How can I make history lessons come alive for my children? Join host Mike Farris as he talks about one fresh idea on this edition of Home School Heartbeat.
Mike Farris: History can be a challenging subject for some children. But you can make history come alive by incorporating artwork into your history lessons. By visually showing the story of history, the telling of it will be enhanced. A picture truly is worth a thousand words.
You can consider using the artwork of American artists, for example, to augment your study of U.S. history. Before photography, artists were hired to commemorate significant events and national figures. In many portraits, the items surrounding the subject are significant. A casual observer might assume that these symbols are simply decorative and help fill up the canvas. But that’s not so! Each were strategically chosen to illustrate what was important to the person in the painting—his character, events in his life, or the fundamental principles that guided him.
Look for artwork that complements the historical themes you want to highlight. Combine your study of pioneers with the paintings of someone like Thomas Moran. His artwork underscores the vast wild expanse of the American West, highlighting the bravery of the men and women who helped build our young nation.
Search for paintings with significant political events depicted as well. Getting the perspective of an eyewitness will give your student a chance to travel back in time, making the event much more real and memorable.
Our national heritage is rich, and the artists who witnessed and recorded it so beautifully have given us an invaluable treasure from which to learn.
Mike: Before the advent of photography, portrait artists were employed to record for posterity the great men and women of the age. Portraits were a symbol of status, and itinerant painters, who often painted signs or houses for a living, traveled from town to town, painting both the prominent and the obscure. These artists left a tremendous legacy for today’s history student.
The National Portrait Gallery maintains over 18,000 works of American portraiture. Many are available to view on their website and can serve to complement your study of American history. One resource the gallery website offers is an interactive lesson on the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Students of varying ages can easily use the online lesson. For older students, three filters serve to illuminate this work of art. The biographic filter explores Washington and historical events surrounding his life. The artistic filter focuses on the artist—his biography and the techniques used to create the painting. The third filter examines the symbolic elements included in the portrait. For example, placed on the table near Washington’s outstretched hand are copies of the Federalist Papers and the Journals of Congress. You’ll find many similar elements in the portrait that will prompt discussion of important foundational concepts.
Let me encourage you to take advantage of this springboard for learning about our national heritage.
Mike: Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, where I live, it’s still possible to drive down dirt roads and see picturesque landscapes with stone walls and livestock grazing in the fields. But for many a modern student, their daily landscape looks nothing like the land surveyed by George Washington or documented in the journals of Lewis and Clark. For some kids it’s hard to envision the world before Walmart.
Try taking your student back in time by including the work of 19th-century American landscape painters in your study of history. Such painters captured the vast undeveloped beauty of the fertile frontier. These paintings make it easy to understand why adventurous men sought new opportunities in the west. One group in particular, known as the Hudson River School, made landscape painting their specialty. They painted large canvases with scenes from the Hudson River Valley and other areas of the northeast. Thomas Cole led this movement to document the beauty of the American scene.
You can examine Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting called Pastoral Landscape with Fishermen, or Frederic Edwin Church’s spectacular painting of Niagara Falls. When you study the westward expansion, look at Albert Bierstadt’s Oregon Trail, painted in 1869. And consider the work of Frederic Remington, who captured the spirit of the West with his work celebrating the cowboy and the American Indian.
Open your student’s eyes to historic America by adding the work of these great artists to your study of history.
Mike: Have you considered using art to help strengthen your study of American history? If so, you’ll want to join us today as we look at one of America’s most celebrated artists, Winslow Homer. He began his career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, crafting sketches of soldiers in the battles and camps of the Civil War. But once the war ended he focused more on painting the daily life of rural Americans, capturing images of people going about their work and play.
Well-documented American values of hard work and industry jump off the canvas in Homer’s depiction of women working in the fields in The Cotton Pickers and carrying the nets in The Fisher Girl or preparing to milk in The Milkmaid. Young boys play with their model boats in the foreground of The Boat Builders, mimicking the industry of their elders, whose ingenuity is captured in the background as a sailing vessel skims across the waves.
Homer’s paintings were a breath of fresh air after the ravages of war. His very famous painting, Breezing Up, transports you into a world of salt spray and exuberance. And in Snap the Whip, he catches schoolboys roughhousing in a rowdy game. Life is good again.
American ideals of robust work and energetic play come forth with vitality in Winslow Homer’s paintings. Studying his work will help your student capture the spirit of renewal that epitomized this time of our nation’s history.
Mike: Throughout history, artists have often been on the cutting edge of their culture, frequently using their talents and notoriety to spread their political ideology.
Would you believe this is true of Paul Revere? He used his famous engraving, The Boston Massacre, to make a clear political statement. He published it just three weeks after that fateful event in March of 1770, portraying the British as brutes who killed innocent bystanders in broad daylight.
In reality, it was a bloody fight at night. Four men died on the spot and another later died of his wounds. Though Revere’s engraving shows the British soldiers lined up ready to fight, both sides were riotous and disorderly. Omitted from Revere’s painting are the snowballs, oyster shells, rocks, and sticks that had been thrown by the colonists earlier in the evening. Revere sought to encourage the anti-British sentiment through his art. It was no mystery whose side he was on.
Paul Revere’s engraving, though not a completely factual representation of the event, did present an accurate picture of the popular opinion and helped spread the sentiment that eventually led to the American Revolution.
Art is a window into history, but we need to remember that artists sometimes deliver opinions, not just facts. This is especially true today, and that’s something you don’t want your kids to miss. I’m Mike Farris.