My Own Backyard

Road to Santa Fe
Theodore Van Soelen, United States

Children will examine the painting The Road to Santa Fe to see how many different animals, plants, people, colors, etc. they can find. They will then use their bodies to interact with the painting on a kinesthetic level. The lesson culminates with the children “corresponding” with the donkeys in the painting—learning more about where the donkeys live and sharing information about their own backyards, neighbors, homes, and families.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 30 minute lesson plus short amounts of time for ongoing "mailbox" activity

Students will be able to:

  • locate and point out specific objects in an area or work of art;
  • perceive the shape of an angle and try to mimic the shape with their bodies; and
  • draw upon their imaginations and factual information for a creative activity.


  1. Warm-up: Play the game “How many…?” by asking students to name “how many” different shapes, colors, objects, etc. they can find in the room.
  2. Show students the painting The Road to Santa Fe and play “How many…?” with the painting. Students could identify how many people, animals, flowers, colors, plants, etc.
  3. Help students notice different angles in the painting and make those angles with their arms, legs, fingers, and/or whole bodies.
  4. Talk about light and dark areas in the painting—how many light areas do they notice? How many dark areas? Which do they like better? Why?
  5. Have the children make up names for the two donkeys. Tell them that the class is going to write letters to the donkeys (and maybe they’ll write back!). Help the children write notes to the donkeys, allowing them to dictate to you. Encourage the students to ask questions or share observations.
  6. In order to send and receive the correspondence, have the children make decorations for a large mailbox. They can correspond with the donkeys over a period of several days, with you answering the students’ letters as the donkeys. Help them move beyond the painting by asking the children questions about their own backyards, neighbors, homes, families, etc., that they would like to share with the donkeys.


  • One extra large box for the children to help decorate as a mailbox
  • Assorted colored markers
  • Assorted colored paper
  • One pair of scissors for each child
  • One glue stick for every three children
  • Paper on which the teacher can write “letters”
  • About the Art section on The Road to Santa Fe
  • One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Road to Santa Fe


Theodore Van Soelen, United States


44 in. X 54 in.

Denver Art Museum Collection: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.1143

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

Theodore Van Soelen, known as Soely to his New Mexico pals, was born in Minnesota in 1890. He received traditional, academic-style art training in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and also traveled through Europe. In 1922 he moved west for health reasons—the arid climate was recommended for his tuberculosis. He worked for the railroad, at a trading post, and as a cowboy before settling his family and building a home and studio in Tesuque [teh-SOO-kay], New Mexico, just outside Santa Fe. He also worked as a portrait painter, illustrator, muralist, and lithographer (print-maker). By the 1930s the demand for his paintings was large enough in the East to permit him to establish a second studio in Connecticut, although his affiliations remained in New Mexico.

What Inspired It

In The Road to Santa Fe, Van Soelen shows a moment in the life of his neighbors, on the road to Santa Fe from Tesuque to sell their wood. He believed that artists should live and work with their subjects, so his neighbors often appeared in his work. They're placed in shadow, are relatively small in the composition, and the woman and child are featureless; the picture is less about them as individuals than about the setting, activities, and mood of their lifestyle. Van Soelen felt that art should be based on discipline and observation. Though he was devoted to the realist tradition, he was also perfectly willing to transport a mountain from one side of a painting to another in order to achieve a more harmonious composition.


New Mexico Hills

The Road to Santa Fe shows a hillside probably near Van Soelen’s home in Tesuque. He brings out the texture, colors, and shapes of the landscape.


The background is darker, the middle ground has bright sun, and the foreground is in shadow. This is the type of scene Van Soelen’s son said he especially liked—sunny with deep blue hills. The way the light falls also creates balance in the composition.

Framing Device

The shaded objects in the foreground—the tree branches, the fence, the donkeys, and the various plants on the ground—frame the right side of the painting.

The Cross

The cross is tilted and its arms extend along the diagonal line of the sloping ground, causing it to blend in a bit with the road.

Repeated Diagonal

The sun is shining in just the right direction to cast shadows along the same diagonal as the road and the cross.

Repeated Shapes

The donkeys all have the same profile, the cross shape is echoed in the nearby cactus shapes, and there are similar fence slats at both sides of the painting.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.