It might be helpful to you to reread last week’s blog post before reading this post. It will bring back to mind what Eleanor Frost says more clearly as I discuss various points she makes.
Frost claims at the beginning that it is “exquisite beauty and thought” that she is after in introducing the children to this painting by Raphael. But before we talk about that overarching goal, let’s see some points about what she did during her lesson. There are many, many points that can be made here. I am only discussing a few.
La Madonna di San Sisto by Raphael
She begins to achieve her goal by using prediction: “First I drew from them some of the ideas we gather must have been in Raphael’s mind as he painted, and how we can recognise them. For instance–that the Mother and Child are coming from, and bringing Heaven with them, as shown by the glory of angel heads–that they come in haste, seen by the blown-back draperies and hair–why coming in haste?–for love of His people. These and similar points the children delight in discovering for themselves.” I take that what she means by “First I drew from them” is that she asked questions of them. She didn’t answer the questions, but she asked questions to help them sort through the painting. I suppose unless Raphael has written somewhere exactly what he intended, then anyone who looks at the painting has to sort it out for themselves. This, of course, doesn’t mean any interpretation can be applied, but it certainly leaves a lot open for discussion. This seems to be Frost’s intent–to create that discussion. What else does this discussion do?
As she is asking questions or drawing ideas from the children, she is building more background knowledge. She is establishing those informing ideas that continue to build up in Mason’s pedagogical approach. That is, children cannot learn everything there is to learn about art or a painting in one sitting taught in a didactic style lesson. As the years go by and one Picture Study lesson is added to another, it has an accumulative effect. We see this near the end. She says, “By a short comparison of the term’s pictures they found how far the general characteristics of the Madonna di San Sisto were noticeable in Raphael’s other works.” The children in this approach then follow the current research that says new learning is added to old learning or that we must have background knowledge (context) in order to understand a new idea. Frost has chosen a painting for Picture Study at this conference that is from an artist the children have studied in their PNEU curriculum. She didn’t just pull the painting from no where. There is an oddity here in her lesson description.
She says, “Then they looked at the picture with half-shut eyes to see the divisions and shapes of light and shade, the general balance of tones and the composition of the whole. . . .” I find this an interesting comment. I use this when I do picture studies but I don’t know what it does. Maybe someday a graduate student can do some research on this idea and understand what this part of the Picture Study practice or lesson accomplished in the minds of children. Or maybe an artist might suggest a reason. She follows this with another interesting comment.
She says, “ . . . then with open eyes to notice the wonderful serenity and the details of attitude and line.” Attitude–whose attitude here — the artist, the characters in the painting, the children’s or an overall attitude when looking at the painting with penetrating attention. I am assuming she means the attitude from the painting which seems to be one of serenity, calm in the mist of hurry on the part of the Madonna and Child. But on the part of the other characters in the painting, receptiveness, gentleness, restfulness and peace. The next step is the crucial one.
Frost then allows the children to see for themselves. We are now back to observation. She says, “The children should be allowed the greatest and most valuable part of such a lesson, namely, time for a silent contemplation of the picture, that its beauty might speak for itself.” At this point Frost is recognizing that there is no education but self-education–that which children get through their own observation and mental labour. The children must have this unhurried time to absorb the painting. Here are a few points. If your child or children are not used to doing this type of study with paintings, don’t expect perfection from them. Children grow in their ability to absorb ideas and thoughts from this type of learning. Don’t do a Picture Study “to your children” but “with your children.” You will all grow in understanding. Children, as Mason says, will automatically begin to compare one artist with another, thus, don’t feel a need to teach “periods” or “types” of artists. Over time the children will begin to notice these differences and point them out. This is a part of their learning process or self education. They need to develop the skills of comparison and contrast on their own again with proper scaffolding from the teacher. The point is don’t expect a child who has done four or five Picture Study lessons to be able to make greater connections that will require them to reach beyond those four or five Picture Study lessons. It takes years of building one artist on another.
The children participating in the lesson with Ms. Frost have obviously been adding one painting onto another through Picture Study for years. To be able to make the judgement “that he must have had a fervent love for holy things” is an inference and this is a skill required on most standardized tests today. But here you see it being developed naturally and without particularizing it so that it is isolated and meaningless. In other words, inference as a skill is dealt with here as though it is a natural part of living–not a compartmentalised skill. And thus, we can go back to the beginning and see Frost’s overarching goal.
She states this goal at the very beginning and it speaks to why we educate children. She says, “. . . the aim of the lesson was to lead the children to appreciate its exquisite beauty and thought.” Several points are important here. 1) The purpose of the lesson is not to pick the painting apart and look at particular pieces but to see the whole so that its beauty can be seen–it’s full intent and story. This painting is telling a story about the great mystery of God coming to earth, the incarnation. 2) The ideas expressed here are important for us to understand and to live by. Let’s take a few. First, the idea that God is coming to earth is huge. Why would God do that? I cannot answer this fully here. Theologians have written books and books about it. But this idea is crucial to not just our understanding of this picture, but our understanding of how to live life. For one, it sets the model of serving others. 3) Great art work whether it is music, paintings or other forms, present to us great ideas not just beauty as seen through Western eyes. One of the ideas in this painting is unselfish love toward others. How contrary to our modern self-oriented me society? And, her last paragraph is quite interesting.
But before that, let’s read what she says above the last paragraph. “There was one small detail which made the great charm of the lesson from a teacher’s point of view, and that was that some of the children put down their pictures after the ‘quiet time’ with a short sigh as though they had come some distance back to the present.” I will speak to this “they had come some distance back to the present” at a lecture for this year’s conference. The point I want to make here is that the children have absorbed the painting. They have connected with it and this ties to the last paragraph. This absorption of a painting and a curriculum of term after term of absorbing paintings has expanded that “large room.” These children’s feet have been planted in a large room. This planting of their feet in a large room has created more magnanimous persons. Frost says, “The children are given a great opportunity for good, for the greatness of soul in the painter calls to the possibilities in the soul of each child, in addition to which the development of the aesthetic sense must come as a great uplifting force.” This is the beauty of painting as well as thought. Children become bigger and better human beings because of their relationship with Raphael and the ideas of beauty and thought that he conveys to them through his painting. Their connection with Raphael has again brought them into the great conversation of the ages.
The question is not,–how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? (pp. 170-171)
Frost, E. M. (1915). Impressions of conference work with class II. Parents’ Review, 26, 567-594.
Mason, C. M. (1953). Home and school education. Oxford: The Scrivener Press.
© 2013 Carroll Smith