Art, Beauty
Comments 5

Self Education in the Art Museum By Amber Benton

I was a freshman in college the first time I ever set foot in an art museum.  My prior art knowledge was limited to posters – Van Gogh’s Starry Night and a couple of his self portraits, Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (though I did not know the name of the piece), and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  If I listed more than that it would be an exaggeration.

My husband, David, will never let me forget that first evening in Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Art.  He loves to tell about a guard coming up to us and asking me not to touch the paintings – my ignorance really did abound!  That evening I wandered room and hall until my mind was saturated.

At the end of my freshman year I left the college of engineering at UNCC and through a labyrinth of events and choices eventually settled into an Art Education major (which through an even more complex labyrinth I have yet to finish).  Since that very first evening I have sought out the art museum again and again, sometimes in my career as a student, but even afterwards on my own wherever I happened to live or visit.

What drew me to the museum?  I would love to say that I went to the museum to study the art

– because I was drawn to the ideas, because I was learning about the artists or art movements, or any such nobler reason.  Instead I went to the art museum for the experience.  I was drawn to the quiet where I could swim in color and beauty.  Mason says that knowledge is not sensation, but I spent years in the art museum before I was able to gain for myself anything other than a sensational knowledge.

…responding to Protagora’s, ‘knowledge is sensation’ Mason says, “Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived from sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful.

In looking back on those years before I embarked on the journey of homeschooling, and with it my own self education, I can now see that I had not found my way through the door of meaning.  Neither my art history education nor my formal art education (the study of the elements of art and composition) had been the key.  So what changed and how did I begin to crack open the door to understand the paintings I viewed at the museum even when at the same time I began spending less and less time there?  With the addition of each of my boys the number of times that I visit the art museum has diminished and the number of times I find myself alone in the art museum has exponentially diminished – at least for now!  Even so, my knowledge of art history and my experience in studying paintings has grown at least as exponentially in those exact same years – all because of my introduction to a lady named Charlotte Mason.

I began practicing picture study with my oldest, Jonathan, when he was about six years old – that was seven years ago.  We began very simply and I began just as simply with him and we have grown up in it together.  In those beginning years I didn’t use any of the formal art language that I knew although it has since become a very useful tool in our studies.  Together we learned as much as we could about the artist’s biography.  I made a point of helping him to understand the media of the piece and how it was painted, how big it was, when it was painted, etc.  The vast majority of our study time, however, was spent in story.  It was in the landscape of story that I began first to grasp meaning and I was able to connect thought to thought.  The composition of the paintings we studied was our plot.  Jonathan of course stayed at the level of plot for quite a while learning the habit of attention, learning to narrate what he saw, learning to hold a mental image in his mind.  I rapidly however moved into a deeper level of story – one that involved metaphor and symbolism.  Since I first arrived at meaning through the door of story I thought perhaps you might humor me by allowing me to ‘read’ to you a piece that I saw last year at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.  The painting is, Paris and Oenone by Pieter Lastman.

The small plaque accompanying the painting told me that Lastman was the tutor of Rembrandt and it reminded me that  it was Paris who carried off Helen of Troy thus he was the cause of the Trojan War.  I am no student of Homer but I did have a vague narrative of this story to work with.  I have since I returned home read more because the painting drew me into the story.  I knew that Paris was leaving his wife for another woman, and after viewing this painting it looked as if Oneone knew it, too.

Pieter Lastman

Dutch, 1583-1633

Paris and Oenone, 1610

Oil on panel

25-3/4 x 43-3/4 inches (65.4 x 111.1cm)1990.57

Purchase in honor of Thomas G. Cousins, President of the Board of Directors, 1987-1991, with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and  William Hoyt Venable.

