Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Myth: The point of composer study and picture study is to know about composers and artists as individual persons.

October 12, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

There is sometimes stress over composer biographies and artist biographies. What biography can I read with my children about these three artists and these three composers that we’re studying this year? How do I schedule it? What do I do?

How do you fit this all in?

Um. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say: You don’t.

At least, not in the sense that is usually implied.

Do you know the history of music appreciation — or what we now call “composer study” — in the PNEU? It happened very simply, and is explained in Philosophy of Education.

In short, one of the PNEU moms was playing music for her preschooler, and Miss Mason heard about it. Miss Mason realized that if she was giving the PNEU students the best of literature, poetry, and art — why not music as well? And so this mom began constructing the music programmes used by the PNEU.

Calling it “composer” study is a bit of a misnomer. The focus isn’t really on the composer, but rather a selection of his best works. And the original name “music appreciation” tells us more about the focus.

It is comes to “artist” study, we see the same thing. The real name is picture study. We see this in Philosophy of Education, where Miss Mason writes:

How do we prepare a child, again, to use the aesthetic sense with which he appears to come provided? His education should furnish him with whole galleries of mental pictures, pictures by great artists old and new; — Jozef Israels’ Pancake Woman, his Children by the Sea; Millet’s Feeding the Birds, First Steps, Angelus; Rembrandt’s Night Watch, The Supper at Emmaus; Velasquez’s Surrender of Breda, — in fact, every child should leave school with at least a couple of hundred pictures by great masters hanging permanently in the halls of his imagination, to say nothing of great buildings, sculpture, beauty of form and colour in things he sees.

So we see here more of the overall purpose: to prepare the child to use the aesthetic sense. This is so different from stressing out over biography choices and scheduling?

In Home Education, a picture study lesson declares one of its goals to be to increase the child’s interest in the artist. (This is something I want to explore more in November, the idea of cultivating affinities and what that really means for us when we teach.)

I’m not saying we can’t use a biography (we’ve read Hahn’s Leonardo Da Vinci and Stanley’s Michelangelo here as part of our history), but that we need to recover the original purpose.

The Why Behind Composer and Picture Study

I was reading in Ourselves a while back, and this passage jumped off the page at me:

There are busy cities in Mansoul; and these, also, are pleasant places; because though there are factories where men work and make all manner of things for home use or to be sent abroad, there are also fair and beautiful buildings, palaces of delight, where are gathered the treasures of Mansoul — galleries of precious and beautiful pictures painted by the great artists of all countries, statues of the heroes that are had in reverence there, halls with organs of noble tone which can roar like the thunder and babble like a child, and all manner of musical instruments. To these halls great musicians come and play wonderful things that they have made; the people of Mansoul listen, and great thoughts swell in them, and everyone feels as if he could get up and go and be a hero.

p. 2

This brings us all the way back to the ideal of classical education: developing virtue in the student. The virtuous man has a well-developed aesthetic sense and the things he brings into his city (so CM’s metaphor goes) are beautiful in such as way that they also build what is good and true in him.

In the younger years (meaning the under-10 crowd), picture study took ten minutes, once per week.

Ten minutes.

At the college and practicing school they called these Picture Talks. Miss Mason gives an example in Home Education. Here’s a synopsis of the steps:

  1. Ask the student what he remembers of the last picture-talk.
  2. Briefly tell a bit about the artist that is pertinent for understand the painting at hand. The example is Landseer, and the pertinent information is that he was well acquainted with animals when he was young, and that is why he was able to paint them so well as an adult.
  3. Give him his copy of the picture and let him examine it and find out all he can know about it. Encourage him to think of what the artist had in mind, or what he was trying to convey. This lasts 3 or 4 minutes.
  4. Take the picture away and find out what he has noticed. Questions are fine: did anything suggest the time of day? What might the different dogs suggest in terms of strength or personality?
  5. Now have him read the title of the painting. Have him tell anything he knows about it. In this instance, the painting was of Alexander and Diogenes, so what he remembers about that from his narrations in other lessons.
  6. Briefly draw the chief lines. This is not a duplication, but rather lines representing where major objects were in the portrait.

And that’s all.

Ten minutes.

Know what’s missing? Lots of talk about the artist. There no biographies being read over the course of weeks. There’s no eating up of the time in the schedule. Just ten minutes of developing the aesthetic sense.

I have found that a leading cause of stress for CM moms is that we forget what we’re trying to do. Revisiting our roots helps immensely.

So here’s what we’re trying to do:

  • Develop the aesthetic sense.
  • Increase the child’s desire to know more works by the same artists, or their love for great art in general.
  • To cause great thoughts to swell in them that they might
  • Believe themselves capable of great Good.

Here’s what we’re not trying to do:

  • Make the child into an art historian.
  • Cause the child to be able to rattle off a number of facts about the artist.
  • Cover lots and lots of information about the lives of the artists and composers.

When they are older — and by this I mean the upper school years (junior high and high school) — they will cover art as a subject. They’ll read a lot of art history, and details on architecture and sculpture and such. They’ll learn about the lives of some of the greatest artists and composers. But none of that is picture study or composer study.

In between — in fourth through sixth grades — their picture study will get a little more in depth. It’ll last longer, and they’ll learn a bit about composition and style. They’ll learn various musical terms. What’s a madrigal? What’s a symphony? And so on.

It’s still focused on the painting or the music and not the life of the artist, but it does get to be more.

Let’s stop the stress and focus on what matters. Let’s get out a great painting and really, truly look. Let’s listen for what it’s trying to tell us. Let’s get out some great music and really, truly listen.

Perhaps we’ll feel that we have the capacity to be heroes.

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