The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Art for Children.
By T.G. Rooper
[Thomas Godolphin Rooper, 1847-1903, was an inspector of schools and personal friend of Charlotte Mason; much of his writing was for her P.N.E.U. meetings. His essay "Lyonesse" describes his time as a student at the Harrow boarding school. After he died (of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 56), Mason wrote a chapter in his honor which appears in her book, "Formation of Character," vol 5 of her series. He never married.]
In 1883 a society was founded in London mainly through the efforts of Miss Christie, named the Art for Schools Association. The executive committee describe their efforts their objects to be
(1). To negotiate with Art Publishers for the purchase of Engravings, Photographs, Etchings, Chromo-lithographs, &c., on advantageous terms, and to supply them at reduced prices to Schools.
(2). To reproduce Works of Art especially suitable for Schools, and to publish the same at the lowest prices possible.
(3). To lend, and occasionally give, groups of framed Engravings, Photographs, Etchings, &c., to poor Schools.
(4). To assist in, or otherwise promote, Oral instruction, such as many explain the Works of Art in our National Collections, and those supplied to Schools by the help of the Association.
Among those who patronized the Society from the commencement were Sir F. Leighton, Mr. W. Morris, Mr. Robert Browning, Mr. Matthew Arnold, Bishop Temple, and Mr. Mundella. Many schools in London, both Voluntary and Board, lost no time in availing themselves of the advantages of the Association, and before long branches were started in other towns, so that its pictures are now hanging on the walls of many class-rooms in Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, and elsewhere.
If, we are told, it is worth while to adorn a school-room at all, the right decoration next to Maps and Diagrams, is surely a supplement to a Christmas number of an illustrated paper, or at least nothing more imaginative than one of Landseer's Dogs or Stags or Squirrels. Only a vagary of enthusiasm can suppose that children will profit by Millet's "Angelus," Burne Jones's "Golden Stairs," or "Singing Boys," by Luca Della Robia. Yet theory and practice alike prove that this judgment, which perhaps commends itself to nineteen people out of twenty who have not thought about the matter, and is therefore rightly called common sense, is very far from corresponding with the facts. In confirmation of the theoretical side of the question it is enough to cite the classical passage which expresses the whole philosophy of the matter in a few words. "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. A love for the study of beautiful things is gained by a slow process; it cannot be dinned into the mind like the multiplication table, it was never imparted by the rapid method of acquiring knowledge which is known as "cramming." It is
Like the heaven's glorious sun,
Who doubts that children ought to be fold of the deeds of good and great men who lived before them where they live now, and loved the land and sacrificed for it all that they had, even to their lives? It is equally incumbent on parents to subject the growing child to the influence of beautiful works of art, for moral beauty is not in its roots different from, but essentially one with, the beauty which we learn to recognize in the handwork of the artist. Let a child learn to discover the beauties of a good picture, and he is helped thereby to recognize the beauty of right conduct, and what is more -- the ugliness of the opposite.
Some critics who approve these principles nevertheless are skeptical as to the children's power of appreciation. Do the little ones, as a matter of fact, care for Raphael's Sistine Madonna? The appeal to experience is likely to yield varied replies. Parents and others in charge of children differ widely in their own powers of observation, and there are many people who live constantly with children, and yet acquire only a slight knowledge of the contents of a child's mind. What has no interest for themselves people think cannot interest their child, and accordingly they overlook what they are not expecting to find. A good illustration of a child's power of understanding a work of art may be read in the memoirs of Sir F. H. Doyle. A little three-year-old child accompanied her parents to see the statue of the Dying Gladiator. To their surprise she presently put out her small hand and stroked the cold marble, saying, "Poor, poor man," with tone and gesture as expressive in their way as the famous verse of Lord Byron. Sir Francis draws the unavoidable inference that it is possible for a child of the tenderest years to grasp the spirit and purpose of a great artist as sympathetically as older persons.
The Association has so far provided pictures for Elementary and Higher Schools, but it is desirable that the advantages which it offers should be extended to nurseries and private schoolrooms. Could not Miss Christie arrange with the editor of the Parents' Review and with the branches of the Parents' Union to distribute the Association's pictures by means of some system of coupons?
The members of this Association have already heard two lectures, the first expounding the principles which underlie all pictorial art, and the second tracing the history of art from early times, and therefore I have thought that the best thing I could do would be to dwell upon some particular picture in our collection, and offer such an explanation of it as might be given to older children in a conversational way. Leaving to others the study of the technical skill displayed by the artist, and of the position of the painter in the closely connected schools of European Art, I will direct attention to the subject which has been chosen, and to the thoughts which the present treatment of it may suggest. The picture which I have brought with me is one by Briton Riviere, called "Circe." Have you ever gone to see the pigs fed? Accompany me and you shall witness a scene of the most intense and absorbing gluttony which is not to be surpassed in its kind amid all the wonders of creation. As we approach the sty bearing a heavy bucket of bran and meal stirred up into a thick creamy mixture, we hear inside pushing, struggling, squealing, grunting, shrieks of excited greedy anticipation mixed with squeals of disappointment, as some porker gets shoved away by an old sow from a place near the trough which is to receive the cause of all this babel of sounds. Now we pour out the luscious nutriment. Wonderful result! In a moment the din stops. Not a sound is heard but of a furious supping, interrupted by an occasional subdued and comfortable grunt of utter enjoyment and satisfaction. If we now study the picture we shall see that the pigs are painted as at the moment they expect to be fed. See them crowding up, pushing each other over, uplifting their ugly heads, stretching their throats, which in the absence of a neck delude you into the popular error that pigs "cut their throats when they swim," look at their flexible coarsely-shaped snouts, their huge wrinkled brawny faces with small greedy eyes, and ask yourselves whether the artist has not studied nature to good purpose, in depicting the scene of animal selfishness which I have just described.
