Whether the Painters Chosen for Picture-Talk could Follow Each Other in a More Harmonious Sequence than at Present by Edith Frost

The Reading Lesson. John Dawson Watson. 1855.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series on Charlotte Mason Picture Study, including why it’s important and how it looks for us and in those posts, I quoted several articles and talks from various Charlotte Mason-related media. In the first post, I linked to a talk given by Edith Frost that was published in L’Umile Pianta in 1914. I have not found it posted anywhere else, so I decided to re-type it here for, hopefully, easier reference.

I’ve also done research to find out where this talk was given, but have only found references to a “Conference” of some kind (perhaps a PNEU conference?) that took place earlier that year and my lack of knowledge of Charlotte Mason’s world is very evident right now! I’m guessing it was some how related to Charlotte Mason’s teacher-training college, the House of Education, as the discussion at the end of this particular talk came to a conclusion about how to go forward with teaching picture study. If anyone can enlighten me on this, I’d be very thankful!

One of the things I found interesting about this talk was that it continued the debate I’ve seen in several places about whether or not students should attempt to reproduce the art at which they’re looking for picture study. The majority of the articles I’ve read as well as parts of Miss. Mason’s original volumes generally say that this should be reserved only for older students and only on a very basic level (“they are never copied lest an attempt to copy should lessen a child’s reverence for great work” vol 6 p 216). However, in this talk, Miss. Edith Frost stated that: “In order to know a picture we must study and narrate, and this narration takes the form of a drawing, which serves to fix the picture and its details firmly in our minds. No mere looking will fully unveil the inner meaning, we must learn the picture by heart, and hold it in our memory, that it may become a subject for contemplation and a joy; the more we ponder and discover, the greater will our love and reverence grow–and thus should it be with the children.” I found this to be very interesting, especially how she emphasizes that “no mere looking will fully unveil the inner meaning.” I’m not sure if this means only looking and not narrating, or both, but it’s a bold statement to make and I have to wonder if she felt this way about younger forms as well!

Also, her question of, “would it be better for them to know something of one master in each of six different schools of painting, or to know thoroughly two of the schools?” is one I think some home educators (in particular, those new to Charlotte Mason) have offered when seeing that picture study, over the course of one year, only covers three different artists not necessarily related to each other. I feel that this isn’t a problem because picture study, again, is about getting to know the art and not necessarily a short course in art history. As to her question, “is there nothing to be said of the delightful uncertainty of not knowing who comes next?” the answer is a resounding No!! I have found that my students really enjoy this aspect of the beginning of each term – getting to find out who our next artist will be and to see their style. It’s been so interesting to hear them as they flip over that first piece and verbally compare it to pieces we’ve looked at in the past, even in the same year.

Reading about the “chart” or timeline of artists from Mary Innes’s book was also very interesting. I have not come across this suggestion in The Living Page or any other type of guide on keeping notebooks, timelines, or charts. I don’t know that it was ever something that was commonly used either in the P.U.S. or directly recommended by Miss. Mason herself despite the fact that those present for this talk agreed at the end that it could possibly be used for certain forms. My only concern with keeping a separate chart is that it, again, would make picture study more about art history or even the artists themselves rather than the pieces of art. I wonder if anyone has added artist information and/or the paintings they’ve student to their overall timeline charts or Books of Centuries?

Finally, there is some discussion about whether or not to include any biographical information on the artist when doing picture study. Miss. Mason even suggests this in A Philosophy of Education (“After a short story of the artist’s life and a few sympathetic words about his trees or his skies, his river-paths or his figures….” vol 6 p 214). I do usually like to give a little background on the artist we’re studying, but I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary. I have observed that my students have connected more with the artist when they know more about him or her and it may help those paintings hang in the halls of their imagination a little more securely, but does it have to be included? I don’t think so.

I also have to wonder what Miss. Mason thought about all of this….. how amazing that they would’ve been able to ask her thoughts, whereas now we can only speculate.

Below is the talk re-typed directly from the L’Umile Pianta volume. I did try to correct typos or noted misspellings with brackets. Other errors I may have missed or had to stay as is if I did not know how to correct them (eg. finding original Ruskin quotes was problematic). I included the discussion at the end of the talk as I thought there were several interesting points offered (I don’t know that I agree about “knowing” Shakespeare!). Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments!

Whether the Painters Chosen for Picture-Talk could Follow Each Other in a More Harmonious Sequence than at Present

by Edith Frost

Let us first consider the main objects of a picture-talk. Dr. Percy Dearmer tells us that “‘the magic,’ as we call it, of art is precisely its sacramentalism. That is, it reveals the eternal and invisible which always lies within the outward…and the gift of understanding is just that we can see the infinite in common things,…the picture must perish one day, but the beauty which is expressed can never die.” Miss Mason tells us further, “That we must learn to discriminate between the meretricious and the essential, between the technique and the thing to be expressed.” It is quite plain that the most important reason for our study of pictures is to see the beauty and to learn the truth told in a different way by every age and school of painting.

