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Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ)

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ), 1889. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 28 7/8 inches (92.1 x 73.3 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; General Purchase Funds, 1946 (1946:4).

Narrative Diorama

Featuring Paul Gauguin's Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ), 1889

Conceptual Basis

In France in the late nineteenth-century, Paul Gauguin was among a group of artists who believed that color, line, and shape could be used to portray feelings and emotions rather than simply rendering the visible world. The symbolic narrative of The Yellow Christ, 1889, depicts pious devotion and folklore from the Brittany region of France. Enhanced by the colors and images in the painting, the foreground, middle ground, and background of The Yellow Christ reads like a scene from a story. In this lesson, students will make connections between the foreground, middle ground, and background of a story and an artwork, while creating their own diorama emphasizing those layers.

Featured Work

Paul Gauguin 
(French, 1848–1903) 
Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ), 1889
Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 28 7/8 inches (92.1 x 73.3 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
General Purchase Funds, 1946
1946:4

Objectives

  • Become familiar with the artist Paul Gauguin and the narrative painting The Yellow Christ, 1889
  • Learn about the art movement of Cloisonnism, focusing on bold flat forms and dark contours
  • Discuss foreground, middle ground, and background to analyze a work of art
  • Support the understanding of basic art elements and principles
  • Explore the processes of creating a narrative diorama depicting a story through pictures

Materials

  • Pencils
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • White cardstock
  • Coloring materials
  • X-ACTO knife
  • Glue
  • Shoe box

Background Information for Teachers

About the Artist

French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was part of the post-Impressionism art movement. Born in Paris, Gauguin spent four years as a child with his family in exile in Peru. At the age of seven, Gauguin returned to France. Before becoming an artist at the age of 35, Gauguin was a merchant marine and a successful businessman.

During his time as an artist, Gauguin often traveled, which provided him the opportunity to work alongside other artists. Gauguin spent time in Arles working with Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) and visited Pont-Aven, in northern France, numerous times. Working alongside Emile Bernard (French, 1861–1941), Gauguin began to develop a new style called Snythetism. Breaking away from Impressionism, Snythetism focused on expressing ideas and emotions rather than capturing a naturalistic representation in a painting. Gauguin also began creating paintings with bold flat forms separated by dark outlines or contours. This style became known as Cloisonnism. 

About the Art

Gauguin captures the landscape and attire of nineteenth-century northern France in The Yellow Christ, 1889. Dressed in traditional Breton clothing, three peasant women sit at the feet of a yellow-hued Christ on a wooden cross. Gauguin found inspiration for his depiction of Christ in a crucifix at a chapel near Pont-Aven. The painting appears abstract because of the juxtaposition of the crucifixion scene and a nineteenth-century agricultural setting.

Intense colors such as the warm yellow tones and bright foliage contrast with the solemn subject of the crucifixion. Gauguin’s depiction of Christian iconography connects with the pious devotion and religious spirituality of the Breton people, natives of the French region of Brittany. According to Breton folklore, the autumn harvest possessed a deep spiritual significance in which the grain crop was believed to undergo a crucifixion-like event as it was resurrected in the spring.

Vocabulary for Students

foreground: the area closest to a viewer 

middle ground: the area between foreground and background

background: an area of a scene that is farthest from a viewer

diorama: a model depicting a scene with three-dimensional figures

Cloisonnism: Post-Impressionist style of painting with bold flat forms separated by dark contours

Snythetism: a style of art in which the forms of color and line are symbolic of a major idea or feeling on the subject of the work

Building Visual Literacy: Art Detectives

For a fun activity to support class discussion and visual literacy, students can piece together clues about an artwork like a detective. During a discussion students can view the different elements of the work. Studying the work, they can identify key features and assess their feelings about what they see. Ask students to consider what other clues can be collected by looking at the title. Based on the evidence they have collected, students can draw conclusions about what the artwork represents. Working in groups, this detective activity can be a way to approach looking at and talking about art.

Using The Yellow Christ, students can begin by exploring the painting and describing the elements and principles they see in the artwork (line, shape, color, emphasis, etc.).

Once students have discovered the different artistic elements in the work, have them begin investigating the layers. Beginning in the foreground, ask students what or who they see. What might the characters or subjects be doing? Why might they be there? 
          
In the middle ground, a man is in the process of jumping over the wall. Why might he do that? Are there any other people? What might they be doing? What else can be found? 

Now focus on the background of the painting. Is this set in a country or a city? What season is depicted? How can students tell?

Based on their discoveries thus far, how does the painting make them feel? If you were standing in the work in the foreground, how would you feel?

What is the detective’s conclusion? What is happening in The Yellow Christ

Breaking down the different layers of meaning in an artwork allows students to build abstract thoughts based on concrete observations. It is an interactive way to teach visual literacy in your classroom.

Artmaking Activity

Begin by choosing a class theme for this diorama project. For a study of art history, students can choose a painting to create for their diorama. For English Language Arts, students can depict a scene from a book emphasizing the setting (background), characters, and action. Students will begin the art activity by drawing thumbnail sketches of what scene they would like to create for a diorama.

If building a diorama that re-creates an artwork (see teacher example), have students label the background, foreground, and middle ground and identify the characters in the artwork. Students should measure their shoe box’s width, height, and depth. With those measurements, students will be able to place the initial background for their diorama. To do so, have students cut out sheets of paper to cover the insides of the box. Before inserting the pieces, have students color the paper as the base layer. Remind students to imagine they were inside of the artwork, noting the sky and ground color for their box background. Once colored, students can fit the pieces on the insides of the box, gluing them into place.

Once the background is set, students will begin creating the various layers of their diorama. Students can either create three layers (background, middle ground, and foreground) or multiple layers for a more detailed diorama. Students should begin by creating the middle ground of their artwork. Remind students that even though the viewer may not see what is behind a character or object, layering may expose those areas. When creating the different layers, instruct students to leave a half-inch space on the bottom of each piece. This will be bent backwards to serve as a base for their piece to help secure it.

Students may need to use X-ACTO knives to cut around and through the different paper pieces. Instruct and remind students to use the knives carefully, especially when they cut away from themselves. Hot glue may also be needed to secure pieces into the diorama. Use discretion when choosing these materials for your students.

Students should leave some space in between layer pieces to create depth. To glue the middle ground, have students apply glue to the base. Additional glue may be used on the side of the piece to attach to the box to secure it in place. Once the foreground is complete, students can cover or decorate the outside of their shoe box with paint or construction paper to give their artwork a finished appearance.       

Lesson Tips

  • This lesson can be tailored to focus on different subject areas or themes such as the seasons, plants, and various social studies topics.
  • For collaboration on an English Language Arts diorama lesson, students can work in groups to create a “story book” of dioramas. Assign each group a different book. Each student can create one scene of the book in their diorama. When put next to one another, in chronological order, the dioramas can be “read” like a story book.

Optional Reflections and Lesson Wrap-Up

Students can present their artwork to the class and discuss the scene in their diorama. If this lesson is created for an English Language Arts connection, students can also read an excerpt from the book that relates to the diorama.

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum Standards

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies: 2
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening: 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language: 1, 2, 3
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing: 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Mathematical Practice: 1, 4, 5, 7 

Teacher Example

Diorama of Gauguin's The Yellow Christ
Example of finished artwork based on lesson plan. Artwork by School Program Coordinator Kelly Macagnone.

 

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