The challenge of teaching history stems from the fact that history is written by people. It is all too easy to ignore this fact, and present history as a series of facts in the absence of human intervention. Dispelling the myth that history is simply a pantheon of facts can be an enormous task. In many cases the key to breaking down the myth of purely factual history lies in an understanding of perspective. Teaching historical perspective can be problematic, however. To fully understand perspective, one often needs to digest a good deal of history. Though it can be easy to make high-level comparisons i.e. Spanish versus Native American views of Columbus, teaching the subtle nuances in language and perspective present serious barriers to understanding. Surmounting these barriers requires that we as teachers find tools that accentuate human perspective, while still requiring that the students discern that perspective for themselves.
In this case, art offers us this tool. While historians hide their perspective under layers of language, politics and feigned objectivity, artists have a tendency to broadcast their perspective for the critical eye to see. This is not always the case, but through the use of appropriate artistic sources in the classroom, the artist’s point of view becomes tangible and approachable in a classroom setting. Therefore, teaching artistic analysis and interpretation, while valuable in their own right, becomes a valuable means of developing the skills of critical analysis and interpretive thought.
Too often artistic education is sacrificed in the desire to allot more time to “practical” subjects. I teach in a school that seeks to prepare students for college and careers in the field of Medicine and Business. Students take a variety of courses including Latin, anatomy, or accounting, that are specifically geared toward entrance into one of the focus fields. Students are faced with a rigorous course load that leaves them little time for electives, and therefore few are offered. While this course of study provides ample preparation for the fields in question, it does not adequately represent important elements like Art.
Even in schools where the curriculum includes art, the focus is generally on creation of art, as opposed to artistic interpretation and analysis. In most cases this leaves students ill prepared to understand and appreciate art. Thus many students miss out on a fundamental part of their education and are left with little interest in or understanding of the world of fine art.
In a world of standardized testing and rigorous new standards, time does not always exist in the current schedule to rectify this lack of artistic training. Therefore the mantle of that aspect of their education falls to their subject area teachers. In that vein I have created this unit as a means of not only exploring historical sources, but also as an introduction to art itself. This introduction to art will serve the dual purpose of helping my students explore art and building in them the skills to critically assess historical sources, artistic or otherwise.
This unit functions not only to expose students to art, but also to work on skills of critical thinking that translate to overall achievement across the curriculum. Such a unit is therefore functional on multiple levels of education beyond its artistic and historic subject matter.
The unit is based on American genre paintings of the 19th century and seeks to instill a greater understanding of the social history of the United States through these deep and insightful paintings. Genre paintings are simply paintings or portraits of individuals engaged in common activities. They are often stylized, and depict actual events. Nevertheless, to be understood and to make sense in their time, genre paintings needed to be strongly rooted in factual information. Much like modern political cartoons, if a genre painting depicted a subject that people could not relate to or understand, it would not be marketable.
The unit is designed to introduce art and history combined in a way that is exceedingly natural in the real world, but frequently absent from the classroom. It introduces art alongside history without separating the two into different spheres and different periods of the school day. Through their subject matter, the paintings offer a wealth of information on the daily lives of Americans spanning the Early Federalist, Antebellum, and post-Civil War periods, as well as the motives behind the paintings’ creation and the forces that influenced their final form. The artist’s motives and the forces in question draw history and art together in a way that makes both disciplines more real and more interesting.
The topical focus of this unit fits well into the nebulous space between the War of 1812 and the Reconstruction, which is fertile ground for historians, but can be problematic for history teachers. There are many separate themes, which must be addressed. A focus on artistic representations of the lives of individuals will provide an umbrella under which to approach these themes. Such a focus will also allow my students to develop a deeper understanding of social history, a field that is increasingly popular within academia due to its relevance to our modern lives and its focus on the vast majority of humanity, a group which was often ignored previously.
It can be difficult for a high school class to access social history since many of the factors and forces which made of the lives of Americans 200 years ago can be quite foreign to the modern high school student. It is also difficult for many students to set aside their temporal ethnocentrism in order to fully appreciate the complexities of daily life in a period of time other than their own. It is therefore quite a task for students to fully grasp the basic actions, events or pressures that made up the lives of our predecessors without extensive background and training. All the same, if students are given the opportunity to access the actual lives of individuals, they will have the chance to connect with history in a way they might not have otherwise.
Genre painting offers a unique opportunity to introduce the daily lives of 19th century Americans by allowing an examination of the motives behind many genre paintings. The Genre painters were creating images of life and individuals that were quite often severe exaggerations or idealizations of their subjects. They were, in effect, caricatures of daily life more than they were straight portraits of daily life. On the other side of the coin, these paintings also needed to be identifiable in order to sell. If a painting was completely unrecognizable, or presented an image that no one could relate to, the painter would most likely go hungry.
The fact that many aspects of real life show up as exaggerations in genre paintings lends to their classroom utility. Initially, the students will be relatively untrained in terms of their ability to analyze a painting. In the absence of the ability to critically analyze the painting from an artistic standpoint, the students will be asked to simply observe the paintings, listing and describing the specific details that stand out. These details represent the beginning of the historical information available in the paintings in question. These details will allow the students to pick up on larger themes in life in the 1800s, and serve as the beginning of their understanding of artistic and historic analysis.
The lessons in this unit move the students from basic definition and observation of genre works to analysis and evaluation of genre works as history and as art. They will take place over the course of 4 class periods (80 minutes in length). This is accomplished by the introduction of specifically chosen paintings, which are then analyzed by the students under the guidance of the teacher in order to teach the basics of analysis. Those basics are then reviewed and honed into the skill of critical analysis and close viewing. The goal will be, to move from viewing genre paintings as a source of information and a depiction of daily life to an understanding of them as complex works of art. In the end the benefits to the student are two-fold. Firstly, they will have learned the skills necessary to critically view and assess art, skills which tend to lead to a greater appreciation of fine art. Secondly they will have a deeper understanding of motive and perspective in the creation of art, a skill that translates directly into a greater understanding of perspectives and motives in history.