To enter into the spirit of a picture, and to know it we must, as it were, dissect it; we must know the history, literature, manners, and customs of the people and age, but this is too big a study for the schoolroom. Some of us, no doubt, do so know many of the great painters, but as teachers we must be content to stand aside; we love greatly, and surely our love and sympathy will inspire the children with love and appreciation, and by teaching them how to look and what to look for, by telling them the legends and stories, we lay a sure foundation in every school and age that should open the door of desire for more knowledge, which will lead them to the delightful task of fuller discovery when school days are over. We see the heart and soul of things after much thought, our powers of insight are called forth, and imagination and sympathy must help. All these powers are capable of ranging over the world, they are independent of time and space, then why, when exercising them in this particular direction, should they be bound in any way? Considering the object of our lesson–is it necessary? We teach other subjects–such as history and mathematics–each in its proper scientific order, but in this subject, where it is possible, let us keep our liberty; give the children leave to wander in the garden of art–if there is a pathway leading through, let it be the knowledge of the teacher and the method born of the object in giving a picture-talk.

I think that if taken in any kind of settled order this subject would lose much of its charm. We should be in danger of the nature of our picture-talk degenerating, and our teaching might tend to emphasize the accidental truths, while the message, the should, would fall into the background, and life, atmosphere, that delicate breath, would vanish. Ruskin warns us that “The trend of the modern critic is to explain the technical method rather than to treat of the essential soul.” Also let us remember the untrained teachers of whom, I suppose, there are many teaching in the P.U.S. I do not suggest that we are better than they, but we have had the advantage of Miss Mason’s training, and we start with a knowledge of many of her thoughts and ideas which other people must discover in degrees. Do not let us put in their way a stumbling-block that might divert them from a more spiritual way into one of history and facts.

Another point I would emphasize concerns the age of children entering the P.U.S. No doubt many enter in Classes III or IV, and supposing of these a number work for a short time only, say two years, would it be better for them to know something of one master in each of six different schools of painting, or to know thoroughly two of the schools? We have had since Easter, 1912, Van Eyck [sic] (Flemish), Rembrandt (Dutch), Velasquez [sic] (Spanish), Carpaccio (Venetian), Watts (English), Dürer (German), but the painters might have been set to cover the same period in a more harmonious sequence, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli in the Tuscan school, followed by Bellini, Titian, and Veronese in the Venetian School. The point at issue is whether those who had had glimpses of six schools would be more or less educated than those who had a fair knowledge of two schools. Also, is there nothing to be said of the delightful uncertainty of not knowing who comes next? Can any [teacher] say that her pupils on the qui vive to know who is to be next term’s painter? It is not a case of who follows, but who comes.

The desire for a more harmonious sequence having been felt, is there no way to providing a link and some form of order[?] For this purpose I have a chart which was suggested and copied from a similar one in Schools of Painting, by Mary Innes, and this I offer as a substitute for a more settled order in picture study. Here the schools and the centuries are indicated, and the life of each painter is shown by a red line in its proper age and school, and events that influenced thought and production are put in another space. I suggest that the framework of this chart be given to the children, and pasted in the end of their picture-talk book. In this book the pictures are placed in the order taken. At the first picture-talk of the term the new artist’s life-line is put in its proper place, and then where and when he lived and who were his contemporaries is seen at a glance. Thus supposing the children know something of Botticelli and Dürer is set, how interesting to discover that, though they lived far apart, they lived at the same time; also that Dürer knew Bellini in Venice–here are two links. Even more interesting would it be, knowing something of Velasquez [sic], to meet some day his fellow townsman, Murillo, whose circumstances were so different, and to know that Velasquez [sic] helped him with knowledge and sympathy.

Many of our pupils will have opportunities of seeing the famous galleries. I hope and feel inclined to predict that those who have studied the pictures, keeping such a chart, will have learnt unconsciously something of the different schools, and will have enough love and knowledge to enable them to look intelligently, to learn much, and to go unerringly to the right pictures.

As to the advisability of making children do drawings of the picture set.

I understand that there is feeling that children should not be asked to reproduce these great works of arts as a whole, as it might tend to diminish their appreciation of them, and also lessen their reverence for the minds that called them forth, though they might well be asked to study carefully some small detail, and draw that.

We all know how much Ruskin drew and copied, how he visited the haunts of the great painters and made drawings of them, and the more he knew, the more he corrected and revised his earlier works, and the greater his love and reverence became. “Morelli, the Italian critic, professed to be able to fix with accuracy the authorship of almost any picture, because his exact knowledge of details of drawing peculiar to each master revealed the authors as clearly and certainly as though the name were writ large.” We, and the children under our guidance, cannot surely do better than to study in the same way; to give time for so much detail is not possible, but we should be able to make discovery to a certain extent possible to the pupil.

In order to know a picture we must study and narrate, and this narration takes the form of a drawing, which serves to fix the picture and its details firmly in our minds. No mere looking will fully unveil the inner meaning, we must learn the picture by heart, and hold it in our memory, that it may become a subject for contemplation and a joy; the more we ponder and discover, the greater will our love and reverence grow–and thus should it be with the children.

