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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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How to Show Children Our National Gallery

by A. R. Evans.
Volume 11, no. 4, 1900, pgs. 216-227


". . . do not keep him too long in a gallery, do not take him to hear learned dissertations on the subject, but let him have art within the house as he has nature without, to become part of his every-day life."

"The object of education is not to produce prodigies in any branch of learning, but to raise the average of human intelligence and capacity for action towards what we recognize as the best in all the probable and possible events of life upon this globe as we know it."


It is a long time since we were told to "train up a child in the way he should go," and since the enunciation of that sage advice, much diversity of opinion has existed as to what way the child should go, and how he should be induced to walk in it. From the school-teaching planned according to their lights by the old Jesuits and the excellent Commenius, and the dissertation of John Locke on education, to the epoch-making doctrines of Rousseau and Froebel, many have desired to solve these problems.

Rousseau's somewhat wild appeal for nature in all and above all--which led to scarcely recommendable results as applied by himself in his own life--sounded a trumpet-call, a reveille, which awakened echoes through the civilized world, and still reverberates in our ears. Froebel applied the nature theory, systemizing what Rousseau had dimly recognized, reducing to method what is the instinctive practice of every naturally gifted teacher, whether a mother in the nursery, or a teacher by profession. This teaching instinct is to supplement the natural bent, to develop the natural desire for knowledge, making the path easier, whist keeping the manual and physical training upon a proper level with the purely mental.

Every child desires to learn; the degree of desire varies more or less with the individual. The infant is learning to interpret its sensations of sight and hearing and to act upon this interpretation, strictly speaking, from the moment it is born; and this acquisition of knowledge from continuous and repeated instinctive effort to apprehend the daily, hourly object lessons before him, is perceptible to the least observant parent from the time an infant is three months old and begins, as the nurses say, to take notice. The storing-up of these sense-impressions, and their conversion in the alembic [test tube where things are distilled] of the little mind into more or less vague or decided conceptions of men and things, proceeds as vigorously during early childhood as in later life; and the happiness of a child, and its wholesome mental and moral growth, depend much upon the simplicity and verity of our answers to the many questions put by him during this period.

With regular teaching, either at home or in school, begins a more complicated mental gymnastic than he has exercised independently, and then comes the methodical acquisition of and assimilation of other people's experiences in addition to his own.

The greatest merit of our modern school of thought on education is, that it recognizes more and more clearly that we cannot thrust too much of other people's experience upon children without endangering their powers of acquisition and assimilation--in other words, too much book-learning risks making them stupid or sickly, stunting their even development in one way or another.

Selections from the very excellent colour-prints published by our annuals may and do serve, by their presence, to brighten our nursery walls and develop our infants' sense of colour, but these are not enough; I must remind you that our standard of taste has its foundations laid in our childhood! Just as a sound literary taste or literary talent was never yet nourished upon a milk-and-water literature, so namby-pamby common-place commercial art is unable to implant an aesthetic taste, or foster that love of beauty in pure plastic forms which gives a new zest to life, a new meaning to the creation in afterlife, and opens up a universal field of enjoyment in the higher forms of art. Therefore, I say, give your children in nursery and school-room the best of art and of poetry, just as you give them the best bread you can afford; give them, not the eccentricities of the fashion of the day to look at, but the classic work that lives for all time.

The Society Art for Schools has done admirable work in providing good art for nursery and school-room, reproductions of good art at reasonable price. This will be known to most of you.

A lady, a very cultivated and charming person, once told me that much pleasure in art in her after-life was due to her having had constantly before her, as a child in her father's house, some good engravings from Raphael's cartoons. [These are rough skecthes/studies, not funnies]

Raphael's cartoons are large water-colour drawings, scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, they were made as designs for tapestry for the Pope's chapel in Rome; seven out of the original ten are the property of our Queen, and are to be seen at South Kensington Museum. Apart from their sacred subject, these designs are interesting as representing character and dramatic expression of all human emotion. They are grand-looking compositions, showing surprise, joy, awe, adoration, indignation, fear and love, with that dignity of aspect which we name divine.

