Charlotte Mason and Mother Culture

Charlotte Mason talks about Mother Culture. It’s a funny play on words. Is the culture supposed to be my mother? Is she talking about socialization for mothers?

The Domain of Arnheim, Rene Magritte

I like to think of it in a Julia Cameron Artist’s Way kind of way: in order to keep feeding my children a rich diet of art and music and thought, I need to be feeding myself. Like an oxygen mask for a home educator.

The Happy Donor, Rene Magritte

Or, like the yogurt starter (aka culture) I use every week to make my yogurt. While the recipe books tell me I can use keep using last week’s yogurt to start this weeks, I find the yogurt tastes better if every 2-3 batches I use some fresh starter.

Mason encourages home educators to keep reading books for themselves, not just with their children. She says we should have 3 books going at all times:

Besides my Bible, I always keep three books going that are just for me – a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel or one of poetry. I always take up the one I feel fit for. That is the secret: always have something ‘going’ to grow by.”…

While I don’t strictly adhere to this recommendation, slipping into a book for a few minutes each day helps me immensely. But sometimes I need more than that.

Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

This month I had a chance to slip away (twice!) to an art museum without my kids. At the beginning of the month, my friend Amy and I hit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Magritte exhibit. It was a great collection of works. (I also listened to audio tour through their free app and was able to show my kids a few of the pictures that way. I think it’s freely available even if you can’t make it to the museum in person.) The day was delightful on so many levels: reconnecting with an old friend, amazing art, time away…

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet

Then for my birthday, we happened to be in Chicago. I met my friend Gina at the Art Institute of Chicago. My kids had expressed interest in going, but I said no, not without a twinge of guilt. We had just a few hours, but we hit a whole bunch of my favorites: the Chagall windows, A Rainy Day in Paris, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Cezanne’s Apple and Oranges. While her conversation was the biggest blessing of that day, the art itself filled me up in ways I’d forgotten I needed.

Still Life with Basket of Apples, Paul Cezanne

My kids have recently put up some resistance against Picture Study, but the joy I felt at seeing the originals of pictures we’ve studied reminded me it’s worth it. Their disappointment in not going told me it’s worth it. I have renewed motivation to keep up with the daily work.

What’s your oxygen mask/yogurt starter right now?

Taking Children to the Museum


After the  Musee D’Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum is one of my favorite places. It has really thoughtful spaces and projects put together to help kids enjoy art. This was my first trip to the museum with the kids since my friend Amy moved away. She was my Art Museum buddy for years. Even though no one wore formal attire this trip, we had a great experience.

I took them to a special exhibit, “Becoming Van Gogh.”  Normally I wouldn’t have thought to buy the audio guide headphones, but they came with our museum membership, and it enabled my “big kids” to wander the exhibit on their own, listening to the guide when they wanted (or not, depending) while I focused on making sure my littlest remembered the museum rules.  She did.


It’s been 4 years since we studied Van Gogh, and before we went, the kids enjoyed going through their old “copies” of the pictures (and their self-portraits in blue and green).  Then in the exhibit, they were fascinated with Van Gogh’s notebooks and with his drawing/paintings that were copies of other artists.  It was a great exhibit.


After working our way through (it took us about an hour), we hit the painting area, where we painted sculptures and did our own still life paintings.


We didn’t end up hitting our other favorite spots, but we will go back. After a picnic lunch on a beautiful Colorado day, we went to the (central) Children’s Library. They were like kids in a candy store. On the whole, it made for a successful day.


Have you been intimidated by taking your kids to museums?  Here are my (in-process) tips for making it a good experience:

1) Start small.  A big museum can be overwhelming.  Spending twenty minutes in a small museum is much better than 2 hours and a meltdown in a big one.

2) If you’re ready to tackle a bigger museum, plan to hit only one area.  This is where joining a museum is a blessing– perhaps grandparents would be willing to give your child a museum membership instead of toys for Christmas?  When we lived in Chicago, we were able to use free family museum passes that circulated through the libraries like books.  (What a great idea!)  Denver has SCFD Free Days at each museum through the year.

3) Something familiar in the museum can make it feel like a friend.  If your children have been introduced to one of the paintings before you go, you can plan your trip through the museum to arrive at the familiar painting like scavenger hunt.  Many museums have online sites where you can access either the gift shop or the collections, and each child can pick a picture which is “theirs.”  In the past I gave each child a postcard to carry with them to help them identify their “goal” in the museum.

4) A little Charlotte Mason here: Don’t get “between” your child and the art.  I find the more I talk to the kids about the art, the less they experience it for themselves.  When I let them interact with the art themselves, the more that art becomes their own.

5) I have given each child a dedicated Art Notebook, which we usually take with us to the art museum.  Check with your museum about whether they allow pens, colored pencils, or only regular pencils.  Looking back over this notebook before our next trip reminds them of their “favorites.”

What are your suggestions for making a museum trip a success?

