Art History

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We’ve always been big proponents of the study of art history as a part of the study of any historical time period. Along with literature, art provides abundant opportunities to explore what people in another time thought, valued, believed, or were interested in. Art can be studied with students in any age or grade level. The kind of discussion you will have will vary with the age of your students, but even first and second graders will find the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Pantheon fascinating.

For younger students, we highly recommend the Mike Venezia series – with 47 separate short, quirky books on artists from Giotto to Warhol. For older students, there are several good survey books, but if you and your students are interested in going a bit deeper, we have some wonderful new resources to recommend.

The first is a very handy reference book, 10,000 Years of Art from Phaidon Press published in 2009. It is VERY reasonably priced, at $11.95 and includes color images of 500 works of art. Best of all, they are arranged in chronological order.

Here’s an example: Circa 800AD, photographs of a cast bronze figure from Sri Lanka and the Book of Kells (an illuminated Bible) from Ireland. Along the header of the pages are the dates and location of each work of art. The text underneath each image is a concise, well-written summary of why each work is important.

A few pages later, with dates of 1072 and 1075 are a silk painting by the Chinese artist Guo Xi, and a panel from the Bayeaux Tapestry (which tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066).

In 1303 we have Giotto’s masterpiece, Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua) and facing it the 1308 Sienna Altarpiece by Duccio.

And then, a more modern example, from 1930, Grant Wood’s American Gothic and on the facing page Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory from 1931.

There are 500 images overall, with many familiar and famous names (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Chagall, Klee, Picasso, Van Gogh for example). Included are a large number of pieces of sculpture and more than a dozen illuminated pages from Europe, Arabia, India, & China.

The Phaidon book is extremely useful in giving teachers, parents, and students an overview of key pieces and getting them in sequence and context. If you want to study a particular work of art in detail, then you’ll want a reference book with a larger format, but as a guidebook/reference book, the Phaidon 10,000 Years of Art is a superb place to start. The book is a 543 page paperback and quite economical at $11.95 – available directly from Greenleaf Press.

For those who would like a more in-depth look at medieval architectural styles, I have run across a wonderful series of oversize hardbacks from Parkstone Press. While there are ten volumes in the full series, I would recommend in particular the volumes on Romanesque Art and on Gothic Art. For a study of the Middle Ages, these are the two broad important schools. The Parkstone volumes are gorgeous. They are oversize (9.75″x11″), and all pages are color on glossy paper. At 200 pages each, I would have expected them to cost $40 to $50 each but was quite pleasantly surprised to find that they are priced at a very economical $19.95.

Romanesque Art
covers the architectural style of churches and monasteries built in the early Middle Ages (in Italy and in northern Europe) in the first 2/3 of the book and then devotes the final third to Romanesque sculpture and painting.

Gothic Art introduces the distinctive elements of Gothic art and architecture and then covers dozens of the great gothic cathedrals with beautiful color photography of both interiors and exteriors. Like the Romanesque book, it has a complete section on sculpture and painting as well.

Both of these volumes are excellent reference works. The color photography is beautifully done. I could sit and browse through them for hours. Your students will be captivated as well. If you’re studying the Middle Ages, these are two reference books you really should have.

Published in 2008, Romanesque Art is a hardback, 200 pages, $19.95 from Greenleaf Press.

Published in 2008, Gothic art is a hardback, 200 pages, also $19.95 from Greenleaf Press.

– Rob Shearer, Publisher

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Just ran across Shelley Esaak’s art history section at I recommend it highly. She’s a delightful writer with a direct style and has a way of making art accessible, interesting, and fun.

Her descriptions of what these three titans would be like as dinner party guests seemed to me “spot on” as well as delightfully funny:

Leonardo: As a dinner guest, would monopolize all conversation (but so interestingly, none would complain), enjoy the soup (and write down half of a new, improved recipe – wandering off, midway through, to fix the leaky faucet – never to finish writing the other half), linger long enough that all would beg him to stay and leave to a loud chorus of “Come back soon!”, whilst misappropriating a wine glass and forgetting his hat.

Michelangelo: As a dinner guest, would participate in conversation just enough to avoid outright rudeness, slurp the soup (probably complaining about its lack of salt to others, after the fact) and leave early, after eating two desserts and squirrelling a third into his napkin-lined pocket.

Raphael: As a dinner guest, would bring a hostess gift, engage everyone at the table in delightful conversation, praise the soup, stay exactly the perfect amount of time and send flowers the next day.

from Art History 101 – The High Renaissance
The Big Three Names of the High Renaissance
By Shelley Esaak,

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DK Publishing has been producing some of the best children’s and young adult non-fiction reference over the past ten years. Their Eyewitness series is outstanding, both for the quality and selection of the visuals – as well as the clear narrative text that accompanies the photographs on various topics. We’ve been carrying the full Eyewitness series at Greenleaf for some time now – even adopting several titles for use in our history study packages (on Egypt and the Renaissance). I’ve been waiting, and hoping that DK would turn its considerable talents to the task of producing a comprehensive art history reference book.

They’ve done it, and it’s outstanding. Oh, I have a few quibbles, but this is a reference that no homeschool should be without. The size and comprehensive coverage of the book are impressive: 612 pages, 700+ artists, 2,500 works of art – all arranged Chronologically. Interspersed throughout the text there are themed sections on Looking at Art, Art Movements and Schools, Artist Profiles, Closer Looks, and Themes.

The Looking at Art section at the beginning is outstanding. In clear, concise terms illustrated by examples from important art works, it explains how to “read” a work of art more thoroughly, and understand what the artist was trying to achieve. Within this introductory section, there are essays on:

  • Subject and Composition
  • Perspective and Viewpoint
  • Light and Shade
  • Media and Techniques
  • Color
  • Brushstrokes and Texture

After the initial Looking At Art section of 24 pages, the rest of the book is divided into six roughly equal sections as follows:

  • Prehistory to 1400 (55 pages)
  • 15th and 16th Centuries (102 pages)
  • 17th and 18th Centuries (102 pages)
  • 19th Century (106 pages)
  • Early 20th Century (100 pages)
  • 1945 onward (100 pages)

In addition to the standard treatments and inclusion of important artists and gorgeous color photographs of their important works, there are also 21 “closer look” sections which give a detailed analysis (with lots of close-ups) on two page (and longer) spreads on these works:

  • The Book of Kells (2 pages)
  • Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (4 pages)
  • The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (4 pages)
  • Venus of Urbino by Titian (4 pages)
  • The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (3 pages)
  • Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (4 pages)
  • Las Meninas by Velazquez (3 pages)
  • Self-Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn (2 pages)
  • The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer (2 pages)
  • The Third of May by Francisco de Goya (4 pages)
  • The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner (4 pages)
  • Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet (4 pages)
  • La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (4 pages)
  • The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (4 pages)
  • The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (4 pages)
  • Guernica by Pablo Picasso (4 pages)
  • Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky (4 pages)
  • The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali (2 pages)
  • Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock (4 pages)
  • Canyon by Robert Rauschenberg (2 pages)
  • Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon (2 pages)

Here are some sample spreads to give you an idea of what a visual feast this is:

ART from DK Publishing is a hardback, 612 pages. It can be ordered directly from Greenleaf Press for $50 (click on any of the links in this message).

Rob Shearer, Publisher
Greenleaf Press