Danish-born artist August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck settled in Paris as a young man, to study at the famous École des Beaux-Arts. He spent most of his career in Paris, specialising in painting landscapes and animal subjects, which were often seen as a metaphor for human relationships and society. These included several snowy, winter landscapes depicting sheep struggling for survival.

In Anguish, a brave ewe stands defiantly over the limp body of her lamb. Blood from the lamb’s mouth trickles on to the snow.  The pair is encircled by a mass of menacing black crows. The situation appears hopeless, despite the bravery of the ewe.

Anguish was one of the NGV’s earliest acquisitions. In 1906, the painting was voted among the five most popular in the Melbourne collection. Today it is displayed among other 19th century narrative paintings in the NGV where it continues to inspire visitors. Evidence of its enduring appeal can be found on social media sites including Flickr. August Schenck even has a fan club on Facebook.

Classroom discussion:

  • The composition of Anguish has been carefully considered to create atmosphere, mood and meaning. Discuss, considering how the artist has used elements such as colour and tone, and design principles such as focal point and repetition.
  • How might Anguish be interpreted as a metaphor for human relationships and society? Consider what types of human characters and behaviour the sheep and the crows might symbolise.
  • Why do you think Anguish has strong popular appeal?

L. Benson in T. Gott, L. Benson & contributors, 20th Century Painting and Sculpture in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003.

An Art Start Literacy Activity

Language Starter Activities

Teacher Notes

Refer to our handy Glossary of Literary Terms for definitions and examples
Read our Art Start The Art of Language Introduction
Look through the Art Start Image Bank
Where not otherwise stated these activities can be undertaken by students in pairs, small groups or individually, depending on the teachers’ individual curriculum requirements.

Group Activity: LOOKING

Instructions for students:
1. Spend four minutes looking at Schenck’s Anguish.
2. Write down what stands out to you.
3. Discuss your observations with a partner.
4. Report to the class the items observed that were not in common with your partner.
5. Explain why they have a special significance – in what ways do they convey a mood or message?

Classroom Discussion and Activities

Adjectives Activity

  • Describe the mood of the painting using powerful words. For example: a sinister spectacle, threatening.
  • Find and list descriptive words that convey the emotions portrayed in the painting.

Writing with Colour Activity

  • Discuss and make a list of the key colours in the painting.
  • How many different and unusual ways can they be described? For example: Grey could be described as smoky, silvery, pearly, charcoal.

Synonyms Activity

  • Discuss the meaning of ‘anguish’.
  • Find four other words that mean ‘anguish’.

Opposites Activity

Make a list of all the opposite concepts in the painting. For example: good/evil, dark/light, silence/noise.

Senses and Emotion Activity

Imagine you have stepped into the painting. How would you feel? What would your senses reveal?

Complete these sentences, then share with the class:
(List four things for each)
I can see…………………
I can smell ……………………
I can feel………………..
I can taste …………….

Musical association Activity

  • Describe particular sounds you might be able to ‘hear’ emanating from the painting such as a ‘frosty breeze’ or ‘the cries of the mother sheep.’
  • Make a list of onomatopoeic words that describe the sounds, for example the ravens might ‘krak’ or the breeze might ‘swish’ or ‘whisper’. Invent words if you can’t find an appropriate term for your sound.

Metaphor Activity

  • Choose something in the painting and describe it using a metaphor. For example: the ravens are an encroaching circle of death.

Simile Activity

  • Choose something in the painting and describe it using a simile. For example: the ewe’s breath is like an icy cloud.

Collective noun Challenge

  • Find 10 words to describe the group of ravens. For example: a ring of ravens, a congregation of ravens.

Symbols Activity

  • List the key objects in the painting. For example: the sky, the mother sheep, the ravens, the snow.
  • Discuss what each element might symbolise. For example: the ravens could signify evil, bullying, conformity.