Let us now turn from this delineation of true beast life, to contemplate the fair form of the woman who sits and surveys it. What a contrast! What grace, refinement, and beauty are here! Observe the long fall of hair, gathered above the neck in a single circlet of gold, the graceful curve of the seated figure, her hands clasping her knees, and her head tilted backwards with strange but well-marked expression of countenance, and the exquisite poise and balance of the posture. At first sight the juxtaposition of so much loveliness and so much deformity is almost painful. An artist may well paint fair ladies on an errand of mercy in some foul den in a great city, but in such a design as this, we seem at first to be reminded of the inhuman satire of Swift.
To understand the picture we must go back to the beginnings* of history, for the conception of it is no new fancy struck out by some imaginative mind of the present day, but is based on a story between two and three thousand years old at least, a story so fascinating that men have gone on repeating it from generation to generation. Let us read this story as we know it first in the works of the oldest and greatest of European poets, Homer.
* Note: Professor Sayce's "Circe" should be studied after and not before a perusal of the poetry connected with her name. Every one will then want to know the origin of the Round Goddess of Moon Island.
In the tenth book of Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses and his comrades, on their way back from the Trojan war to Ithaca, land on an unknown island. A party is sent to explore it, and they reach a palace situated in a shady dale, inside of which they hear the voice of a woman plying her loom and singing as she weaves. The rest of the story is thus translated by Pope --
What voice celestial, chanting to the loom
The tale goes on to show how the crafty Ulysses, by the aid of a mystic herb called moly, overcame Circe's magic, rescued his companions, and reconverted them from swine into men. Turning once more to the picture we can see how faithfully the artist has rendered pictorially the charming story of the Odyssey. There is the beautiful enchantress surveying her victims with corn, while they look up to her with rapture and feed on the pigs' food in which they gloat. There is, however, something further conveyed to us in this picture, which I must now endeavor to bring out. Homer's tale, you will observe, contains no moral. It is like a fairy story told to a child, a tale of wonder unburthened (sic) with any serious thoughts. We pity from our hearts with poor wanderers in the midst of their undeserved troubles, and we rejoice with genuine sympathy when they are delivered from their misfortune. The story, however, obviously lends itself to a moral treatment, and it is not surprising that Plato, Plutarch, and many others should have made an allegory out of it. This is what our great poet Spenser has done in his Faery Queen, and we will next read the story as it appears in the second book of that poem. Here we read in the form of an allegory the character of a Christian gentleman as it was conceived by the moralist in the reign of Elizabeth. Sir Guyon, the hero, has overcome all the vices which in this poem are more or less personified. Among his adventures he comes to the abode of an enchantress called Acrasia, the Goddess of Intemperance. Aided by a palmer, Guyon dismantles the palace of this goddess and takes her prisoner; he finds that she is guarded by all sorts of beasts who try to rescue their mistress.
The knight asks the holy man to explain who these beasts might be. The rest of the story is thus given --
Said he, these seeming beasts are men indeed
Straightaway he with his virtuous staffe them strooke,
Said Guyon: See the mind of beastly man
What a difference between this conception and the earlier one in the Odyssey! It is easy to see that some two thousand years have elapsed. In Homer there was no conscious moral; in Spenser every verse has its moral. The men subdued by Acrasia are not the unfortunate subjects of a misadventure, but have themselves to thank for their condition, because they have been transformed into beasts by their intemperate lives. Again, their rescue is not effected by a stroke of good luck, through the virtues of the mystic moly, but by the wand of the palmer -- that is, by the warnings of religion. The last touch ending--
Let Grill be Grill and have his hoggish mind
is perhaps the furthest removed from Homeric ideas, because the hog grieves to find himself elevated to the rank of a human being again. The comment of the palmer, however, is cynical rather than Christian in spirit, because it exhibits a tolerance of evil rather than a determination to rescue the victim in spite of himself.
Another of our great poets has caught up the same story and varied it after his own noble fancy, still adapting it to a moral purpose. Comus, according to Milton, is son or Circe and, like his mother, delights to tempt belated travelers into his abode in "an ominous wood" in Wales.
And in thick shelter of black shades embowered
In this description, clearly based on Homer's tale and subsequent allegories, we can see one or two further refinements of thought. The men are not turned bodily into beasts; it is their face which is transformed. Fancy is here in harmony with sad fact. Next the men are doubly deceived; being degraded into beasts they know it not but still think they are fairer than before. We have got very far away from Homer's conception now, but Milton has remoulded the ancient tale into fancies not less beautiful although they carry a more serious meaning to the thoughtful reader. Having seen the various modifications which have been made by poets in writing of the tale of Circe, we can now understand the further import of this picture which I undertook to make clear. It is an expression of this fact -- that sensuality is not only sin, but a contemptible mistake. In studying a great picture it is a real pleasure to commit to memory those passages in the poets which explain the painter's design.
Typed by Kristina, Sept 2015
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