Art History and Young Children: A Perfect Match
Saccardi, Marianne, School Arts
"The poor cat!" piped a seven-year-old sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of me.
"Why couldn't Ben go out and buy a brush?" asked a practical girl behind him.
The children were reacting to a story I had just told them about Benjamin West's making paintbrushes out of the hair on his cat's tail. For the past three years, I have been exploring Art History with groups of first, second and third graders. Together we have gathered in ritual dance and song before our cave paintings of animals in preparation for the hunt. We have been employed as scribes in the palace of an Egyptian pharaoh. We have gone to market with Donatello and helped him fill his apron with fresh vegetables to bring to his friend, Brunelleschi, for dinner. We have helped Leonardo work on an invention which would revolutionize life for millions of people. We have watched the young, fiery-tempered Michelangelo break the nose of a fellow sculpture student. We have carefully guarded Toulouse-Lautrec's secret and never told anyone he kept his liquor hidden in a hollow cane. We have labored with Georgia O'Keeffe as she tried to stretch the enormous canvas for her Clouds.
What do these activities and stories have to do with the study of art? Shouldn't the children be studying an artist's works, style, use of color, choice of subject matter? Of course! But interest in an artist's work is born from an interest in the artist as a person. Over the years, I've discovered that there is no better way to hold young children's attention than by telling a good story. And so each week, I spend long hours in the library digging up interesting tidbits about the artist we will be studying. What was life like during the time in which the artist lived? What was family life like? Was childhood happy or unhappy? Did the artist's parents approve when the decision was announced to become an artist? Did the artist marry and have children? Was it popular or unpopular to be an artist? Sometimes I act out a scene in the artist's life with great drama. Often my students join in the acting. The artist comes to life in our midst, and before long, the children are begging for more.
We launch into a discussion of the artist's work by viewing reproductions, slides or videos.
Each session ends with children's involvement in an art project which imitates the artist's style or subject matter. We might paint Native Americans as George Catlin did; or try our hand at cutouts a la Henri Matisse. Over the years, we've designed aqueducts (Roman); molded statues out of clay (Michelangelo); done etchings (Rembrandt); made posters for our annual May Day celebration (Toulouse-Lautrec); painted watercolors (Winslow Homer); and astounded the art world with our oversized paintings of flowers (Georgia O'Keeffe). …