What do You See?
Picture Study with the Gentle Art of Learning
Outdoors, I took a peaceful early morning trudge to the mailbox in Pennsylvania snow. The snow, that fell silently in the night, looked magical. “Pennsylvania snow” is often the kind that melts in three days. Then another snowfall takes its place and dresses our house in white again. Indoors, I started sorting through books and sifting through old files. I found some things that might interest you for today’s topic.
Art in Reach of Children
If we want children to learn “art” the simplest and most natural way is to place some of the best art the world has to offer into the reach of children. Art is part of life – a life of ideas. Many of us were brought up to think of art as “art class” – another one of those classroom subjects that is over and done-with upon graduation. But the world of art is something marvelous that exists outside the classroom and is not confined to it. It is this world that we introduce to children – with a healthy dose of discretion - in hopes that they will form a relation.
A Main Resource
Picture Study is one of the simplest of all subjects. An advantageous way to become familiar with some of the world’s greatest works of art is to open the pages of an art print book. If you live in a major city and can hop on a bus to an art museum - that would be wonderful. But such an excursion is not something most of us can do regularly. Art print books are handy. They have beautiful reproductions. With the decline of bookshops and when public libraries are unsupplied, this resource could be less available than it once was. I’ve seen art print books abandoned in used bookshops and this, perhaps, may be the best place to find them. You’ll be surprised at how inexpensive they are compared to their original price upon publication.
The Picture Study chapter in A Charlotte Mason Companion is a sort of teacher’s guide to get you started or to renew your interest. In it I quote from Miss Charlotte Mason.
“We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at a single picture.” *1
Prop up a book on a sideboard. Open to a work of art. (Conceal the opposite page if it also has a picture). Display the picture for a week or more. Let the children look and look. After a few days ask a child to describe what he sees. It’s this simple.
A Fond Remembrance
In the early 1990s I had the pleasure of written correspondence with Miss Eve Anderson, retired headmistress of the Eton End PNEU School in Oxford, England. With her fountain pen she was kind to answer my questions. I couldn’t travel when I was first invited to meet her but enjoyed our telephone conversation. Then, a few years later, I was blessed to spend a weekend with Eve Anderson. I treasure my remembrance of her. She has since gone to be with the Lord.
When I learned that she attended a PNEU school as a young girl before WWII, I asked her what stood out in her memory. She wrote:
From age 5-8 years I attended a PNEU school of probably about 30 children. It was a very happy time of learning, no stress, no pressure. I obviously learnt to read and write but what I most remember is the joy of the nature walks and coming back and painting in our nature note books. Also I remember vividly the picture study lessons, looking carefully at one picture and learning about the different artists each term. Parental support and interest is so vital. My mother used to take me to the National Gallery so that we could look at the original pictures that we had studied. She [built] in me a careful observation of nature at weekends and [encouraged me] to take interesting [nature specimens] to school. These two subjects have been lifelong interests.
One Artist After Another
I found Charlotte Mason’s approach to art to be appealing when my children were still young. Yet, in the midst of our many household moves Picture Study would slip out of the schedule. I did learn that once you set your mind to do it (at lunchtime for example- with all the children together) it could be restarted without much ado. It requires foresight but very little time and effort to perform.
Although no fancy curriculum is needed, Picture Study is something Miss Mason recommends we do not leave to chance. Her plan is to “take one artist after another, term by term, and study quietly some half dozen reproductions of his work in the course of a term.” *2 This helps us become familiar with the style and characteristics of one artist’s works.
“Oh look Mommy, it’s a Renoir,” a child may speak out when you enter the dentist’s waiting room and a reproduction of “Girl with a Watering Can” is in plain view. My son and I got to see Renoir’s “Girl with a Watering Can” in person when we visited Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in 2007 (his graduating year.) It was one he decided to photograph probably because of his familiarity with it during in our early years of appreciation. He also photographed the one painting by Leonardo Da Vinci there at the time. I liked the room of Dutch painters. That day was icing on our cake.
Beyond the Pictures of His Storybooks
What a sad state my copy of Famous Paintings is in. It is the book I used to help me write the art appreciation portions of Lessons of Blackberry Inn. Although the cover of Famous Paintings – Selected from the World’s Great Galleries and Reproduced in Colour – With an Introduction by G. K. Chesterton and Descriptive Notes - was irreparable, and did not survive a pipe leak in the basement, the body of the book, though dampened, is recovered.
Wishing to begin Picture Study with her children but finding herself without any sort of curriculum that includes six of an artist’s works, my character, Carol, “makes do” – but quite happily so with Famous Paintings (which was in publication during the 1930s when the story takes place.) Although she doesn’t follow Miss Mason’s specific plan Carol follows the spirit of the law.
When her children are occupied in an adjoining room – the little girls with a doll’s a tea party – Carol is in the sitting room among guests. She shares her opinion:
"My voice must have been laced with conviction because little by little everyone in the room became quiet and listened attentively . . . ‘Art training should proceed on two lines,’ I said. ‘The child should learn both to express himself and to appreciate, and his appreciation should be well in advance of his powers to express what he sees or imagines. His appreciation should go beyond the pictures of his storybooks.’ ”*3
My thoughts precisely. Imagine that.
*1 & *2 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 309
*3 Karen Andreola, Lessons at Blackberry Inn, page 124
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