art form or period that resonates with them. This lesson focuses on an overview of this time period.


From the end of the Victorian Era to the beginning of the World Wide Web, digital and quantum technologies, the 20th century has seen great advances. In the art world, this is true, also.

The objective of this lesson plan will be to give a broad overview of art that will begin at the 1900 Paris World's Fair and travel through history to the work Frank Gehry, Richard Meier and James Stewart Polshek. Students will learn and understand the various periods found within 20th century art by comparing and contrasting different artists as well as to finding links between the art and world history.

Prior Knowledge

596px-Gustav Klimt 016 

Learning is always best when we are able to build on what we already know. Before delving into the art and artist of the 20th century, spend part of one lesson creating a mind map of what the students already know about the 20th century. Allow them to cover any and all aspects of life in the 20th century, however, as you mind map, try to create specific subtopics, such as government, medicine, art, science, culture, religion, technology, etc.


Activity 1:

Your first activity will be the mind mapping, as stated above. The importance of this is to help the students see that history influences art.

Activity 2:

Give students a list of artists and art styles or movements from the 20th century (click here for quiz). Ask them to match artist with style allow them do a WebQuest in order to find the answers. Then, have them pick two different styles, one from between 1900-1959 and the other from between 1960-1999.

For homework, have them write an essay comparing and contrasting the two different periods. This will count towards their grade in the unit.

Activity 3:

Have the students pick one piece that resonates with them, using art books covering the various styles and movements of the 20th century. It can be a painting, photo, sculpture or architecture.

After they have had an opportunity to study their chosen work of art, have them sketch their own creation using whatever style they picked. For instance, if a student chooses an art nouveau lamp by Tiffany, they would sketch a lamp or other object using the same techniques as Tiffany.

When they are complete, ask them to list what the aspects of their particular style are, in other words, what makes their work cubist or pop art or postmodern.


120px-Fleur titane Frank-Gerhy 

Assess the students' work by asking the students to list the artists and/or works of art for the various style or movements. (click here for quiz)

In addition, Activity 3 will allow you to see if they were able to transfer their knowledge into their own work. Did they understand the concepts of the different styles/movements? If not, what was their interpretation missing?

These 20th century art history lesson plans allow for a holistic view of the end of the last millennium, which should whet your students' interests in one or more of the unique art style and movements found in the 1900's.