Oneonne, who I now know was a nymph, is richly and modestly dressed.  Her feet are planted firmly beneath her with one foot twining around Paris’s legs as if to keep him from retreating.  His hand she has clasped and pressed to her breast.  She has put her face, lips, breath near to his in a desperate desire for him to kiss her.  Her love she holds behind his head – a wreath with which she tries to crown him.  Even so, Paris’s body and muscles reach away.  Clothed scantily in a skin reminiscent of the first covering of Adam’s nakedness, his feet barely touch the ground ready to be off to Helen and though he doesn’t know it to war.  His wreath of love he cast aside on the ground with his shepherd’s staff confirming his husbandly duties put aside.  Arm extended in desire, Paris’s heart was ripe for Helen before he set eyes upon her.  And he who won Helen even because of his consistent honesty and truthfulness (this was why he was chosen to judge who would be awarded the golden apple) set aside his honor and faithfulness for the hope of another man’s wife.

This is a meaning of this painting that is uniquely mine.  It is the fruit of my relationship with this story and my relationship and understanding of themes in all stories.  The more I can know of Lastman and Homer and the more I can delve into the realm of story the more layers of meaning I can make.  This is a great argument for making sure that both we and our students know our Bible stories, our myths and stories of history because depictions and references to them abound in the visual arts, literature and music.

I knew that my relationship with the art museum had changed on this most recent visit.  My time there was no longer just an experience – it was an education.  I did still have that same sensation of old – being carried down currents of color and form; but it was enriched because I now knew how to make meaning.  When I went to the High museum I went prepared – with a notepad and pen.  I chose just one wing of the museum and walked through the rooms and halls pausing to make note of a piece and jot down quick observations and thoughts.  I made my way back through those paintings again, choosing a handful of pieces to spend time with and ask questions of.

Knowing the story helped me to ask questions of the painting for which I could suppose answers.  The hard part is to know which are the right questions.  Children very naturally with little encouragement can make lists of what they see and tell the story of a painting, but children with a bit of practice at this kind of narrative study are ready to begin to dig for their own meaning.  They just need help in forming questions.  How and why questions can begin to move these students in through the door of story to get at the ideas and meaning in the painting.  It can move them toward an understanding of symbolism not just in art but in literature as well.

Some of the questions I asked of Lastman’s piece were:  Why is there a shepherd’s staff cast on the ground?  What could it mean?  What is a shepherd’s staff used for? There are two wreaths in this painting – what could they symbolize?  One of the first things I noticed was the difference in their body language – especially the placement of their feet.  How does that add to or subtract from the narrative of the story?  It was almost as if their feet were arguing, “Go!  No, stay!”  What are their emotions?  I also noticed they dressed very differently; this is something controlled by the artist.  What might Lastman have been trying to say about each of these characters through how they were dressed?  Each of these questions is based on observations that very young children will make – I have seen them do it.  As they become fluent in narration, we should begin to help them dig – ask how or why questions.  And we have to be brave enough not to answer the questions ourselves, letting students make their own meaning, build their own relationships, and begin their own self education.

© 2010 by Amber Benton


  1. Thanks for this, Amber. I enjoyed “hearing” how you personally go about engaging with art.

    “And we have to be brave enough not to answer the questions ourselves, letting students make their own meaning, build their own relationships, and begin their own self education.”

    That statement is true across the educational board and one of the biggest stumbling blocks for so many educators. I agree, it does take bravery.



  2. Nancy,

    There is much in picture study lessons that the educator can take as her lesson for the teaching of other subjects. It is a good place to practice your methodology! It is also a freshly tilled acre for the student to sow and reap a harvest of ideas.

    Thanks for your comment and encouragement.


  3. Thank you, Amber, for this encouraging article. The art museums of the world offer portals to other times and places and our little family has benefitted greatly from incorporating them into our lives. The girls know when we visit a new city, from Chicago to Paris, that an art museum will be one of the first places we explore.

  4. Bonnie Buckingham says

    Excellent visit and to know this painting. I may use it next year in Antiquity. It is so very good to see you on this blog!
    Visit museums wherever you go………is a good habit!

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