You will protest that only unusually developed children will understand such pictures or care for them, especially when presented in the black-and-white of engraving. I will add that there are many grown-up people who will not understand such pictures apart from the subject, but if these grown-up people had been habituated as children to the sight of such grand works of art , their eyes would have been unconsciously educated into following certain forms and sequences of forms, the exquisite harmony of line and composition (or grouping), which is to the eye as music to the ear; the rich depths of shade, the delicate gradation of light in a good engraving, give a pleasure approximate to the pleasure of colour to an educated eye, and early association is an unconscious constant force in this education of the eye. The eye accustomed from youth upwards to drinking in these harmonies of line and of light, will instinctively turn from the discordant and vulgar in art, as the trained musical ear shrinks from false notes.

Note the sequence of line in the Raphael cartoon of "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," the line of the over-laden boats, rather too small for nature, but purposely made so by an artist's license in fitting his subject into the decorative limits of his space; how this line leads the eye to the shore and the distant city, a contrast to the lonely part of the lake in which the fishermen have cast their net. The herons are here to pick up the fish that escape from the laden boats and the meshes of the net, but Raphael has put them just where they are in order to fill up a space in the design , to avoid monotony, by thus breaking in upon and contrasting with the lower lines of the composition. The pleasing purely decorative effect of this incident is equal to anything we can find in the vaunted art of Japan. The figures stooping to the drag of the net might have been, in the hands of lesser artist, mere exercises in anatomy, but they are, however, realistically strained by their burden of the miraculous draught of fish, graceful and beautiful. Take the chief lines of the group apart from their human meaning, they form almost a symmetrical pattern, and it is this symmetry, repetition, variety, harmony, that gives pleasure to what is called the aesthetic sense, the sense of beauty in any art and in nature.

I analyse in part the composition of this one picture to show you what I mean by its purely aesthetic value, apart from its human subject and emotional significance, what a recent critic, Berenson, has dilated upon as the decorative and permanently interesting qualities, as distinguished from the merely illustrative. Throughout this composition there are sequences of flowing lines and ordered masses and spaces, beautifully varied, and yet harmonious as the perfect chords of a violin. It is this quality in a work of art which supplies an education to the eye, and raises the standard of taste by association in unconscious youth.

In a [black and white] photograph, the colour is only suggested by the light and shade; in these cartoons, the colour is pleasing, distinctly pleasing, but less pregnant with delight-giving qualities than their line; and for aesthetic perfection of colour, we must turn from the Florentine master to a Venetian, to Tiziano [Titian], who in his intense feeling for colour, surpasses Raphael, remaining little inferior to him in composition, at least in this instance. This is Tiziano's "Triumph of Bacchus," in our National Gallery. Here, besides the beauteous form of the god Dionysos-the Greek god of inspiration, of the drama and of wine--besides the living motion of the dancing procession, we have a wealth of rich colour, splendid harmonies of hue, deep blue, golden brown, tawny orange, the green depths of the woodland and the pearly hues of the half-nude sylvan folk, all balanced, put together, calculated with such masterly art, as to look spontaneous, fresh as nature itself. A pagan subject, in which the divine is represented by human beauty and vitality, action and exhilaration, instead of being shadowed forth in human dignity and love.

Put your child before this picture in the Gallery, and vaguely or clearly as may be, he will feel something of this beauty. You may, if you will, read fairy legend into its story of Ariadne on Naxos, and the departing ships of faithless Theseus, but if you do not care to tell him that, in a southern land far away, the cradle of our arts and sciences, more than two thousand years ago, there were simple shepherd folk who, in the dark forests and sunny glades, fancied they saw the god of their fruitful vines, the god of epic song (the songs of heroes sung at their feasts), the divine Bacchus with his merry crew peeping between the branches, and how he once, beautiful as the morning sun, leapt from his heavenly chariot to console a princess forsaken by her lover--if you do not tell him all this in words suited to his comprehension, he will see for himself the leopards drawing the car, the wild man charming serpents (fearsome art), and the baby Satyr in the foreground with the jasmine in his hair, dragging the head of a buck with as merry an air, as childish a grace, as any child to-day may drag his toy horse or cart in mimic procession; and there before him barks a spaniel, a touch of nature that often escapes eyes satiated with the colour beauty of this treasure of art. Such points as these you may point out to the child too unobservant to discern them for himself.

