Sense of Place

What gives meaning to a place? How does an artist create a sense of place? Explore these questions through five artworks from different times and cultures.

Idea One: The Carpet Merchant

What’s your first clue that this picture shows a different time and place? Perhaps it’s the colorful robes and turbans of the men in the foreground. Or the rich carpets hanging on the wall and scattered across the floor. Is it the intricate carvings on the old stone walls, or the donkey in the doorway?

The scene at the Cairo rug market in Egypt was a new experience for the painter, too, when he painted it over a hundred years ago. Jean-Léon Gérôme made several trips to Egypt from his home in France. On his travels he filled sketchbooks with drawings of people, animals, and buildings. Back in France, he used those sketches and his memories to paint pictures like this one.

Gérôme wanted to show exactly what the place looked like. (Travelers to the Cairo rug market report that it looks much the same even today.) But he was also interested in the lives of the people he saw there. Who do you think is selling the rugs? Who are the customers? Who is just looking on? How can you tell?

Jean-Léon Gérôme,
The Carpet Merchant,
oil on canvas


Idea Two: Jade Mountain

It all started with a picnic. In the year 353 A.D., a group of friends go out for a stroll in the Chinese countryside. It is a beautiful spring day. The friends take a path around the base of a steep mountain. They float their drinks in a stream to keep them cold, and spend the afternoon enjoying nature. They have such a good time that one of them writes a poem about the day. The poem becomes famous.

Fourteen hundred years pass. Qianlong is the emperor of China. Like the poet and his friends so many centuries earlier, Qianlong loves nature. He is proud to own a copy of the poem about that spring day. He also has a huge block of jade, a hard and beautiful green stone brought to China from the distant mountains of Turkestan.

Qianlong’s workmen spend years carving the scene from the poem into the block of jade. They copy the words of the poem onto the side of the mountain. The emperor is so pleased, he adds a poem of his own on the other side.

Time passes again. Now it’s your turn to let your eyes wander along the path beside the stream, through the woods, and over the rocks. Can you find the cups in the stream? Look long enough and, like the emperor, you might imagine that you are among the poet’s friends enjoying nature so long ago.

Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Poets at the Lanting Pavilion, 1784,
light green jade


Idea Three: City Night

Where are we? Is this an outer-space fantasy, with laser beams lighting up the darkness of the universe? Is it an earthly scene? Or are the shapes nothing more than shapes?

It takes a moment or two to make sense of the simple shapes in this picture. A glance at the title will help you: City Night. Perhaps you now see the shapes as towering buildings reaching up to the night sky around a low moon. Where would you stand to get this view?

Georgia O’Keeffe painted many pictures of Manhattan, the heart of New York City. New York was changing fast in the 1920s. Skyscrapers were brand new, changing the look and feel of city life. O’Keeffe lived in an apartment on the twenty-eighth floor of one of the city’s first skyscrapers. Imagine the feeling of being up so high for the first time. This new point of view made her look differently at everything around her.

“One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt,” O’Keeffe said. What has she left out of the picture of New York? What does she tell us about how it felt to be there?

Georgia O’Keeffe,
City Night, 1926,
oil on canvas


Idea Four: Hmong Story Blanket

Where to look first? People picking corn. Chopping wood. Plowing a field with the help of a water buffalo. Every inch of this blanket is filled with scenes of village life in Laos, a country in Southeast Asia. What else is happening?

These lively scenes were just memories for Ka Zoua Lee, the Hmong woman who sewed the blanket. Embroidered pa ndau , or “flower cloth,” had been an important part of her culture for centuries. But when the Vietnam War forced the Hmong people to leave their homes in Laos, the tradition took on a new purpose.

Village life in Laos had been busy, but in the refugee camps of Thailand there was not much to do. To pass the time, Hmong women began sewing their memories of home into “story blankets” like this one. They were able to make some money selling their creations. Just as important, the pictures helped Hmong families keep traditions alive for their children, who only knew life in the camps.

From what you can see in this blanket, how do you think Ka Zoua Lee might have felt about her home?

Ka Zoua Lee,
Village Story Blanket, c.1980,
Cotton, silk, synthetic; appliqué and embroidery


Idea Five: Collage IX: Landscape

Would you think this is a picture of a place? At first glance, you see many small shapes that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. You may be able to tell that the shapes are made of wood. And perhaps the faded colors remind you of old pieces of wood washed up on a beach. But why would the artist title this work “landscape”?

George Morrison grew up near Lake Superior, on Minnesota’s Grand Portage Indian Reservation. From the shore, the lake seems like an ocean. The water goes on and on until it meets the sky at the horizon. Look again at the picture. Do you see a long, flat line that looks like a distant horizon?

Perhaps you now have an idea why the artist used old wood for his collage. Morrison found many of the pieces of wood on the lake’s stony beaches. He used the colors and textures of the driftwood to “paint” a picture of the place the wood comes from. The patterns of the wood-grain reminded him of patterns seen at the lake-clouds in the sky, ripples in water, colorful patches on rocks.

“I paint from my head,” Morrison said. he did not show us exactly what the eye can see from the shore of Lake Superior. What has he shown us instead?

Ka Zoua Lee,
George Morrison, Collage IX: Landscape, 1974, wood


Related Activities

Setting the Scene

How can writing capture what the artist provides visually? Have the students use one of the “Sense of Place” images to set the scene for a short story. What will the reader see, hear, smell, and feel?

Travel Brochure

By doing research in the library or online, students can build on what they’ve learned about the places in the “Sense of Place” works of art. Have them create a travel brochure, using facts gathered from their research as a basis for descriptions. What should travelers know about this place? Who will they meet? What will they do?

Poetic Inspiration

Like the Chinese emperor Qianlong, your students may find inspiration in a poem. Have them choose a poem describing a place and turn it into a work of art. Suggest that they try to include the words of the poem.

Visit the Museum

Come and see these places in the actual works of art! End your study of “A Sense of Place” with a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art.