Pretty Pictures for Moral Reform?

The rise of picture study in America.
Picture study, the use of printed reproductions of artwork to engage and instruct art students flooded the art curriculum of the early twentieth century. During the late nineteenth century, reproducing works of art using “photo mechanically produced halftone reproductions” (Stankiewicz, 1985, p. 86) became possible and art educators considered this technology a valuable resource for providing their students with learning materials. The style used in picture study was very distinct. According to Stankiewicz (1985), “The recommended pictures were those which translated the original work of art into sepia or black and white lines and tonal masses” (p. 90). Art instructors considered picture study analogous to language study, and they operated under the philosophy that “young people could be taught to read the language of art” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p.116) The exercises were simple. Art teachers discussed both formal and narrative qualities of a picture with the students and “students would be asked to write a description of the picture, then mount the reproduction on their paper” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 117). In addition to strengthening students’ understanding of the elements and principles of design and sharpening their observational skills through copying of these reproductions, art educators from about the 1890s through the 1920s believed that picture study strengthened students moral character as well. “Picture study authors described fine art as an influence for order, cleanliness, and love of home and family” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 116). In addition to moral refinement, educators also turned to picture study to instill American values in immigrant children and help them to socially adjust and conform to American culture (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 116). Picture study was not only popular in the art classroom, however. In an America striving to match European standards for art and culture, “women’s clubs used reproductions to educate themselves about art” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 117). Ushering in a new era, the rise of the reproduced image and picture study influenced art education in a way comparable perhaps only to photography and the recent “dramatic changes in access to images made possible by computers and the Internet” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 114).
Key influences of picture study.
Henry Bailey was an art supervisor whose nature studies were included in School Arts, a magazine that provided reproductions of art intended for use in schools (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 116). Bailey “encouraged teachers to make collections of pictures and suggested how illustrations from recent magazines might be used in schools” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 116). By advocating for the addition of images other than masterpieces in the school curriculum, Bailey paved the way for picture study and its utilization of images suited specifically for the purpose of cultivating morals and American virtues in students.
Progressive education, which “attempted to extend democratic social reforms to education” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 33), also contributed to the coupling of picture study with moral and social refinement. As Stankiewicz (2001) explains, “On the verge of Progressivism, American art educators were trying to link the study of art with social adjustment, as the process of helping individuals conform to the social order was labeled” (p. 116). The child-centered philosophy of progressive education made it possible for art teachers to share the artwork in a picture study with their students with the intention of listening to their students’ reactions to the picture. This approach allowed art teachers to gauge a child’s moral beliefs and spiritual understanding and to influence their minds through the selection of images intended to steer them in the socially acceptable direction (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 116).
Estelle Hurll was an educator who saw picture study as a way to help her students develop good taste in an enjoyable way. She was afraid that if students were forced to write about art the way they were made to write about literature they might come to hate it (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 118). She advocated for simple drawings for young students and argued that with more complex pictures “aesthetic taste could be cultivated in older children by asking questions about the first thing they noticed in the picture, the setting, the emotional feeling, and the structure of the picture” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 118).
Relevance before tradition: a personal reflection.
Art teachers should show works of art in the classroom to provide their students with a knowledge of the history of art, an awareness of contemporary art, examples for technical study, and to stimulate discussion that challenges and develops student ideas about art. I feel that too often studio artists become isolated from other artists which leads to burning out. It is especially important for creators to take in other works of art so they may feed their mind and discover inspiration. As studio artists, I require my students to curate bodies of work that influence their own art making. I encourage students not only to keep sketchbooks but scrapbooks with evidence of the historical “lineage” of their work as well. When recommending artists for my students to study, I tailor my suggestions to each student based on their individual interest and style. Sometimes I do this to give them a sense of the visual history of the ideas they are exploring. Sometimes I want to expose them to technical aspects and skills that I suspect they wish to emulate and master, and sometimes I am seeking to validate their work by developing a connection between their work and other works with similar moods, symbols, and messages. When selecting the artists and artworks I will share, I do not feel that it is essential to abide by many stipulations other than it be relevant, informative artwork. I work primarily with adult students, but taking age appropriateness into account is, of course, important. I consider sexually explicit artwork off-limits for minors and am careful to avoid work that is too graphically violent as well. However, I do not believe that we ought to shy away from introducing children to work with heavy themes or complex ideas.
Stankiewicz, M. A. (1985). A picture age: Reproductions in picture study. Studies in Art Education, 26(2) 86-92.
Stankiewicz, M. A. (2001). The aesthetic culture of pupils. In M. A. Stankiewicz, Roots of art education practice (pp. 120-145). Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s