Writing in detail Activity

  • Choose four things in the painting.
  • Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side of the line list your chosen things in a simple descriptive way. For example: A brooding sky
  • On the right side of the page rewrite each description. For example: A  suffocating blanket. Now look at the two descriptions as a set For example: brooding sky, a suffocating blanket.

Responding to Art Writing Projects

Teacher Notes

This project requires as background information:

  • information about Anguish in the Art Start Image Bank
  • The Art Start model for investigating art
  • interpretive ideas and descriptions developed in Language Starter activities.
  • Students discuss the messages, meanings and mood of Anguish, 1880.


Poetry is like art – it allows us to see something in a different way. Its impact can be powerful and immediate.
“A poem is a painting that is not seen;
A painting is a poem that is not heard”

Phoebe Hesketh, A poem is a Painting, Page 7, Picture Poems, Benton, M and P, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997

Using this quote as a starting point, discuss and document ways in which art and poetry may be similar.

Haiku Poetry Activity

  • Write a Haiku poem inspired by Anguish, 1880 and the ideas and descriptions you created in the Language Starters activities.

For example:
A mother’s anguished
cry pierces the frozen gloom
The ravens gather.

Shape Poetry activity

  • Create a descriptive sentence about something in the painting. For example: the ewe, a cloud in the sky, a raven or the lamb.
  • Draw the shape of each of the images and write the descriptive sentence around its outline to create a shape poem.
  • Alternatively, fill the shapes with words that describe them.

Free Verse poetry activity

Write a free verse poem inspired by Anguish, 1880 and the ideas and descriptions you created in the Language Starters activities.

  • Decide on the key idea you want to communicate with your poem.
  • Write a descriptive piece about your idea using very specific language to bring your imagery alive.
  • Break the piece into short lines.
  • Revise and edit the lines until they sound strongly expressive when read aloud.
  • Edit the lines again if necessary to polish and refine the poem.
    For example:
    Whispers of icy breath,
    Under surly skies
    foreshadow the cruel spectacle
    of nature.
    A mother’s anguished cry
    shatters the  stillness
    In the snow,
    A peaceful lamb, liberated,
    Unaware of the ghoulish gaze of the mob,
    A dark circle of malevolence.

Write a postcard activity

Teacher Notes

This activity requires that students have access to the poem Be Specific by Mauree Applegate.
It is available at: http://idiocrasiesoflanguages.blogspot.com/2007/10/be-specific.html

  • Find a copy of the poem Be Specific by Mauree Applegate.
  • Practise reading it aloud expressively, individually or in pairs, emphasising the descriptive language.
  • Imagine you have visited the gallery and seen Anguish, 1880 for the first time.
  • Write a descriptive postcard to a friend in another state explaining what the painting looks like and how it makes you feel. Use adjectives, similes and metaphors to ensure that you ‘paint’ a vivid picture with your writing that enables your friend to imagine it clearly.

Symbolist writing activity

  • Discuss in what ways Anguish 1880 may resemble situations in the human world, for example a mother’s love, the power of the ‘mob’, bullying, ghoulish travellers gathered around a car accident, war.
  • Identify key aspects of the painting such as the mother sheep, the ravens, the snow or the artist’s use of black and white.
  • Suggest what each might symbolise. For example: the snow could symbolise innocence, purity, good.
  • Imagine you are creating a blog about your personal interpretations of famous artworks. Write a short piece that interprets the symbols in the painting to suggest a human situation or experience.

Presenting and Performing Projects

Directing activity

  • Choose a friend to role-play an actor. Imagine you are a film or theatre director training them to read one of the poems you have written in response to Anguish, 1880.
  • Explain the mood you wish to capture and the ideas you would like to communicate. Teach your ‘actor’ to achieve your desired effects by rehearsing volume, speed of reading, body language and facial expression.

Soundscape activity

  • In small groups, create a sound sculpture that evokes the mood of Anguish, 1880 using voice, body percussion and simple musical instruments, purchased or hand-made. Draw on the sounds identified in Musical Association in the Language Starters activity for this artwork.