I always taught units to my kids; however, I never failed to take advantage of whatever field trip we could, unit-related or not. I would scour the “Arts and Entertainment” section of the newspaper (this was pre-Internet era) to see what events were scheduled in Dallas. One day the Dallas Museum of Art advertised a visiting exhibit from Spain that was highlighting El Greco’s paintings. I had taken one semester of Art History in college, so I had heard of El Greco, but past that I would have to research him at the library.

Once I knew enough, off we trotted to view the exhibit. Shortly thereafter, we viewed another exhibit of the works of Dutch Reformed painters. In the car I asked the kids if they had noticed any differences between the two art shows. Jason commented that the first exhibit was all about religion, and Jordan added that the second was about people. Brilliant! But why the difference?

Art and History… Inseparable

At home I had started what would later become the KONOS Timeline, and therefore we could add to it the names of people we studied, in the appropriate time periods. As we added these two new groups of artists, we realized why the painters’ subjects differed: On the Timeline in 1517 was Martin Luther. Prior to the Reformation, painting revolved around altar pieces and worthy religious subjects, with the Catholic Church often funding the artist. Luther opened the door for the worthiness of common man to be painted by the Dutch Reformed painters. But there was a hitch with El Greco. He lived after the Reformation, so why was he not painting the common man?

History again provided the answer. The Reformation took hold in Germany and most of Europe but did not gain a foothold in Greece, Italy, or Spain, where El Greco was born, trained, and lived. Therefore, the Reformation had no impact on the painting of El Greco and hence the difference in subjects. Without knowing history, one cannot have a full understanding of why an artist painted what he painted.

Art History… More Than Fluff

Often viewed as fluff, art classes frequently are the first to be trimmed for budgetary reasons, when in reality art reflects what cultures value. Within units, I have always used art as a resource. For example, within the “Courage” unit while studying the American Revolution, educating students about the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware was a must.

Studying the 1500s is a blow-your-mind educational adventure! Along with explorers such as Columbus, Cortés, Balboa, and Pizarro come all the geography, map work, and sailing activities you can fit into your plans, plus a study of the Aztec and Inca cultures. Study of the Reformation offers abundant chances to debate and write papers about indulgences, the papacy, reformed theology, Calvin, and Henry VIII establishing the Church of England, plus the opportunity to sing Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Literature provides the summa of the summa with Shakespeare’s must reads: Hamlet and Macbeth. Political upheaval is seen in the rise of the Dutch states, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of England’s Henry VIII through Elizabeth I, while science marks its own upheaval with Copernicus’s heliocentric model. Nonetheless, art is the queen of the Renaissance, and Michelangelo is the king. Attempting to sculpt Michelangelo’s Pietà, David, or Moses is a semester project. Painting the ceiling while standing on a table and using linear perspective, chiaroscuro, foreshortening, and muscular bodies in twists and turns, as Michelangelo did on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, gives understanding to his genius.

Worldview Reflected in Art

I have led many student tours as part of a study of European and American history. My first European tour guide was a brilliant, totally fun, Englishman named Joe...who was also an atheist. During the tour my students and I often were locked in heavy theological discussions with Joe. Our group visited the National Gallery in London, where one of the greatest collections of Western European painting in the world is housed, and I required my students to have master knowledge of seventy-five paintings displayed there. The next day, after our kids had acted Shakespeare on the Globe Theatre stage and were walking to dinner past the Tate Modern Museum of Art, Joe threw down the gauntlet: Joe believed homeschool parents sheltered their kids. He was right, and furthermore, we were unapologetic about it! He expressed his desire to expose these sheltered kids to modern art minus my editorial comments, so that their eyes would be opened.