Arts Curriculum

2009-07-15-15-00-47
The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918 related terms and additional resources

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Franz Marc

Franz Marc

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 189.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1210

Franz Marc (b. 1880, Munich; d. 1916 Verdun, France), the son of a landscape painter, studied religion and philology, but decided to devote himself to becoming an artist. In 1907 he went to Paris, where he encountered the art and artists of the day. It was during this period that he began the intensive study of animals that was to lead to his mature style. He said that he wanted to recreate them “from the inside,” and made himself so complete a master of animal anatomy that he was able to give lessons in the subject to other artists. During the early years of the 20th century, a back-to-nature movement swept Germany, anchored in the belief that a return to the land would rejuvenate what was perceived to be an increasingly secularized, materialistic society. Marc found this nature-oriented quest for spiritual redemption inspiring. In a 1908 letter he wrote, “I am trying to intensify my feeling for the organic rhythm of all things, to achieve pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature’s bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air” (Edward Lucie-Smith, “Franz Marc,” The Artchive, www.artchive.com/artchive/M/marc.html). Gradually Marc began to change his artistic language as he became less interested in an image true to nature and more in painting as a symbol of another view of reality.

He believed that animals possessed a certain godliness that men had long since lost. “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings,” he wrote in 1915. “But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me" (Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968], p. 182). By 1907 he had devoted himself almost exclusively to the representation of animals in nature. Although Marc had a deep knowledge of anatomy, his goal was not zoological accuracy, but rather capturing the essence of each animal in his paintings.

To complement this imagery, through which he expressed his spiritual ideals, Marc developed a theory of color symbolism. In a letter to fellow artist August Macke (1887–1914) dating from 1910, Marc assigned emotional values to colors. “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” In 1911 Marc produced Yellow Cow, an image of a joyous cow leaping through the air, and emphasized the impression of happiness and femininity through his extensive use of the color yellow (Gabi La Cava, “The Expressionist Animal Painter Franz Marc,” ProQuest Discovery Guides, www.csa.com/discoveryguides/marc/overview.php).

Franz Marc

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 189.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1210

Before showing Franz Marc’s painting to the class, tell students that they are about to see a work called Yellow Cow. Have them do a drawing of what they think this work will look like.

Show: Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911

  • Look carefully at this work. What do you notice?
  • Take some time to look at this painting. What do you notice?
  • Where are we? What is happening?
  • Franz Marc believed that colors could stir deep emotions and associations. What emotions do the colors used in this painting evoke in you? How has the artist accomplished that?
  • Marc created his own personal color symbolism where “blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the color to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” How does knowing this information change your understanding of the painting?
  • Is this a place you would like to visit? Explain your response.
Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 189.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1210



  • Early in his career Marc studied the anatomy of animals and even taught the subject to other artists. Marc painted horses, dogs, cats, monkeys, and cows as well as other animals.

    Drawing animals requires fast thinking and quick execution. Although there are many excellent books that will enable you to learn more about drawing animals and their underlying structure, close observation is perhaps the best teacher.

    Choose an animal that you can observe. If you have a pet, you have a handy model; if not a visit to the local park or zoo will provide many possibilities. Make many quick drawings of the animals you observe. What did you learn about the animal you drew through this experience?
    Visual Arts

  • In his essay “How Does a Horse See the World?” Franz Marc wondered, “Is there a more mysterious idea for the artist than the conception of how nature may be mirrored in the eye of the animal? How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a deer or a dog? How poor and how soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape familiar to our own eyes rather than transporting ourselves into the soul of the animal in order to imagine his perception?” (Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, p. 178; also Franz Marc quoted in K. Lankheit [ed.], Franz Marc: Schriften [Cologne: DuMont, 1978[, p. 99.)

    Marc asks us not just to perceive an animal, but to truly empathize. Create a drawing or painting that seeks to look at the world as an animal experiences it. When finished, show the work to classmates and discuss what experiences and perceptions you sought to include.
    Visual Arts

  • For younger students, provide an outline of the cow in Marc’s painting. Students can color it in any way that appeals to them and then place their cow in a new environment.
    Visual Arts

  • Several novelists have written their books from an animal’s point of view. If you are interested in a selection of books that look at life from an animal’s perspective go to www.npr.org/templates/story/ story.php?storyId=6431059 where you will find several recommendations.
    English/Language Arts

  • For younger students, provide an outline of the cow in Marc’s painting. Students can color it in any way that appeals to them and then place their cow in a new environment.
    Visual Arts

  • Marc created his own personal color symbolism. Ask your students about their associations with the primary colors red, yellow and blue. For instance, yellow might be associated with both “caution” and “butter.” Then have each student create a work in which these color associations are expressed in a painting.
    Visual Arts