The Story of Art

This Vermeer just makes me happy.

At my brother-in-law’s Fourth of July party I was chatting about homeschooling with another mother who has been toying with the idea. I told her about some of the things we’ve been doing. When I mentioned getting a membership to the MFA, she had the same kind of incredulous reaction I always get when I tell people about going to art museums with the kids. How can small children enjoy the art? All the kids they know would be bored. Well, it’s really simple. I started out with the goal of helping my children to enjoy art by introducing them to some great artists, one at a time. They first look at great art here at home and get to know both the works and the people who made them. Then when we go to the museum they are visiting friends.

And I find that because they know how to look at some art, they have learned how to make new friends. They are able to find interesting things to say about pictures they’ve never seen before by artists they don’t know. When we were flipping through an art book the other night, Ben looked at a portrait and said that the man looks sad and it’s because he doesn’t have anyone to live with. No wife or children.

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So in a recent conversation about history books, bearing mentioned that I would probably enjoy The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. I checked it out from the library to see what it was like. And oh yeah, I’m adding it to my wish list. The selection of pictures is just lovely. And though I’ve only read the first few paragraphs, they were enough to win me over. I just love his voice and his point of view. So down to earth and chatty and unpretentious.

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not ‘Art’. And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

Actually I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture. Someone may like a landscape painting because it reminds him of home, or a portrait because it reminds him of a friend. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be reminded of a hundred-and-one things which influence our likes and dislikes. As long as these memories help us to enjoy what we see, we need not worry. It is only when some irrelevant memory makes us prejudiced, when we instinctively turn away from a magnificent picture of an alpine scene because we dislike climbing, that we should search our mind for the reason for the aversion which spoils a pleasure we might otherwise have had. There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art.

Most people like to see in pictures what they would also like to see in reality. This is also quite a natural preference. We all like beauty in nature, and are grateful to the artists who have preserved it for us in their works. Nor would these artists themselves have rebuffed us for our taste. When the great Flemish painter Rubens made a drawing of his little boy, figure 1, he was surely proud of his good looks. He wanted us, too, to admire the child. But this bias for the pretty and engaging subject is apt to become a stumbling-block if it leads us to reject works which represent a less appealing subject. The great German painter Albrecht Durer certainly drew his mother, figure 2, with as much devotion and love as Rubens felt for his chubby child. His truthful study of careworn old age may give us a shock which makes us turn away from it—and yet, if we fight against our first repugnance we may be richly rewarded, for Durer’s drawing in its tremendous sincerity is a great work. In fact, we shall soon discover that the beauty of a picture does not really lie in the beauty of its subject matter.

I could go on and on, quoting the whole introduction. It’s all quite delightful.

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Today Sophie found one of the art postcard matching games. The matching part took her no time at all, but as she looked at them I asked her questions about the pictures. What a delight it is. Later Anthony was very happily taking the cards out, matching them together, then putting them back in to their little folder. Over and over again. This game was totally made for restless little two year old boys. I need to make up some more card sets. I have a whole shoebox full of card and just need to organize them.

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Kids, art. It’s really not that hard. Sure, I took several semesters of art history in college, but you don’t have to be an expert or to know anything at all. Just look at the picture. Describe what you see. What do you like? What do you dislike? Tell a story about it. Imagine what is beyond the frame of the picture. Find out about the artist. Enjoy the colors and the forms. Find what you like and what you don’t. Be honest. Ask lots of questions. Listen to the answers. Don’t rush it. Don’t force it. Let yourself experience the art with childlike awe and wonder. There are no right and wrong answers. No quizzes or tests. Just beauty.

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  • Oh my, that is so sad.  I am glad the girls didn’t notice her dismissive attitude and were able to enjoy the talk.  I visited Egypt as part of a pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt back in Nov 2005.  While in Egypt we visited Mt. Sinai and travelled on camels in the middle of the night (well we had to be at the starting point at 2am) for the 4 hour trip up the mountain to watch the sunrise.  And then we walked down – which only took about 2 hours.  Amazing.  We also visited St. Catherine’s Monastery where the Burnish Bush is located.  Then we travelled to Cairo and surrounding areas – including the Valley of the Kings and saw the Great Sphinx of Giza.  Overall, it was very nice, but at the same time I am not sure if I would go back to Egypt…it definitely had a different vibe security wise than Israel where I felt very safe and would have no qualms about visiting.  Granted, things have changed with the Arab Spring, but I would still be leery. 

    Anyway, all this to say I have some various mementos of my time in Egypt.  I will go through them sometime soon and see if there are some things that the kids would like.

  • +JMJ+

    Oh, man! It’s a good thing the girls didn’t notice. =(

    I like your tip about asking children what they already know instead of assuming you know it from their age or their grade.

  • Marie,

    That is so sweet! How kind of you to think of them.

    Egypt has never really been high on my list of places to visit, even though when I was younger I was addicted to Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries set in Egypt. But the more I learn with Bella, the more interesting it does sound.


    I really did want to provide useful feedback and not just criticism. To give her suggestions for how she might usefully approach a younger audience in a way that wasn’t dismissive.

    Though I didn’t think the girls noticed, I did say something, gently, when we got home. I said I didn’t like the way she assumed young children weren’t interested and the way she was too busy to talk to Bella. I did want Bella and Sophie to know that I didn’t think they were too young and that there was something wrong with the way she acted. If they did feel some discomfort that they didn’t vocalize, I didn’t want them to think they were wrong and she was right just because she was an adult.

  • Melanie, if it were me, I would let the head librarian know of my disappointment in how this was presented and the speaker’s somewhat condescending attitude.  I’m a firm believer in speaking up when something bothers me—you can also do it via email.  Constructive feedback can be quite valuable.

  • Mary, I want to. I’m trying to figure out how to do it diplomatically. The problem is the head librarian was the one the speaker was talking to at the end when she was ignoring us. So how to keep it from sounding like a criticism of the librarian as well? I really like our librarians and have a great relationship with them. I don’t want to discourage them from bringing in speakers, but I would like to give them constructive feedback.

  • +JMJ+

    Maybe you could mention everything here except the last part involving the head librarian? That was definitely the cherry on top of the sundae, but I think the rest of the story can make the point without it.

  • Eileen, I’m not sure that’s a feasible day trip with little ones. Eight hours in the car plus several hours in the museum would be a long day even for me. Maybe with older kids, but not toddlers and preschoolers.

  • Unrelated, but you really need to take your kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  I don’t know if it’s still the case, but admission at one time was a suggested donation.  Still, parking and tolls will take a huge budget bite, but a daytrip is doable, particularly if you can take your husband with you.