If Art History and Art Appreciation sound like dense, musty subjects full of incomprehensible notions and frame after frame of flowers in vases…
…well, prepare to be astonished and inspired!
There are some stylish, captivating, imaginative, exciting, vastly-informative titles out there which will revolutionize the way your children understand, appreciate, and experience art. And you as well, I suspect.
Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: A Children’s History of Art, written by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans and with art reproductions
published in 2016 by Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
First up, this glorious art history book. Oh, I wish I’d had this when my children were young!
Over 300 pages of marvelously-narrated art history, from the first artists carving creatures out of mammoth’s tusks 40,000 years ago or sculpting enormous statues for emperors, through a worldful of religious art –medieval scribes, West African bronze workers, Muslim calligraphers — then on to the Renaissance, portraiture, neo-classical, romantic, and impressionistic works, modern art and contemporary artists right up to Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seed installation.
It is largely Western in emphasis, but I do appreciate that a number of non-Western works are here. And it is overwhelmingly male though there is, happily, a segment on Artemisia Gentileschi, and a few other female artists are represented in later time periods.
What’s enormously engaging is that there’s not a dry sentence in the book. Instead, this books reads like a collection of stories giving us historical context, biographical detail, technical insights that go down like a nice spiced chai on a hot day. My mind was sparking like a swarm of fireflies with ideas of how this book could be augmented with art projects and further reading to make history come alive for young children ages 5 and older.
One reproduction per artist is included, and then the pages are gracefully, beautifully illustrated in Kate Evans’ watercolors, helping us to see these towns and printing presses, galleries and ziggurats, soaring columns and war-torn countrysides and sunflower fields.
Included are a timeline, glossary of art terms, and listing of artworks which includes their dimensions and locations. Coming to us from the UK, this is a dream especially for homeschoolers or art teachers.
Are You an Art Sleuth? by Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, illustrated with art reproductions
published in 2016 by Quarto Publishing
Being an art sleuth means looking carefully at art and noticing all manner of things you might miss at first glance.
The paintings in this book each come with a list of items to find in them, and they’re not so easy! To find just one bracelet in a sea of Renoir figures, spot a pesky fly in a still life, track down 8 red hats in the Peasant’s Wedding or 3 mirrors in a lush interior takes time and patience and sleuthing!
That’s the first benefit of this book. Just the slowing down and careful looking, something that would transfer well to all of life. Noticing that there’s more to this than can be seen with the same rapidity as the zooming images in an electronic game. Learning to see.
After you’ve worked hard to find everything on the list, turn the page and read about the artist, the scene, the special qualities of this piece of art. Be enticed with some questions to use your imagination about the subject matter. In other words, learn to think, surmise, wonder, and understand art a bit more deeply.
This book relies solely on Western paintings, the majority from the 19th century. Inviting page lay-outs will draw in children ages 4 or 5 and up. It could be used independently by kids ages 7 and up to while away the time when traveling or otherwise waiting. Answers to all the puzzlers are included.
Where’s the Artist?: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art: A Look and Find Book, text by Susanne Rebscher, illustrations by Annabelle von Sperber
published in 2015 by Prestel Publishing
This book is a little trickier to use for those less familiar with art, yet it’s an engrossing, oversized book that practically immerses you in art and includes ideas to learn and wonder about together.
Each large, two-page spread ushers us into a new time period. Twelve jumps take us from prehistoric cave dwellers into our contemporary world. There’s simply gobs to absorb in these illustrations. Surroundings, clothing, architecture, activities, all can be observed and enjoyed and talked about at leisure. Incorporated within these scenes are representations of art from that time — the towering statue of Athena, the girl with the pearl earring, Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny. Even the overall pages have the flavor of the art period — a Mondrian-esque series of rectangles hold the images on one page while a surreal countryside of blue horses and lush wildly-colorful foliage comprises another.
There is no text on these pages. You are on your own to observe. The last pages of the book provide some context about each time period and its artwork — just a small bit. Our attention is drawn to a few particulars in some of the scenes and we’re challenged to find some elements.
The brevity of the text here makes this a great choice for those who want to dip their feet into art without being overwhelmed, while at the same time it means you will likely miss references to particular artists and works of art as there is no attempt to be thorough. That’s okay. Hopefully your appetite will be whetted for more. Ages 3 and up, depending on how you use the book.
Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs, by Joel Meyerowitz
published in 2016 by aperture
This incredible guide to appreciating photography is unusual and insightful. I was fascinated by it and learned a lot, even though it calls itself a “kid’s guide!”
Meyerowitz has selected 30 photographs taken by a roster of photographers he has encountered over the 50+ years he’s worked in that world. He has constructed the book around principles or ways of seeing or tools that make a photograph special. Timing. Noticing something unusual. A sense of humor. Shadows. Perspectives.
Each two-page spread features one handsome photograph — some in color, others black-and-white. Such a wide range of subject matter and composition! Accompanying it are Meyerowitz’s keen remarks that serve to open the photo up for us, teach us to see what’s inside it and underneath it, to observe anew, to understand the remarkable nature of this particular shot.
The conversational tone of the text invites us to learn sophisticated ideas, fearlessly. Because of the author’s concision, he never overwhelms us. The page layouts are unusually elegant, terrifically inviting, pulling us to settle in, read slowly, and keep turning the pages to discover more. A fantastic choice for exploring with ages 7 and up.
Splat!: The Most Exciting Artists of All Time, by Mary Agnes Richards
published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson
That’s a fairly heady claim within the title — the most exciting artists of all time?! — but we’ll overlook that and enjoy what is here.
And that’s a mix, a hybrid, between “fact pages” laid out for quick perusal, and “narrative pages” that dig a bit deeper. This format is geared, perhaps, to draw in slightly older children who love those stats and sound bites. For me, I did not love those overview pages. For each artist, we get one sentence (!) describing that artist’s main contribution, and a quick succession of who-what-where, background, and some mini-mini notebook pages with a few quick ideas associated with that artist. There’s also a full-page reproduction of one representative piece.
Turn the page and there are about four stout paragraphs of narrative text telling us about the artist and the piece on the previous page. Side bars provide the added-bits-and-pieces approach to the subject which middle graders tend to devour.
This book is almost completely Western in focus, with only Hokusai and Kahlo breaking up the all-male, Euro-American club. A large portion of the book — about half — is devoted to modern and contemporary art. In fact the first artist is Michelangelo. So — much briefer than the first book but with a vibe that might appeal to older readers.
I hope you find something beautiful and useful here!