Picture Study: Cezanne

I love picture study.  Recently a friend asked me what is the point of picture study: is it to teach them how to do art?  Is it to make them memorize great works of art?  Is the point the history– so they can identify different schools of art?
Education is a feast.  My goal is to set before my children- well, before all of us, really- a feast of ideas.  Ideas are more than morals, more than words, more than works of art.  But the great artists present ideas in amazing ways, and my job as a teacher is to introduce my children to them.  They don’t- can’t- take in all of a great painting any more than they can understand the whole of a great book in one sitting.  But each nibble, each time we study it, we grow a little more.

Book Review: Paul Cezanne and the Apple Boy

Product Details

Laurence Anholt has written a lovely book about Cezanne.  SweetP (3) picked this off the library shelf, and it’s been in our basket for about a week.  Last night I started reading it from the couch.  The kids were all scattered around on the floor with Legos and trains and little animals.  I read a page, showed a picture.  Read a page, showed a picture.

Several pages in, I had four children perched over me as if they were birds.  Enraptured birds with lots of questions: “Is this a true story?”  “Why didn’t he want to shake hands?”  “Did he really create a new style of art?”

Anholt’s text has a lovely rhythm, and he captures the flavor of Cezanne’s eccentricity– and gentleness– beautifully.  The children immediately wanted to hear it again, and J asked when we could study Cezanne’s art.

Five thumbs up for Paul Cezanne and the Apple Boy.

Book Review: Masterpiece


I found Elise Broach’s Masterpiece serendipitously.  We’ve been studying Albrect Durer’s art, and I hadn’t been able to find a juvenile biography of the artist.  Instead, I found this middle grade adventure novel about James, an 11 year-old boy in NYC, and Marvin, the beetle who lives in his kitchen.  Marvin happens to be an incredible artist, and his skills pull the two of them into an art heist involving Durer’s works.

We’ve listened to the book on CD and enjoyed Jeremy Davidson’s reading very much, but I almost wish we ‘d read it so that we could see Murphy’s illustrations. 

The book talks a lot about virtue, specifically the four cardinal virtues frequently depicted in Renaissance art: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.  I really enjoyed that discussion, and while a lot of it went right over the kids’ heads, some of it is still jangling around in their minds.  I can hear it.

This is another great example of a living book which can serve as a teacher.  Broach weaves an incredible amount of art knowledge into this beetle-and-boy story, and my kids didn’t even realize they were learning.  As we listened, one the kids shouted, “Mommy!  Did you hear– that’s the same artist we’re studying!  Can we look at that drawing he did?” They had no idea I had picked the book on purpose.  Five stars from us… or twelve thumbs up.

Picture Study: Mary Cassatt

We finished up our unit on Mary Cassatt last week.  The kids really liked her (and I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I like her!). 

We looked both at her earlier works (such as Woman in Black at the Opera, above) and her later works, which we recognize as more typically “Mary Cassatt”.

I have to be very disciplined about putting it on the schedule and doing it every week, otherwise other more urgent things (like laundry) push it off, and off, and off.

We usually do 5-6 paintings (or works, if the artists does sculpture, too) per artist.  I try to offer them a variety of media– one week we do pencils, one week markers, one week paints, one week pastels.  Also, one week I like to choose a particularly busy painting, and use it as a memory work.  We look at the painting for 5 minutes, and then put it away and try to recreate as much of it as we can remember.  (We do that just as a pencil sketch.  I didn’t photograph our Cassatt memory picture, but this post explains it in detail.)

This year I’m using the prints offered (free) through Ambleside Online’s Art print group.

Picture Study: Escher

Stacy has had a great series of posts on Picture study lately– be sure to check them out.

We did Klimt in September and have been doing Escher in October.  The kids have enjoyed his optical illusions, but we’ve also examined his delight in proportion and perspective.  My favorite is Three Worlds, one I hadn’t seen before this week– a very autumnal picture.  Here is O, rendering “Ascending and Descending”.

Picture Study, Day 1

We tried our first picture study yesterday.  I began with Raphael, at Karen Andreola’s recommendation (see A Charlotte Mason Companion.)  I opened the book to a one-page reproduction (about 6×9 in) of the painting and covered the opposing plate with a piece of black paper (held on with a rubber band, which also served to keep the book open to that page.  We started with "The Choice of Hercules", a painting in which Hercules is sleeping outside the city, and two women (one holding a sword & book, the other holding a flower) are standing above him.  I chose to begin with this painting because Hercules is a very familiar figure to our children.  Perhaps I should have began with a painting representing a Bible story, because we couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what the two women represented.  A life of duty vs. leisure?  Violence v. love (then what’s up with the book)?  It was unclear to us, but the picture generated some discussion, and wespent a good part of lunch looking at it.  I want to spend tomorrow morning having the kids reproduce the painting. 

As we were doing this, I was reminded how hard it is to start new things.  it was not a smooth exercise.  The kids didn’t know what I wanted.  I asked far too many leading questions to get them to give me some details.  But I have to remember that, just as with any other subject, competency comes with experience.