In the same gallery with Tiziano's "Bacchus," there is an heroic work of Paolo Calieari, called "Il Veronese," Alexander the Great receiving the family of the defeated king of Persia, a grand painting [the title is The Family of Darius before Alexander, by Caliari]. In showing that you can tell the story of Alexander's generosity towards the family of his fallen foe, and the details of the picture, that of a magnificent court, and the skill of its painting, can be pointed out. Opposite is the same painter's "Vision of the Empress Helena." [The Vision of St. Helena by Paolo Veronese] The sleeping empress--the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor--and a British princess. She dreamed of the cross--see, the angels and cross of her vision are above, and the grand figure of the royal saint is one to remember; the stately and beautiful form reclines in deep sleep. She made a pilgrimage to Palestine, and it is said there she found the very cross of wood on which the Christ had been crucified nearly 300 years before, and brought part of it to Rome as a precious relic.

Our National Gallery of paintings is a great national possession, and our children should have a share in it, Perhaps some of you do not take your own share, but those that do would gladly share it with their children. Why not give them a larger field of aesthetic pleasure in later life, by giving them early association with man's imitation of nature as well as with nature itself? In man's creation, art, transient beauties of light and colour, fixed and eternal beauties of line and contour, are displayed for his every-increasing delight. The power of association of ideas in governing trend of mind, and thus, ultimately, conduct, has been sufficiently demonstrated by modern psychologists. The child who without conscious effort has been familiarized for years with the sight of great works of art--buildings, sculptures, paintings, engravings, even if only in photographic or other reproductions, will, in after years, understand them, will discriminate between good and evil, high and low; will turn from the mean and trivial in art, as he who has been accustomed to see only good and noble lives about him will turn from the unclean and vicious in human nature. He will possess a heritage of pure pleasure in understanding great ideas expressed in beautiful forms in art, from the art of a grand Christian cathedral to that of a Greek statue or medieval painting or a Renascence decoration.

Surround a child with these things, but do not thrust them upon him--we must be careful that he is not bored by what should be a pleasure; do not keep him too long in a gallery, do not take him to hear learned dissertations on the subject, but let him have art within the house as he has nature without, to become part of his every-day life. This culture, which was formerly the privilege of the few rich, is now, thanks to such institutions as the Art for Schools Society, and the growing cheapness of excellent methods of reproduction, within the reach of all.

When you take your child to the National Gallery, at whatever age, I should not advise you to pause before some of the old church pictures, although in many you may find exquisite points of beauty in colour and sentiment; for instance, the curious altar-piece of the 13th century in the vestibule, by Margharitone of Arezzo. Its aesthetic value is infinitesimal, and although I would gladly undertake to give you a larger interest in it as an historical and theological document, it is nothing for young children or very young people, who ridicule what they cannot understand, and I hold that whatever has been a sacred symbol for somebody should be ridiculed by nobody. Nor should I show the child an attempt at representing the Nativity ascribed to Orcagna, for its sacred association on the one hand, or mere pleasure in its decorative qualities and its colour on the other, would not suffice for its manifestly inadequate drawing. Twenty years hence he may understand the good reason why the nation should expend its economies upon such specimens of primitive art, but not now.

