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Carl Nielsen, Danish Musician, Violinist, Composer and writer (1865-1931) wrote, this is a quote from his book My Childhood;

It has often surprised me how little we realize that the moment a child receives a strong impression, one strong enough to remain permanently in the memory, then that child is really a poet, with his own distinctive gift of receiving the impression and reproducing or merely retaining it. Poetic talent, I imagine, is fundamentally the faculty, the gift, of distinctive observation and perception. Thus we have all at one time been poets and artists, each after his manner. The rough way in which life and adults summon the child from its beautiful world of poetry and art to harsh, matter-of-fact reality must, I think, be blamed for the fact that most of us forfeit these talents, with the result that the divine gift of imagination, innate in the child, becomes mere day-dreaming, or is quite lost.

The great poets, philosophers, scientists and artists are only exceptions that prove the rule.

I have been looking for just such a citation to express what I wish to achieve with classes who visit our National Gallery in Ottawa. I always make a point of explaining to the group, they are usually children between 8 to 12 years of age, that the NGC is their’s, it is not a closed off institution belonging to some governmental entity. What they look at is our national heritage, something to be cherished and not rooms full of paintings and sculptures with a big price tag.

Yesterday I had a group and I started with the Italian Renaissance around 1300 with paintings done for a private chapel in a Church in Florence. The painting is full of beautiful colours, lots of people, angels, flowers and an active scene. I briefly explained the context of the painting and what they were looking at. Explaining that this painting was done at a time when 99% of people could not read nor write. How paintings were images conveying a story and an illiterate person could understand a story by simply looking at the painting. I also spoke about how the painter had to make his own paint, how you could not buy it in a store. Same with the frame, all of it is hand made from scratch. An important point with children who are raised and socialized in our society to be perfect little consumers.

We also looked at the portrait of Mary Fiennes, née Nevill, Lady Dacre (1524-1576) by Hans Eworth, a famous story and person from the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I point to the book she holds and her quill and ink pot. The picture of her husband Thomas on the wall and other details. This painting has lots of texture to it. I always like to make a little point about hygiene in those days. She is portrayed covered in jewels and looking regal with a great fur on her shoulder. I tell the kids that the fur served a practical purpose, that of attracting lice since people did not bath often. The fur could be shaken off and you got rid of your body lice that way. The expression on their faces is priceless.

(c) National Trust, The Vyne; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We then went on to the next room, at this point I explain to them that we are travelling in time, more than one hundred years, the next painting was the period of the 30 years war in Europe between Catholics and Protestants (1618-1648). The Old Church in Delft by Emanuel de Witte. I showed them two paintings one done by an Italian painter for the Pope on the next wall comparing it to de Witte’s painting in the City of Delft, both are church scenes but with stark differences so you can see the effect of the Reformation on painting.

We then went on to look at other paintings by Bronzino the Court Painter of Cosimo Medici in Florence and scenes of Venice by Canaletto, the point being that I wish to impress on the kids that painters are practicing a trade and have clients and work in a social environment which dictates how they will paint and what will be the subject of their paintings. Something that does not exist today.

I also ask them to look carefully at paintings a bit like you look at a puzzle and try to solve the riddle, what is the painter trying to tell you? What do you see in the painting? Texture, colour, light, etc.

With this group I had good participation, lots of remarks, lots of questions. I always get more questions from girls than boys. Boys often are baffled by their surroundings in the museum and appear to question if this is important to know or not. They may be only 8 to 12 years old but already concepts of masculinity and manliness is ingrained in their minds. Whereas girls are much more open to the whole experience and are ready to be charmed by what they are looking at. With boys they often cannot tell me what they are looking at, they do not want to look foolish in front of others. Girls do not have such reservations.

I am just happy if I was able to impress upon a few of them, the beauty of what they are looking at and come away with a new understanding or appreciation of art.


Giovanni Antonio Canaletto, Piazza San Marco