Art History and Criticism: Learning About Da Vinci
- Friday, January 11, 2013
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
You’ve heard that familiar phrase. Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. In today’s highly visual culture, the importance of the visual arts in the total human experience cannot be overstated. Integrating art into the standard academic curriculum is a necessity!
It is fairly common to think of the visual arts as paintings or drawings we might see hung on a museum wall. But an appreciation of art is so much more! We are surrounded by shapes, space, texture, and color. Everything in the average American home has an art element to it, namely, design: the pattern in the wallpaper or curtain fabric, the shape of the lamp, the candlestick, even the teakettle. And of course there are things on the walls: photos in frames, paintings or prints, perhaps even a sculptural piece. Although our tastes in design will vary widely, we all appreciate the beauty of a well-designed object. Who doesn’t like the classic lines of the 1965 Ford Mustang? Pure art.
So, then, the question becomes, Why should the home educator include the study of art as part of the core classical curriculum? Answer: Because all of humanity through the ages has used the arts to tell us stories about every aspect of the lives of the people—the culture, the nation, the history, the beliefs. A general understanding of what is involved in art education is probably more valuable to the homeschooler than any artistic talent.
According to one prominent approach to the study of art, Discipline-Based Arts Education (DBAE), there are four components to a well thought-out art program: art history, art criticism, art production, and aesthetics. Home educators should consider all of these components as being equally valuable when they think of teaching “art,” as intimidating as that might be. In this article we will cover the first two components: art history and art criticism, and finish up with the last two in February.
The best way to explain how to encompass all four disciplines is to use a familiar piece of art. Let’s look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous fresco, “The Last Supper.”
Leonardo Da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man of the late fifteenth century. He thought of himself as primarily an artist, but Da Vinci was also a mathematician, inventor, scientist, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Da Vinci spent his younger years as an apprentice to a master artist and increased in skill and recognition.
Later on, Da Vinci was asked by his wealthy benefactor to paint a fresco to decorate the refectory (dining hall) in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Da Vinci worked on this project from 1495 to 1498. Even though Da Vinci was a great painter, he was constantly experimenting with his materials, so this project took a long time! For centuries, frescoes had been painted by mixing tempera or watercolor paint into the wet plaster of a wall, which required the artist to work quickly before the plaster dried. But Leonardo tried tempera, watercolor, and even oil-based paint on dry plaster in order to get more detail, which took more time. The problem was that this experimental technique really didn’t work, and the paint began to flake off very shortly after the piece was completed.
In the 1600s, someone felt it would be allowable to cut a door through the wall that contained the Da Vinci fresco; consequently, the portion of the original painting that portrayed Jesus’ feet and a portion of the table were lost forever! Over the centuries, a series of artists, seeing that Da Vinci’s original brilliant color was flaking off, tried to preserve the masterpiece by painting over the original, but those efforts failed.
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