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Primarily Cassatt: art appreciation for primary grades.

Primary-aged children respond enthusiastically to subject matter drawn from their immediate environment --themselves, their houses, their families. This personal, artistic identification must be considered in selecting an artist who reflects the type of subject matter grasped easily by five or six-year olds. The American Impressionist, Mary Cassatt, was an important artist who painted and drew themes of family, children and mothers. This emphasis on childhood, portraiture and scenes of nurturing makes her work an excellent choice for study by primary students. The lively, egocentric approach to art that typifies the work of children in the pre-schematic or schematic stages is broadened by exposure to the work of an artist whose subject matter is easily accessible to them. If artists are important to art, then students need to know about particular artists and their work from the very beginning of their school experience.

I begin by introducing Cassatt to kindergarten students and reintroducing her to first and second graders. They are told that Mary Cassatt was an American artist, that she lived and painted in France and that she loved to paint portraits, especially of women and children. Students learned the definition of the word portrait previously, so they are able to use this term to identify Cassatt's subject matter. We examine several of Cassatt's portraits and the children describe subject matter and colors by pointing to them on a color print or slide screen. Facial expressions of the subjects are not obvious to children at this level, so we don't talk about the feelings of the people in the paintings unless a member of the class initiates it.

Lesson One: Portraits

After viewing examples of Cassatt's work, children use chalk to draw portraits. They are told that chalk is a medium similar to the pastels used by Cassatt in some of her work. Student artists are not only working with a subject matter similar to Cassatt's but they are also using a material similar to those used by the artist. This way, children identify with the artist on several levels and remember more about the lesson. At the end of their art class, students have learned that Mary Cassatt was an important artist, that she made portraits and worked in pastels.

Lesson Two: Affection

A second lesson planned around the theme of affection is presented as soon as possible to reinforce the first lesson. We begin by discussing ways that children show affection. There are lots of giggles and "oooohs" as they talk about kissing and hugging, but they also recall giving presents, picking flowers and simply playing with a friend. We mime hugging an invisible friend to give some idea about how a hug looks and to examine the shapes our arms take while we're hugging. We also have a giant group hug for volunteers and this squirmy, giggling group enthusiastically demonstrates for the rest of the class how hugging can be fun.

Slides of Cassatt's paintings are examined that show family members demonstrating affection. Children again identify subject matter and colors and are then asked, "How do you know these people like each other? What are the clues ?" Kids immediately recognize the visual clues used to convey affection: "They're hugging. They're giving presents. They have their arms around each other." Children are then instructed to draw and paint themselves demonstrating affection with another person. Second graders also do this lesson as a review of Cassatt, but instead of using paint and crayons, they make relief prints from contact paper and tagboard. Lessons vary at each grade level, but it's simple to build in variety by emphasizing different facets of the artist's work.

Lesson Three: The Mother's Day Review

A third lesson is presented around Mother's Day which examines the kinds of activities children share with their mothers. This is a good review of the second lesson because scenes of affection are mentioned frequently. Other activities are discussed including swimming, shopping, and working in the garden or kitchen. Many of Cassatt's paintings show women and children together and two or three of these are chosen for children to examine. Students draw and color scenes of their mothers and themselves with oil pastel. The medium used for each assignment should be appropriate for the primary level artist, but many media could be used for the same lesson. The emphasis is on learning about Mary Cassatt and exploring children's' lives.

Lesson Four: Do They Remember?

Do primary-aged children retain what they learn about Cassatt and her work? This question is amply answered by the fourth lesson. Close to the end of the school year we study Cassatt's The Boating Party. Children already know about Cassatt's preferred subject matter, but this painting of a family group in a boat is different in several ways from the other paintings they've studied. The students look at the reproduction and I ask them how this painting is different from other works they've seen by Cassatt. They are quick to point out that the figures are in a boat, that they are on a lake and that there's a man in the group. When asked to point out elements of the painting that are similar to other works they've seen, they concentrate on the figures of the woman and the child. After three lessons, children not only know some simple elements that indicate this painting is by Mary Cassatt, they are also able to identify elements that are different or unusual. This ability indicates children have retained visual knowledge and that they are able to use that knowledge to examine dissimilar works by the artist.

Cassatt Outside the Art Class

In addition to having the pleasure of knowing that my lessons have been effective, I've heard some delightful stories. A first grade teacher told me about the reading group that pointed to a book illustration and proudly announced that it was a Mary Cassatt. The instructor had to look at the acknowledgments to make sure her students knew what they were talking about. They were correct.

Parents have stopped in to tell about their children pointing to reproductions on calendars or posters and identifying them as works by Mary Cassatt. One precocious six-year-old who pointed to a calendar illustration and asked if it was the work of Mary Cassatt, caused the owner of the calendar to remark, "I had to wait until I was thirty-two years old to know who Mary Cassatt was!"

Adults are impressed and engaged by this show of knowledge. I am gratified to know that information from a forty-five minute weekly class is spilling over into the lives of young children and is also making an impact on adults around them.

With proper instruction geared to the particular developmental levels of five- and six-year-olds, children can enthusiastically share in appreciating the work of a carefully chosen artist. Even at the primary level, children are able to study and enjoy significant works of art. It is their culture and it is our culture. It's our task as art instructors to make certain that this young but very perceptive audience has the opportunity to participate in its culture.

Shirley Ende-Saxe leaches elementary art in the Stow, Ohio Public Schools.
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Author:Ende-Saxe, Shirley
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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