Last week I wrote an introduction to a series I’m continuing this week on Charlotte Mason picture study. In that post, I explained why picture study is important to me. This week, I thought I might expand on why picture study should be important to anyone.
First, however, I want to clarify on a few terms for those who are not familiar with Charlotte Mason or the various organizations with which she was associated. I will be quoting a few articles from the Parents’ Review (PR) which was a monthly publication sent out to members of the Parents’ National Educational Union (PNEU). This group was founded by Ms. Mason in 1888, “in response to a demand from thoughtful parents who desired to know how to give intelligent supervision and guidance to the development of their children’s whole nature—physical, mental, moral and spiritual.” (You can read more about this organization here which is also where you’ll find the previous quote.) Many of the articles published in this periodical up until 1922 were written or edited by Ms. Mason herself and espoused her views, which is why they are a wonderful resource that allows us to understand implementation of her methods outside of what she wrote within her six-volume series on education.
I will also be quoting from L’Umile Pianta, which was another publication created for former students of Ms. Mason’s House of Education for teacher training, with many of the articles written by these students.
Finally, in Home Education and several PR articles, what we call “Picture Study” was sometimes referred to as “Picture Talks.” According to research done by the team at Charlotte Mason Poetry, this was the term used up until 1913 when an article entitled “Picture Study” by Marjorie Evans was published in the PR. Most subsequent references in PNEU publications used this new title.
What does picture study look like?
Before we dive into why it’s important, I thought I might provide a brief overview of what picture study actually looks like. In a November 1922 PR article, Miss. O’Ferrall, a former House of Education student, wrote: “Each child is given a copy of the picture to be studied and this he looks at carefully for several minutes. When he feels that he really knows it well, he turns it face downward and proceeds to tell you all he can about it… Every little detail is noticed—the position of the woman sitting on the chair, the key hanging up on the wall, the vine leaves creeping in at the window, etc., etc. Having done this, he looks at his picture again, while the teacher adds any comments it is necessary to make…”
I’ll get more into the how to do picture study in my next post, but I thought it would be good to at least understand what it is practically for those who may not be familiar with this aspect of a Charlotte Mason education.
Why do we include picture study?
Now that we know what it is, we’ll get to the point at hand and discuss why we include it in our homeschool. I believe there are a few reasons why making picture study a part of a child’s education is important.
The first has to do with beauty. At the 1901 PNEU Annual Conference, Miss K. R. Hammond said: “In these lessons we aim at putting the children in touch with the great artist minds of all ages. We try to unlock for their delectation the wonderful garden of Art, in which grow most lovely flowers, most wholesome fruits. We want to open their eyes and minds to appreciate the masterpieces of pictorial art, to lead them from mere fondness for a pretty picture which pleases the senses up to honest love and discriminating admiration for what is truly beautiful— a love and admiration which are the response of heart and intellect to the appeal addressed to them through the senses by all great works of art.”
In a Charlotte Mason education, much emphasis is put on exposing children to well-written, rich, living literature and staying away from, what Ms. Mason referred to as, “twaddle.” In Parents and Children, she wrote: “For the children? They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” (p. 263)
With this in mind, we buy books each year for our students and meticulously measure them up to these high standards. Is what we’re offering them “the best?” Are the books worthy, well-put, inspiring, and well-told?
According to a PR article from 1890, written by Mr. T. G. Rooper, art should be held up to these high standards as well: “‘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 and 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.”
One of the many reasons we offer the very best books to our children is to inform their sense of excellent ideas and words, but we should also be thinking about what we are offering them visually to inform their sense of beauty. In Home Education, Ms. Mason wrote, “…the minds of children and of their elders alike accommodate themselves to what is put in their way; and if children appreciate the vulgar and sentimental in art, it is because that is the manner of art to which they become habituated.” (p. 308)
If we are allowing our children to see art that is beautiful, thought-provoking, and not the visual form of “twaddle,” we are giving them “discriminating admiration for what is truly beautiful.” And in this world of non-stop advertisements (many of which are aimed at children), tawdry cartoons, kitschy children’s books (not all, but definitely some!), and attention-seeking media of other kinds, making sure that we expose them to the beautiful and excellent offerings of the art world is so very important.