Sometimes the drawing is from memory, and sometimes it is done direct from the picture, whether of the whole or of a detail. I confess that I cannot see how either way of reproducing should tend to lessen reverence in any way, because it is, surely, impossible for the ordinary being to make a perfectly correct drawing from memory; it would be possible to copy perfectly, but who in the schoolroom could give the necessary time? We must decide according to the ability of our pupils, whether it be possible to attempt the whole, and through failure to realize something of the greatness of the master mind, or to take a part, and through the power to reproduce it truly draw nearer to the mind of the artist, and realize something of its beauty and strength; but always against this latter method must be placed the fact that details are apt to lose their meaning if taken from the whole, and that, however, big and full of drawing a picture may be, its outline should always be suggested by a few lines as well as the more careful drawing of one or more details.

Lastly, let us face the question of lack of reverence for the master mind. We must be careful that when reproducing the children are full of the idea that they are only expressing what someone else has done, trying to discover what the artist knew, they are not of themselves making a picture, but copying, and there is a vast different between the two, the only similarity is that perfection is possible.

If children have studied and been able to understand a small or great part of the meaning of a picture, and know also something of the way in which the great painters worked, such as the fresco painters, and such masters of line as Botticelli, of light and colour as Titian, there must be very few who would not reverence the pictures, and through them the creator; even more so if they realize the originality, the love and strength, the necessity of expressing a message which must be given to the world, regardless of difficulties, and is, in spite of almost grotesque drawing in some cases of earlier works.

Reverence is capable of growth. As I said before, it is after the picture is in our minds that it is possible to understand and appreciate more fully–then reverence will grow. We must remember this in dealing with children; they are so inexperienced and ignorant, even more so than we; how can they be expected to understand and value at once, though my own experience is that children are keenly aware of the atmosphere of a picture, especially if we refrain from speech. The object of our picture-talk is to strengthen their love and reverence of truth and beauty.

I quote from Ourselves: “It is not in a day or a year that Fra Angelico will tell us of the beauty of holiness, that Giotto will confide his interpretation of the meaning of life, that Millet will tell us of the simplicity and dignity that belong to labour on the soil, that Rembrandt will show us the sweetness of humanity in many a common-place countenance…the outward and visible sign is of less moment than the inward and spiritual…”


Several students thought it would be a pity to destroy the children’s joyful anticipation of an entirely new and unknown artist, and one averred that as in the field of nature the children’s joy in gathering and naming flowers would be spoilt by directions to classify, so the field of art would lose some of its attractiveness by following a rigid chronology.

It was thought the chart might be of use for older children in placing the period of the artist chosen, etc. One student found that charts had a great attraction for some children in Classes Ib and II, more even than for older children.

One student considered that reproducing pictures of their details increased reverence for the artist’s work, and another found that, however feeble the attempts the children made, they appreciated the pictures all the more.

Miss Parish inquired whether it is the experience of teachers that children desire to know more details of the artists’ lives as they grow older, and hw lessons to older children are supplemented.

Several students reminded the meeting that Miss Mason attached great importance to the artist’s life being subordinated to his work, and that interest in the picture was not necessarily the outcome of interest in the painter’s life.

One student said that she considered it important that Class IV should be acquainted with the conditions of life at the time of painting in order to bring out the spirit of the age. She instanced the religious life that influenced the work of the Italian masters.

Another said that the spirit of the age was brought out in the subject, and the conditions of the life and history itself could be gleaned from the study of the picture, and another affirmed that more, indeed, could be learnt of the man and his times from the picture than from the study of the artist’s, and cited SHakespeare as an example of man being known through his works.

One student considered that there was a possibility of getting too literary an aspect of a picture, and another inquired if it would be lawful to point out the spirit of the picture to older children if it was not realized by them.

Miss Parish thought that if such was the case it plainly showed that the children were not yet ready for it, and that it is better to be content with just sowing seed, and that one may rest assured that anything so living is ultimately bought to bear fruit. She advised forcing nothing upon the children, but leaving them to take what they needed from the lessons.

The following resolution was put to the meeting, and carried:–“It is found most satisfactory to take picture-talks as at present set, to cover a wide field, with a possible addition of a chart in Classes II, III, and IV.”

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  1. Friederike Lehrbass says:

    Interesting discussion. I like to include a short biography. Though mostly we don’t remember much from it,but it still does help to make connections. What’s also nice is to see works of the artist in real life. Our family got to visit the alte Pinakothek in Munich last year and saw many pictures from Ruben’s which made good connections for my DS when Ruben’s came up in another book of his. But the most impressive was the Madonna from Raphael we saw in 2014 in Dresden. A very large picture. I wished we were able to see real life picture for every artist we study.

    1. I agree completely! Seeing a reproduction, often printed from images found on the internet that can sometimes be unreliable for color and detail, has nothing on seeing an actual piece in person. Being able to see brushstrokes and the way light plays with the colors is wonderful!

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