Now it were well to show him such pictures as are well within his comprehension--[Edwin] Landseer's Dogs, [David] Wilkie's "Blind Fiddler," and [George] Morland's Stable-boys; but let him also have the work of greater artists than these. Children are realists, and demand that pictures shall look real; they are idealists, and ready to pretend and live in imagination. Here is reality for him in [Giovanni] Moroni's "Tailor," stopping to answer a gossiping customer before he sets his scissors in the cloth. Look at his curious dress; they wore such a dress in England 350 years, just as they did in Italy, where this was painted. This is a real man, and one must learn to paint rather well, and take some pains about it, before one can make a man to look as real as that. There is no straining at a moral to show a child that work well done has a fine result. This is the Doge of Venice [Leonardo Loredan] in 1504, painted by [Giovanni] Bellini. We may say, moreover, that 350 years ago in England there was no painter who knew how to work in paint so well as this. Then Italy was the richest and most civilized country in Europe, and supreme in manufactures, as we are now, and supreme in art, as we are not quite. Here is a curious picture which our little lovers of reality may find some pleasure in; the house of the Virgin Mary, [Annunciation] painted by another old Venetian, [Carlo] Crivelli, who enjoyed all this precise drawing and dainty colour, and went on with careful delight in his work so real and absorbing that he put in all he could, adding here some flowers, there a bird in a cage, a carpet, a peacock, a little tree growing in a big jug. Look what a handsome house it is, all carved with patterns for fruit and flowers, and, within, it is fine and well-filled; a handsome bed shows through the open door, and on the shelf behind, the artist has put everything he can think of, a candle, a box, some plates, a water bottle. See the flower pots in the windows, and the lower windows with iron bars to prevent thieves getting in, as made in Italy to this day. Outside the house there are two persons that need explanation: the angel Gabriel is come to bring a message to the little Virgin, who is saying her prayers inside the house, and beside the angel is a saint, S. Egidio, and good bishop who was thought to look down from heaven specially to guard the city of Ascoli, where the painter was born, and he carries a model of the city in his hand to show that he is always taking care of it. From the opposite house, men are about to descend the steps, and a little girl, in a funny little cap, looks round the corner; perhaps she sees the ray of light that comes from heaven on to the Virgin's head--a sign, a symbol of divine favour and blessing. Then look at the pigeons--there are still pigeons in Venice--and far up the street, see the people walking, and a balcony where men are busy talking; they, too, have a Persian rug to lean their elbows upon, for there is nothing amuses them better in Italy, then as now, than lounging there and watching their neighbours come and go; they also have a bird-cage, and a tiny tree in a pot on their balcony, as many Venetian people have now. Under the arch, still further away, there is a garden and trees looking over a wall, just as one sees them often in Italian towns. The man who made this picture, imagined his native Ascoli on a holiday, and houses such as he would build, had he the money, not here and there, but in every street. But we may be sure he did not lose much time in lounging or gossip; he must have seen quickly, and worked hard to paint what he saw, for he painted very many pictures, all of them as dainty and pretty and simply pious in thought as this. There are eight of his works in our National Gallery, some very curious and stiff, but all have in them some beauty of fruit or flower or bird or stuffs very well painted, all of them have an admirable sincerity of feeling.

Here is another picture a child will remember, and at some time find a pleasure in. A group of saints, conversing in Paradise, in a garden such as you may see in the neighbourhood of Florence, with cypress against the blue sky, and a carved marble bench hot in the sun, set on a carpet of green herbs and flowers. Old Fra Lippo [Filippo Lippi's Seven Saints], the Monk of Florence, when asked to make a half-moon shaped decoration of the top of a chapel door, thought of this, and it is painted in such soft beautiful colour, and the faces of the Saints are all so gentle, kind and good, that we can feel a vivid pleasure in it now, and remember it always. Each of the saints bears a sign, that we may know who he is. St. Lawrence has his gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom; St. Peter Martyr, the chopper in his head; St. John the Baptist, his staff and banner; St. Antony, his crutch-stick; St. Francis, his wounded hands; St. Cosmo and St. Damiani, boxes of ointment, with which they had healed the sufferers in the plague; and these symbols are instead of names, for, when this picture was made, very few people could read, and such pictures were intended to remind everyone who gazed upon them of the stories of the lives of these good men, who had once lived in the world as bright examples of kindness, purity and self-sacrifice.

Another day, you can pause before that piece of glorious colour--and tender religious sentiment--[Pietro] Perugino's altarpiece. There are stories to be told of it. There is the great Archangel Michael, a warrior youth in shining armour with sword and shield, and beside him the scales of justice hanging on the tree. For they say it is Michael who weighs the good and evil deeds and thoughts we have had in our lives, when we meet in the next life, and we have to find our places accordingly. [Polytych of Certosa do Pavia; if you look closely, you can see a tiny twig of a tree with two scales hanging from it beside St. Michael.]

Then, on the other wing of what is called a triptych or three-fold picture, is the young Tobias, a symbol of faith and trust in his friend and divine guide, the Angel Raphael, and his quaint story is written in the Apocryphal Scriptures.

Art is inspired in the highest degree only by the deepest feelings of humanity, and we therefore find the most refined and elevated beauty only in the artistic expression of religious ideas, the highest beliefs of various peoples at various periods of time. Some of these, as expressed in the ancient religions, are too recondite, too metaphysical to present to children, we get the crystallizations of such ideas in the myths--beautiful fungus-growths upon truth. You may relate the fairy stories of Greece, the heroic stories of Rome, the pious legends of saints, and the thoughts buried in these are found in pictures, in their naïve simplicity, or in their worldly corruption through the medium of coarser human minds, but in these last interpretations, the hands are inferior, as are the minds, and the actual pictorial value is less, the aesthetic impression is less, the insincerity of the mind creating shows in the thing created, and its beauty is less or marred irredeemably.

