Art history for children

Lovely Dan Slee (@danslee on Twitter) passed on a question posed by Geoff Coleman (@colebagsi) about art history books suitable to encourage a 7-year-old’s interest.

I did throw the question of art history books for children open to others, and the delightful Mark O’Neill (@marxculture) suggested:

Dick Bruna, Miffy at the Gallery

Dick Bruna, Miffy the Artist

These are possibly better for younger children (up to age 5 or 6); or for adults who love brilliant graphic design and/or cute bunnies. They are delightful.

The I-Spy books about art by Lucy Micklethwait look very good, and appropriate for quite a wide age range of children:

I-Spy – Numbers in Art

I-Spy – Shapes in Art

I-Spy – Alphabet in Art

I-Spy – Colours in Art

I-Spy – Animals in Art

The Oxford First Book of Art by Gillian Wolfe seems to take a similar approach but with a broader range of art.

Around the World with Mouk by Marc Boutavant is an exploration of different cultures in the world. Mouk is a cute bear character in detailed illustrations that have an air of Japanese visual culture. It has 40 re-usable stickers to add a different interactive dimension to it.

I have not seen the Prestel series of 13 […] Children Should Know but since  the National Gallery’s shop stocks them, I assume that they must be a good and appropriate books.

I rather dislike the titles, and the implication that the books are not for children to look at and read themselves but for their parents or teachers. However, 13 Paintings Children Should Know includes  Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire – one of my all-time favourites and a truly extraordinary painting; and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (which resonates when you read Raymond Chandler novels and watch American Film Noir).

The titles in this series are:

Angela Wenzel, 13 Paintings Children Should Know

Angela Wenzel, 13 Artists Children Should Know

Angela Wenzel, 13 Sculptors Children Should Know

Brad Finger, 13 Modern Artists Children Should Know

Brad Finger, 13 American Artists Children Should Know

Betina Schuemann, 13 Women Artists Children Should Know

Annette Roeder, 13 Buildings Children Should Know

There are quite a few books that use a child character to explore art. Most of these are girls, and the original question was about art history for a boy. It may not matter, especially for younger boys, but there is Dan’s Angel: A Detective’s Guide to the Language of Painting by Alexander Sturgis and Lauren Child. Dan is in a museum at night and an angel steps out of one of the paintings to tell him about some of the symbols in paintings.

My final two three suggestions, one two of which is are not a book:

Quentin Blake, Tell Me A Picture – includes stories that the artists wanted to tell in their art, and art about which children could make up their own stories.

The Tate’s Art Collector Game. A card game, similar to the idea of Happy Families, that can be played with friends or family.

Final suggestion is to watch the Vincent Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who. Some of the details may not have been strictly accurate (such as his having a special and unique ability to see invisible aliens). It was very good, however, in depicting as accurately as we know his illness, his environment and his paintings (if you ignore the alien in the church window). I found it rather scary in parts but excellent.

Real art rocks

The best way to encourage a child’s interest in art history is to visit places with art and to encourage making art. Images of art are excellent and useful but never convey the scale, texture, smell, sense of physical nature of the art.

Art and architecture are full of hidden meanings that are just waiting to be discovered. Some art aims to tell a story, for example, many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Other art incorporates stories that need more work to find and piece together, such as showing how individual artists were linked together across time and the world by family, friendships and professional relationships.

Making art and learning about techniques that long-dead artists used really helps to understand art – but also look out for open studio events in your area which enable you to visit and talk to real, live artists. Many are happy to show how they create.

Most public museums, art galleries and many historic houses provide practical activities for children and families. Some look so much fun that I have threatened to borrow children so I can get in to do them. We are very lucky in having such great resources open to the public in every corner of the United Kingdom.

All the books can be purchased online, but it would be more fun to buy them at a museum, gallery or historic house shop. You also help to support that cultural venue by buying in their shop.

Summary of books listed

Miffy books

  • Dick Bruna, Miffy at the Gallery, Egmont, 2nd edition, 2003
  • Dick Bruna, Miffy the Artist, Tate Publishing, 2008

Children Should Know series

  • Angela Wenzel, 13 Paintings Children Should Know, Prestel, 2009
  • Angela Wenzel, 13 Artists Children Should Know, Prestel, 2009
  • Angela Wenzel, 13 Sculptures Children Should Know, Prestel, 2010
  • Brad Finger, 13 Modern Artists Children Should Know, Prestel, 2010
    Brad Finger, 13 American Artists Children Should Know, Prestel, 2010
    Betina Schuemann, 13 Women Artists Children Should Know, Prestel, 2009
  • Annette Roeder, 13 Buildings Children Should Know, Prestel, 2009

I-Spy series

  • Lucy Micklethwait, I-Spy – Numbers in Art, Harper Collins, 2004
  • Lucy Micklethwait, I-Spy – Shapes in Art, Harper Collins, 2004
  • Lucy Micklethwait, I-Spy – An Alphabet in Art, Harper Collins, 1992
  • Lucy Micklethwait, I-Spy – Colours in Art, Harper Collins, 2007
  • Lucy Micklethwait, I-Spy – Animals in Art, Harper Collins, 2005

Others

  • Quentin Blake, Tell Me A Picture, Frances Lincoln, Reprint 2006.
  • Alexander Sturgis and Lauren Child, Dan’s Angel: A Detective’s Guide to the Language of Painting, Frances Lincoln, 2003
  • Gillian Wolfe, The Oxford First Book of Art, Oxford University Press, 2003
  • Marc Boutavant, Around the World with Mouk, Tate Publishing, 2009
  • Art Collector Game

Post script

This was an interesting challenge. I tend to be involved with providing or planning history or art and design history resources for adults rather than specifically for children. Formal education resources created by heritage organisations have tended to focus on 9 to 12 year olds

I did enjoy solving the problem of how to create historic designed landscapes for very young children (around 2 to 4 or 5 years old) as part of the Parks & Gardens UK project. Very young children (as those who have them will know) experience time differently, and are unable to understand the concept of history.

Don’t tell everyone but – I still sometimes have difficulty in restraining myself in art galleries from jumping up and down and shouting “Look! Look!” at complete strangers when I see a piece of art ‘in the flesh’ for the first time. Real art can be very exciting.

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4 thoughts on “Art history for children

  1. Susan Benford

    Janet —

    What a fabulous list of art history books! I’d like, with your permission, to link to this list on my website, http://www.TheMasterpieceCards.com.

    I’m the publisher of Masterpiece Cards, a set of art history flash cards of 250 famous paintings from Renaissance art through Pop Art paintings. Because some of my customers use the Cards to teach art history to children, I’ve been often asked for a list like yours.

    Thanks for compiling it! I look forward to hearing from you.

    Reply
  2. Geoff Coleman

    Janet

    Thanks for a brilliant blog. This is what I love about social media – I put a question on Twitter and get all this information back. Will let you know how the books are received.

    Cheers

    Geoff

    Reply

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