Happily Even After
Counting Umbrellas and Ballerinas: Helping Children Contemplate Beauty
By Josh Noem
Did you know that there are 15 umbrellas in the famous painting, Paris Street; Rainy Day? On a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, we found all of them.
The kids and I had a free day on President’s Day, so I decided to take them to Chicago for one last visit to the Art Institute before our membership there expires. We enjoy browsing the works with the kids—our youngest is a fourth grader, so they have some patience for observing. But they also tire of it quickly.
When I rolled out the President’s Day plan to the kids, mention of the art museum produced eye rolls. So I upped my game.
I did just a little research and produced a scavenger hunt for the kids to complete in the art museum. Google reminded me of the most prominent works of art at the institute, and it was no stretch to come up with other items that we’d probably see. We split into two teams—Simon with me and Lucy with Oscar, who is in high school. The youngest were allowed to hold a smart phone during the hunt so they could use the camera to “collect” the items on the list.
Here is the list of things we hunted for:
Total number of ballerinas
Total number of umbrellas
Best depiction of clouds
Strangest thing in the building
Best depiction of a tree
Softest thing in stone or metal
Best depiction of water
We split up and an hour flew by. I traipsed around with Simon and had a lot of fun pointing out different parts of paintings. I asked him to compare the clouds in Claude Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint Lazare to the ones in Camille Pissaro’s The Crystal Palace, for example. He liked the Crystal Palace clouds better, but we both agreed that Oscar and Lucy found the best clouds in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV.
When we met up at the end of the hunt, we compared the images we collected and appreciated each other’s judgment. Simon and I bested Lucy and Oscar in finding more ballerinas because we noticed three pairs of legs hidden behind a curtain in a Degas painting. The conversation afterwards was the best part—I daresay the kids had fun.
We couldn’t have spent a whole day in the museum, which is why a membership is perfect—it allows us to come and go and take it all in by nibbles.
It is important for us to expose the children to art, and to help them appreciate it, because it is one way to be touched by beauty. It opens our eyes to seeing the world differently, to notice light and color and shape in new ways. Good art also displays craftsmanship—we loved, for example, the way that John Singleton Copley captured the way light plays on satin in his Portrait of a Lady in a Blue Dress.
Stacey has used a different strategy in art museums with our children. We have a friend who curates art for the university where we work, and when she introduces art to college students, she has them stand in front of a given work for a period of time, just to soak it in. Stacey has done this with our kids, too—she helped them pick out a work of art, and then left them alone with it for three minutes. They were allowed to stand close to it or to walk across the room, to see it from standing or sitting.
This practice teaches people—even kids—the value of contemplation and wonder. Art doesn’t need to be something to be interpreted or figured out. It can just be something beautiful to look at, to dwell with. Stacey set a timer and observed the kids observing the art (in itself an interesting exercise) and noticed that the three minutes they spent in front of a painting outlasted every other patron, including adults. Our culture is not paced for quiet contemplation.
Art trains the senses and emotions—it allows us to step into someone else’s shoes and to see the world from their perspective. This is an important step in developing empathy and an open mind. It also helps our children begin to develop their own judgment—they are allowed to like or dislike a work of art, based on their own criteria. And we can have a conversation about what we notice and appreciate.
We are the primary educators of our children, and it is important to see this as more than just an intellectual task. In fact, helping them appreciate beauty is crucial for educating them in faith because it deepens and expands their humanity. Everything we saw in the Art Institute is just a pale reflection of the goodness we find in God, but it still reveals artists reaching for God through beauty and excellence (even if they wouldn’t have understood it that way). And that striving tells us something—it points somewhere. Kids have the ability to learn to look in the same direction, and perhaps begin to point there, too.