The second reason that I believe picture study is important in a child’s education has to do with ideas.
In her PNEU pamphlet on picture study, E. C. Plumptre wrote: “Why are these lessons arranged? 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 ‘worth-while.’ 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. To deprive anyone of such an introduction is to shut him off from a wide field of enrichment and enjoyment;…”
We build our home libraries and lesson plans full of excellent books to feed our children upon ideas. As I wrote in my last post, this is one of my favorite aspects of a Charlotte Mason education. The analogy of offering children ideas from the minds of great writers, poets, and thinkers from all ages as you would offer them various courses at a meal was profound to me. But writers, poets, and others who work with words, are not the only ones with excellent ideas that have been shared. Artists have also offered the world profound thoughts and visions, but they shared these in oil paint, watercolor, or marble; on canvases, walls, and in sculpture.
As Miss. Hammond also quoted in her PNEU conference talk, 19th-century art critic John Ruskin wrote, “Painting, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing. To have learnt the art of painting—i.e., of representing any natural object faithfully—is to have learnt to express one’s thoughts grammatically and melodiously. The great painter excels in precision and force in the language of lines; the great versifier excels in precision and force in the language of words. The term ‘great poet’ is strictly and precisely in the same sense applicable to both if warranted by the character of the images or thoughts which each conveys.”
We have to ask ourselves why we sometimes so quickly dismiss picture study during our lessons because we don’t have time for it or it doesn’t seem important when we would generally not consider doing the same with a reading. In both cases, we are being presented with ideas, only in varying formats. Visual art is not subpar to the art of words when it comes to expressing ideas; it is only a different way to express them.
And just as with words, art can leave an impression that stays with us long after the piece has been put away. From Ourselves: “There are always those present with us whom God whispers in the ear, through whom He sends a direct message to the rest. Among these messengers are the great painters who interpret to us some of the meanings of life. To read their messages aright is a thing due from us. But this, like other good gifts, does not come by nature. It is the reward of humble, patient study. 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 commonplace countenance.
‘Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
Above and through his art,’—
has indispensable lessons to give us, whether he convey them through the brush of the painter, the vast parables of the architect, or through such another cathedral built of sound as ‘Abt Vogler’ produced: the outward and visible sign is of less moment than the inward and spiritual grace.” (p. 102)
To summarize these first two points, I’ll borrow an excerpt from an article written for L’Umile Pianta in 1914 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.”
The third reason I believe we should include picture study in our homeschool is because it improves our powers of observation. Miss. Evans wrote: “By carefully training the child’s observation he will learn much about the value of colour and the beauty of composition at an early age which will be of infinite help to him later on.”
By having a child study different paintings and artists and styles, looking for all of the little details and nuances included in the piece, we build their skills of noticing not only the intricate details of fine art, but also of the world around them. E. C. Plumptre agreed with this idea: “As the children find what is expected from them in the description that follows straight upon the ‘looking,’ so they learn to ‘look’ and not to gaze vaguely.”
Perfecting our observation skills can also lead to a greater appreciation of the object or view being studied as Ms. Frost also wrote: “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.”
Finally, art is for everyone. It is for adults and children, teachers and students, rich and poor, those who are skilled at creating it and those who aren’t. From Miss. Hammond: “Let us then ask, What is the fundamental idea of our scheme of Picture Talks? It is, I take it, our conception of Art itself; not as the luxury of the rich, the plaything of the idle, the fetish of the would-be ‘cultured,’ but as a means of expressing man’s noblest dreams, deepest thoughts and tenderest fancies.”
There are other reasons to include picture study in your lesson time, but I feel these four points comprise the main importance of having it be a part of your week. And now that we’ve covered why it’s important, in my next post I’ll offer a few suggestions as to how it can be done (simply!), as well as a look at how it was done in the PNEU schools.