Which came First: the Turtle or the Pieta?
Several years ago our family lived on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. The summers were exceptionally hot. Even so, the neighborhood children would congregate in the cul-de-sac most days to play stick-ball, with sweat dripping down their faces. After the conclusion of one game my eldest daughter said, "See you later! I'm going inside to cool off and watch a Michelangelo video."
"Oh. What Ninja turtle video is it?"
"Ninja turtle?" My daughter was taken aback.
"Yeah, you know -- Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael . . ."
"Those are the names of the Ninja turtles?" She had seen advertisements of these turtle characters displayed at our local budget shop but had never been treated to one of their films (a decision made by an authority figure -- me). "Those are the names of painters," she argued. But she found it was no use carrying on so she came into the air-conditioned living room to watch the second half of The Agony and the Ecstasy, starring Charlton Heston who plays the part of the original Michelangelo. As soon as she crossed the threshold of the front door l heard her call out, "Ma, I learned the names of the Ninja Turtles." And so by natural progression (the neighborhood grapevine) I too, immediately learned the names of that militant group of dirty green creatures -- an association far from having anything to do with art.
We are surrounded with just such dim fragments of our cultural heritage. It's commonplace to see Raphael's 500-year-old cherubs advertising coffee on a highway billboard, or Leonardo's Mona Lisa used in someone's marketing scheme. I expect most people have some vague cultural acquaintance with these great images. But for the most part our cultural heritage has been lost in the shuffle of our daily make-a-livin' society. Among the rigorous demands of a full homeschool schedule which sees year-end testing in clearest view, our aims to appreciate art may drift out of sight or may even be forgotten entirely. So from time to time it is helpful to bring to mind Charlotte Mason's aim in providing certain subjects like Picture Study to children.
Pictures Worth Our Attention
The children in Charlotte Mason's schools had Picture Study every term from age 6 upwards. Between the age of 6 and 15 a child had studied reproductions of pictures by some thirty of the world's famous artists. Why Picture Study? In order that children may be put in touch with the contribution that each famous artist has made to the world's store of all that is beautiful and worthwhile. Just as Literature introduces us to the thought of the greatest writers, so Picture Study opens the gates to the ideas of the famous artists. It also provides a treasure store of images for our children that will help defend them against the commercial world's attempts to dominate their senses.
Let the Artists Speak
Picture Study yields other benefits as well. Powers of observation increase as children learn to look at the picture. A sense of beauty will be more fully developed. But first and foremost we want our children to really "connect" with the artist's work.
Here lies the difficulty. The grown-up who arranges the lesson is an all-important middleman, but like other middlemen, you must be lost in the background. Many pictures make their own independent appeal. Your must judge when a helping word is needed, or when -- as it is especially the case with older children -- too much speaking or too much enthusiasm may raise a barrier.
Children may not fancy each picture they study. That is fine. Opinions are welcome. Over time some pictures will become favorites to be appreciated right up into adulthood.
Lives of the Great Artists
How much do our children really need to know about the artist's life? Only what is necessary to really enjoy his pictures, except in the case of students age 13 or older. For example, when looking at Fra Angelica's pictures it is helpful to know that he spent much of his life in the community of monks at San Marco. Likewise, Jean-François Millet's works are better appreciated by those who know that he led the hard life of a peasant.
I have found a little story of Millet's childhood and a legend of the boyhood of Raphael which I read to my children at odd times. But to attempt to interest small children too much in these stories during a Picture Study lesson may even take away opportunities of gaining intimacy with the artist's picture. And the pictures are what he gave to the world. As Charlotte Mason said, "A child is educated by his intimacies."
Children have no need to know the lesser details of either of Fran Angelica's and Millet's fairly irreproachable lives. Nor do our young ones need to be steeped in the real or alleged moral failures of great artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. You would be distracting the child from his main art study at that age, which is how line, form, color, and shadow can be combined in so many fascinating ways.
Older children do need to understand how an artist's behavior or misbehavior reflects his worldview, and how that in turn shines through in his paintings. However, it is best to hold off on exposing the sins of an artist you are studying until your child is able to understand that great talent does not always accompany great godliness, and vice versa.
To Narrate a Picture is to Describe a Work of Art
In every Picture Study lesson it is important that there should be a short time in which children can look quietly at the picture, uninterrupted by questions or discussion. That is when each of us will have the best chance to gain his own link with the picture and its painter's thought.
After a time of "looking," you can hide the picture from view and ask the child to describe it. Knowing this might happen encourages children to really "look" at the picture, not just stare vaguely.
A very young child's attention might wander, unless you give him a little help hbeforehand. Don't go so far as to explain the picture -- that would be taking the child's part from him. Instead, provide any facts that the child might need to know in order to enjoy and properly describe the picture. For a picture like Raphael's "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," for example, it really helps if the child is familiar with the Biblical story on which the picture is based.
With very young children it is better to tell or read the story before they have the picture, and then let them have the fun of discovering which part of the story is illustrated.
It is good to give older children a variety of ways to "narrate" the picture. They can describe it orally or in writing, or they can try to sketch it from memory.
Don't expect too much from these "memory sketches." Be satisfied if your child can provide the principal lines or outlines with some shading. Only the most gifted of students will put in facial features from memory.
Advertisers Use Billboards -- Should We Settle for Postcards?
Charlotte Mason emphasized that, in order to become well acquainted with great artists, children should study at least six of one artist's works per semester. Studying a large number of pictures is really the only way to learn to distinguish a Millet from a Manet, or a Manet from a Monet. (pronounced Mill-ay, Mun-ay, Mon-ay).
It is difficult to find prints of a half dozen of one artist's works. This is why I recommend using oversize art print books ("coffee table books") of one painter's works. Books featuring a group of painters from a similar school of art such as the Dutch painters, the Impressionists, or the Italian Renaissance artists are also widely available.
The Charlotte Mason schools always tried to obtain good-sized pictures. When you use postcards or greeting cards to introduce children to the great art of the ages, so many of the detail is lost. Children enjoy handling postcards, and they are considerably less expensive, but whenever possible look for larger reproductions. Look in your library's art section or in the art section at a used or new book shop.
Oversized art print books are a bit awkward to set up for display but their ease and quantity of selection makes them valuable. In our home we simply prop a book open on an end table with other heavy books laid around it for support. If the book is narrow enough it may be opened to the appropriate page and slipped into a book stand.
Do not allow the children in their curiosity to thumb through these books. You are trying to get them to focus intently on one painter, not to be confused by a mixture of different painters' works. Any thumbing through should be done discreetly by the teacher as you line up pictures to be studied one by one during a semester. Another reason why some parents would not want their children thumbing through art books is the question of nudity. This is best decided by the parent beforehand, so there are no surprises when your child is studying his art lesson!
A Philosophy of Art
Once the child is about fourteen years old, Charlotte Mason's approach to Picture Study moves from simply "soaking in" everything about a picture to learning the history of the "schools" of Western European painting. You still study one artist each semester, but you now examine his relationship to the art of the past and to other members of the same school.
Many older homeschool students today are enjoying Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? From this book we can learn about the influences of differing worldviews upon the art of various time periods. Dr. Schaeffer challenges us to compare these philosophies with the Christian worldview.
Someday your family may win a trip to Europe (anything can happen in America) and because of your growing knowledge of the riches of Western art, instead of asking for the directions to the restrooms, restaurants, and souvenir shops, you'll be asking for directions to the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi ("U-feet-see") Gallery in Florence with great anticipation of seeing that special painting you have been studying in person. Don't forget to write me if you get there before l do!