"Old Masters Rock": How to look at art with your children

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Writing "Old Masters Rock: How to Look at Art with Children" for the past three years has been a revelation. I have learned that kids are brilliant and keen observers of art. They see what we often miss and look at art with a fresh and unfiltered view.

Looking at "Old Masters," and I am using this as a generic term for pictures before the year 1900, can be intimidating.

Together with your child, or classroom, plan your visit to the museum. The more you involve the kids in the planning, the more engaged they'll be on the day of the visit. Explore the websites and make a pre-select of important pictures. The young art detectives will quickly be able to tell the difference between a great painting and a mediocre one. Gently guide them, but let them choose (even if you want to see something else). It empowers them to make the decisions and they love a sense of recognition when they see the picture in person.

Audio guides can be very informative, but try and make it a family or group activity.

Listen carefully to what the children say and build on their observations. What is the first thing that grabs them, the sunset, the costume or a color? Is that dress scratchy or smooth? Is the sitter kind or mean? What season is it, summer or winter? Draw them into the scene by asking "Who are you in the painting?" This can be a person or an object, make it a game. I recently showed a class of sixth-graders Altdorfer's "Battle at Issus." A 13-year-old girl picked the sun. This was a brilliant choice in view of the fact that all the people in the picture are warriors.

You will find many questions in my book that you can apply for different pictures. Asking the right questions draws the children into the painting and they will become part of it, as it were. Being part of it is key. If they stay outside and get an art history lecture about names, dates and academic approaches, they will quickly lose interest.

Focus on five works and leave. If you try to do it all, no one will remember anything, and you will have tired backs and cranky kids. On that special trip to a new city, everyone should choose something.

Avoid the "Mona Lisa syndrome" though. Seeing the great lady behind a thick pane of bullet-proof glass is difficult in a room crowded with people taking selfies. It is amusing to see the crowds, though. There are many wonderful pictures in the Louvre and you will be able to see them alone.

Offer a small souvenir, such as a postcard of your kid's favorite picture. Encourage them to write a museum journal and paste the postcards with some amusing memory about their time with you and decorate it. It will be a wonderful read in later years.

Kids often get the "essence" of a painting right away and you will be immensely surprised at their brilliant, instinctual observations. Looking at art with children leads to intelligent conversations where everyone learns something new. You are not watching a movie and no one is on an electronic device. There won't be any arguments either as there are no right or wrong answers. In the end, you will learn from the children's wisdom, not vice versa.

Most museums charge admission, sometimes the same as a movie ticket, but they also offer free admission on certain days and offer family days.

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is one of the great museums in the country. You will find action, drama, great storytelling and, of course, simply beauty. Take your pick from the Clark's extraordinary collection — a rare Renaissance portrait by Ghirlandaio, superb American paintings by Winslow Homer and Sargent, a charming Corot of a young woman resting in a landscape, world-class Impressionists, and drama at sea by Turner among many others.

As Philip Pullmann, the British children's book author says, "Children need art and stories, and poems and music, as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play."

To learn more ....

Maria-Christina Sayn-Wittgenstein Nottebohm, author of "Old Master's Rock: How to Look at Art with Children," will give a presentation at The Clark Art Institute from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

For more information about how to engage your children in art, visit clarkart.edu/visit/families.


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