Artist Study with Charlotte Mason
Artist study is one area I’ve always struggled with.
I don’t know much about the artists or styles or periods that they worked. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Impressionist and Post-Impressionist.
I’ve always been stumped about what to actually do with my kids during art appreciation. Do we just look at the picture? Am I supposed to point out the use of color? How do I help my kids learn about art if I don’t know anything myself?
Have you felt this way, too?
Reading through the Parents’ Review articles I was happy to find an article titled Art for Children written by Thomas Rooper.
What sort of art to use for artist study—
On page 248, it says that the wisdom of the day was that children couldn’t appreciate high minded art, and both the subject and treatment should be simple or children won’t like them.
We still get that today. A quick search for art for children’s rooms turns up nauseatingly simple designs of giraffes and rabbits, with bold, simple colors.
There is no beauty, no subtlety.
Instead, Mr. Rooper reminds us of this:
“’Young citizens,’ says Plato in the Republic, ‘must not be allowed to grow up amongst images of evil, lest their souls assimilate the ugliness of their surroundings. Rather they should be like men living in a beautiful healthy place; from everything that they see and hear, loveliness like a breeze should pass into their souls and teach them without their knowing it the truth of which beauty is a manifestation.’ In the study of art ‘liking comes by looking.’ Children cannot learn what a beautiful work of art really is unless they have an opportunity of seeing good specimens almost every day of their lives. A love for the study of beautiful things is gained by a slow process; it cannot be dinned into the mind like the multiplication table, it was never imparted by the rapid method of acquiring knowledge which is known as ‘cramming.’”
There’s our first step — choose beautiful pictures. Not cute, not ugly or disturbing. Beautiful.
After you’ve decided on suitable art, how do you bring it to the children?
“Leaving to others the study of the technical skill displayed by the artist, and of the position of the painter in the closely connected schools of European Art, I will direct attention to the subject which has been chosen, and then to the thoughts which the present treatment of it may suggest.”
Ah-ha! We don’t need to talk about whether an artist was Impressionist or talk about how he used color in this way and that artist uses it in that way.
Instead, we draw the children’s attention to the subject painted.
That’s not to say that you can’t talk about the schools of art, or that you shouldn’t as a child gets older. But this is not something you need to go deeply into.
For older students, a quick biography or object lesson concerning the artist of the term will suffice, while younger children don’t need even that.
SETTING THE STAGE
The painting used in this example is called “Circe” by Briton Riviere
“Have you ever gone to see the pigs fed? … As we approach the sty bearing a heavy bucket of bran and meal stirred up into a thick creamy mixture, we hear inside pushing, struggling, squealing, grunting, shrieks of excited greedy anticipation mixed with squeals of disappointment, as some porker gets shoved away by an old sow from a place near the trough which is to receive the cause of all this babel of sounds. Now we pour out the luscious nutriment. Wonderful result! In a moment the din stops. Not a sound is heard but of a furious supping, interrupted by an occasional subdued and comfortable grunt of utter enjoyment and satisfaction.”
At this point, the author isn’t even talking about the picture. He’s just setting the stage for it, talking to the children about feeding pigs. He’s using descriptive words, making it fun, and letting us feel like we’re actually out throwing the slop.
Once we have this background, we can start talking about the painting itself.
“If we now study the picture we shall see that the pigs are painted as at the moment when they expect to be fed. See them crowding up, pushing each other over, uplifting their ugly heads, stretching their throats …”
Interesting! He’s not just putting the picture in front of the children and letting them ‘get what they get’, he’s actually drawing their attention to certain bits. Because he’s set the scene, we can see exactly what he’s talking about. If he hadn’t had us imagine that we were feeding the pigs, we might not have understood when he says “we see that the pigs are painted at the moment when they expect to be fed.”
“Look at their flexible coarsely-shaped snouts, their huge wrinkled brawny faces with small greedy eyes, and ask yourselves whether the artist has not studied nature to good purpose, in depicting the scene of animal selfishness which I have just described.”
And again, he’s specifically pointing out how they are portrayed. Their huge wrinkled brawny faces. Their flexible, coarsely-shaped snouts. I can almost see a pigs snout moving and snuffling just from this description; how much more alive will this make the painting!
“Let us now turn … to contemplate the fair form of the woman who sits and surveys it. What a contrast! What grace, refinement, and beauty are here! Observe the long fall of hair, gathered above the neck in a single circlet of gold, the graceful curve of the seated figure …”
And then here, he’s contrasting. He’s pointing out the difference in how the woman is drawn to how the pigs are.
But do you see? He’s not only pointing out the contrast, he’s also drawing the children’s attention to details they might otherwise miss. The single circlet of gold in her hair, the graceful curves.
By directing children’s attention, we are also refining it. We are modeling for them what close observation of a painting looks like.
THE NEXT STEP
After the picture itself is admired and studied, the author gives even more background.
It is not simply a painting of a beautiful woman feeding pigs, but an illustration from Homer’s Odyssey. Then he tells the children an abbreviated version.
Do you think a child, after studying this painting in this manner, might want to go further and listen to an audiobook of a dramatized version of The Odyssey?
This might even be a good lead-in for an older student before beginning to read The Odyssey for himself.
But what if you have no idea if there’s a story behind a painting?
The internet is our friend.
Spend a few minutes on Wikipedia before presenting a painting, so you are armed with at least a bit of knowledge before starting.
WHERE TO GET ARTIST PRINTS
Now that you know a good way to present art to your children, are you wondering where to find it?
- One easy way is artist calendars. Calendars.com has many calendars for $14.99, or you can look in bookstores or even discount stores. While it sounds expensive, at 12 prints per calendar (make sure you get one with different pictures for each month), it works out to $1.25 per print.The paper is heavy and fairly resistant to grubby fingerprints.
And they are easy to cut up to hang on walls or otherwise display.
- Come Look with Me series by Gladys Blizzard. These are cheaper than calendars, come with artist bios and questions, but can’t be cut up to be displayed.
- Download and print
The Met Museum has released 400,000 digital images of its collection into the public domain.
They also have hundreds of art books free for download.
There you have it, folks. Artist study should be guided somewhat, but we can leave the technical talk out of it.
Do a bit of research yourself before presenting a print to your child. Set the scene. Draw their attention to details. Then give backstory and connections if there are any.
Like so many things in a Charlotte Mason education, so very simple, but so effective.
Do you have a favorite artist or piece of art? Share it in the comments!