For those who choose to seek the religious ideas of Christianity, here is a Venetian painter's sincere and reverent representation of the Christ crowned with thorns, by Cima Da Conegliano. The crown of thorns and drops of blood are symbols of the welt-schmerzen [heartbreak from thinking about the pain in the world], that wrings the soul of such a one, a symbol that the lower nature must suffer in evolving the higher; the painter has conceived the utmost beauty of colour in this. The story of the childhood and human relations of Jesus are more suitable than this picture of pain, but choose this to look at rather than less refined, less adequate representations of the same subject.

Take several children brought up in the midst of fine scenery, or in any English country-side, one will note the line of hills, the dappled sunshine the passing clouds and the minute beauties of the hedgerow, another lives amid such and sees them not; again, seeing little, one will have unconsciously noted more, and, in after life, will remember with pleasure the beauty of nature, or, moving to another place, an impulse of comparison will awaken observation and the sentiment will be found ready, and the child will enjoy in nature what he had not seen before. Beautiful landscape art supplies the stimulus, and from seeing beauty in man's transcription of nature we learn to look at nature herself; man's art may lead us up to God's art, as Browning calls it.

Take Constable's "Valley of the Stour," the absolute reality of presentation, the living beauty of the scene, must strike a child, not as being remarkable--he expects reality in a picture, but the beauty of the landscape is selected and emphasized by its passage through the artist's mind, by contact with the artist's enthusiasm and love of nature, and for the moment we are infected by his enthusiasm, we feel with his sentiment, see with his eye. If this be too subtle to touch the child to consciousness, you may assist by pointing out some of the beauties of the picture, and be better understood than if in open air you pointed out to childish eyes the beauty of a landscape. The reflections in the water, the distant light under a grove of trees, the leisurely march of the horse, the weeds in the foreground, the wasting of clouds in the brilliant spring sky--these are seen with the artist's eyes. [This could be The Hay Wain, which is at the National Gallery in London and has had a name change.] From Turner's "Frosty Morning," they may turn to his fairy dreams of mountain and valley, and later in life they may find perennial pleasure in his faithful transcripts from nature in his "Liber Studiorum" [a collection of seventy studies by Turner].

The object of education is not to produce prodigies in any branch of learning, but to raise the average of human intelligence and capacity for action towards what we recognize as the best in all the probable and possible events of life upon this globe as we know it.

To this end, anything that raises the standard of refinement is for the public good; anything that fosters observation and discrimination in the mind is useful and to the public benefit. Further, because a love of elevating pleasures makes degrading ones impossible, there is a relative moral value in the cultivation of aesthetics--aesthetics of moral and intellectual facts as well as physical ones.

We have much beautiful art which is purely decorative, affording only pleasure to the eye and some furtherance of powers that lead to improvement in mechanical industries, but all the greatest art is great in all ways, expressing great thoughts in beautiful form and colour, which, stimulating the emotions, make the mind more open to the thoughts that are communicated.

Such moral and intellectual stimulus is supplied by the work of all the greatest artists--Leonardo, M. Angelo, Raphael, Turner, Reynolds, Burne-Jones, Rossetti--each in his degree.

Familiarity with the outward beauty will incline a child later to enquire into the deeper meanings of that which his eyes have learned to grasp, and consequently to understand and love.

That this early association with great work should be accompanied by instruction in drawing, I need not say; every educationalist recognizes now the value of some practice in the mechanical part of formative art, not because more than one in a thousand can become an artist, but because ever so little of such training as brush-painting or drawing from the round and modelling in clay, educates the eye and hand for almost any occupation in after life.

High art will not be wasted upon your children. You and they will gather in afterlife the fruits of early association with the best; without learning the jargon of fashionable talk about art--the talk of little people who ape understanding instead of seeking it--they will feel the eternal delight in things of beauty, in thought--spiritual, moral, intellectual--expressed through perfect form and colour, and appealing through the channel of our senses to the real man, to the higher self within us. This must make for a better life. This is the higher use of art, which is the spiritual expressed through the physical in varying degree. Moral, spiritual perfection dimly seen by man, and expressed in form and colour, as his individual power limits such expression of the divine.


Proofread June 2011, LNL