I have fond memories of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my children who were enchanted by viewing aesthetic objects from the ancient past. These carried them to a different place and time and stimulated their imaginations. My daughter remembers, “From my visits I found the desire to concoct and research the lives of individuals living long ago.”
One way to develop children’s sense of aesthetics is to encourage them to create their own artwork inspired by master artists. On our trips to the Met, I came prepared with small sketchbooks and pencils since my children often felt compelled to draw the artwork on view. My son would sit with his sketchbook and capture the likeness of shiny swords and guns in the Arms and Armor Department. As he recalled to me recently, “There was a black set of armor from Germany which was really cool…. I liked the armor because it was fun to draw and, although it wasn’t actually used for fighting, it made me imagine ancient battles and stirred my imagination.”
I have selected five works of art from the Metropolitan’s permanent collection that I would introduce to young people, followed by some open-ended questions to facilitate dialogue. They are a means to bring children into a historical moment by helping them look and think about an artwork: its era, location, and mood.
John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84. This is a full-length portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau. Depicted as a mature woman, she is wearing an evening dress. It is a study of extremes, her skin illuminated against a sombre background. She is standing in a severe pose, her arm awkwardly extended with her hand pressed against a round table. What was initially controversial may be mundane to most children today. In the original version, one strap dangled off her white shoulder to emphasize her personal style. Many children can relate to clothes causing wardrobe malfunctions. My daughter recalls, “I was very interested in The Met as a portal into another world. I was attracted to the elegance of Madame X.”
Question: “What kind of event do you think she is going to attend in that black evening dress?”
Claude I Sené, Dog Kennel, ca. 1775–80. This niche de chien, dog house in English, was created for Marie-Antoinette. It is gold-framed and surrounded by plush aqua velvet. Seen from the tiny entrance, this place of rest includes a cushion inside for the pet’s comfort. The absence of a dog can be an opportunity for young viewers to solve the mystery. My daughter remembers, “The seventeenth and eighteenth century period rooms evoked such realism that I could imagine inhabiting them. There’s one room in particular with the most lavish dog house that I adored.”
Question: “What breed of miniature dog do you think slept in this dog kennel?”
Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. This is a history painting depicting the famous General Washington during the Revolutionary War crossing the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776. Despite its somewhat factual inaccuracy, the painting is impressive in size and captures the mood of men in battle, confidently approaching victory. My son remembers, “I liked how all the motion of the painting seems to move forward (to the left) and how it represented the path towards winning the war. In general, I liked paintings of people in heroic poses, because a lot of my own artwork back then was chaotic and full of motion.”
Question: “What are the soldiers thinking as they struggle to cross the river in the freezing cold?”
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836.
The Oxbow is a good example of an American landscape painting that includes a self-portrait. The approaching storm is a visual entry point into a conversation about nature and weather. It reveals a bird’s-eye view from Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts on the Connecticut River at an unusual twist in the waterway, a natural phenomenon called an oxbow. Children can understand the painting is organically divided in two parts, with one side representing natural wilderness as chaos and the other side representing the controlled pastureland as order.
Question: “What is the artist with his painting supplies going to do next now that a thunderstorm is coming?”
Y. G. Srimati, Mahakali, 1980.
Y. G. Srimati was a painter, dancer, and musician from Madras, India, who studied graphics at the Art Students League. I was introduced to her work by Michael Pellettieri, my teacher, who spoke about Srimati’s watercolors of Indian spiritual themes. I, in turn, introduced these to my children during a recent retrospective of the artist’s work at the Met, An Artist of Her Time: Y. G. Srimati and the Indian Style. My children had a familiarity with watercolor techniques since they had experience painting en plein air in New York City parks.
Question: “What does this painting tell us about religious epic literature and traditional Indian culture?”
The Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education provides guided tours and studio art experiences for children of families and students on school trips. Encouraging children to view, discuss, and create artwork enables them to learn in and through the visual arts. Young people encounter artwork in somewhat predictable ways based on their particular artistic developmental stages. Children are concrete learners and understand art best within their own cultural context. Adolescents are able to think in more sophisticated and abstract ways and so discussing artwork from different cultures in historical context is possible. The Met is an excellent venue for an intergenerational viewing experience because everyone, regardless of age, can find an object in its vast collection to look at in wonder. The goal in bringing young people to the Met or any museum is to empower a future generation of lifelong art enthusiasts.