Art "Lifts Them to Her Own High Level"
Nineteenth-Century Art Education
True democracy seeks not to drag down the highest, but only to lift up the lowest. So Art, entering the world of work is not thereby degraded but, stooping to the lowly, lifts them to her own high level; giving to homely uses divine significance.
— Isaac Edwards Clarke, Art and Industry
The commerce of any country depends on the style of its goods. When a nation falls behind in design, it falls in its commercial reputation. Hence it is more important to train its workmen than to drill its army.
— Emma Woodman, "The Value of Manual Arts"
Education in the arts has been a component of American public schooling since the 1850s, but the term "art education" was used for the first time to refer to this branch of the curriculum in 1914 by Massachusetts educator Royal Bailey Farnum; prior to this date, the expression existed, but it was rarely employed by professionals and was only sporadically present in the literature of the time. The precedents for art education were clearly distinguished as fine art and industrial or manual training, two activities that targeted children of different social classes for opposite reasons. Fine art was associated with picture making or fancy drawing and was a creative exercise that upper-class children learned in private schools or from personal tutors as part of a liberal arts education. Its subject matter included still life, flowers, plants, and landscapes that were reproduced from drawing books, prints, or on rare occasions from real objects. Young men often practiced drawing in preparation for college admission or a professional career, while for women it was an essential leisure-time activity, an indispensable accomplishment to a proper upbringing in preparation for a good marriage. As middle-class women began to enter the teaching profession, starting in the 1860s, knowledge of drawing became a sign of culture and refinement and thus a valuable addition to one's personal credentials.
Industrial and manual training, on the other hand, initially included geometrical or mechanical drawing, which was officially introduced in the 1870s at the incentive of industrialists and manufacturers who needed better-prepared workers. About a decade later, more practical activities such as freehand drawing and the production of handicrafts entered the curriculum of American public schools through the kindergarten theories of German pedagogue Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852). These "applied arts" were taught to children coming into the common schools from lower-class, rural, or immigrant families with the goal of preparing them for work in the home, the farm, shops, and the factory. Both geometrical or mechanical drawing and applied arts were considered activities that could develop manual skills and ultimately enhance the quality of labor. Nineteenth-century art education, therefore, consisted of two types of instruction that satisfied diverse societal and economic needs: personal refinement and leisure activity for the upper classes, and skills improvement for the working classes and for immigrants.
The necessity for arts instruction, whether for picture making or industrial training, was grounded in nineteenth-century philosophies of art and education that saw drawing, and thus art, as the foundation of morality. Since Plato, art had always been considered the work of virtuous individuals because of its intrinsic ability to engender a good disposition as well as sentiments of awe, wonder, and appreciation of beauty as a manifestation of the divine; for this reason, it was regarded as an ennobling and uplifting activity that inspired virtuous principles, thoughts, and ultimately conduct. James Jarves, an American disciple of John Ruskin, the English philosopher and proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, wrote that "art was the spiritual side of civilization" and was "necessary to meet spiritual hunger for beauty, to influence the religious faculty, to refine the people, to expand and exalt intellect, and to correct manners and morals." According to another mid-century American art educator, James Mason Hoppin, art would "promote intellectual development" and "foster kind feelings and good manners," while Charles C. Perkins, a Boston art critic and a committee member of the Massachusetts Normal Art School, maintained that in learning art we "widen the circle of our intellectual pleasures, quicken the better part of our being, and, through the contemplation of noble objects fill our minds with elevated thoughts." It was a common belief throughout the nineteenth century that art had the potential for moral uplifting, for improving a person as a single individual and, consequently, as a member of society. From midcentury, however, the role of art in the education of the American people changed as new rationales closely tied to the social and economic climate of the time emerged.
Art Education for All: The "Art Crusaders" and Horace Mann
Art was taught in private academies for elite and middle-class children as early as the 1820s; lower-class citizens and immigrants, however, did not have access to this training until midcentury, when artists and educators advanced two new theories about the importance of art in the education of all citizens. The first idea was promoted by the so-called art crusaders, a group of artists that included John Gadsby Chapman, Rembrandt Peale, and Benjamin Coe, and centered on the concept of a democratic art, that is, an art that could be enjoyed and learned by all individuals, independently of their social and economic status. The second theory, advanced by Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, emphasized the influence of drawing on the improvement of other abilities, particularly industrial skills. Both conceptions saw instruction in art, specifically drawing, as a valuable talent that could develop not only personal character but also the power of seeing and doing.
The "art crusaders" believed that in a modern and advanced country like the United States, art needed to be made available to everyone and its benefits extended to all, both men and women, rather than be treated as an enjoyment reserved solely for and appreciated only by elites. Their fear was that if art remained a prerogative of rich young women trained in affluent finishing schools, they would become the trendsetters dictating style and taste in American society; this was antithetical to the country's democratic ideals of liberty and equality. The common people, especially members of the lower classes, could obtain the greatest advantages from learning art because its production and appreciation could lead to an amelioration of character and senses: men could be transformed "from insensitive workaday creatures into positive receptors (if not creators) of the beautiful," while women could "have a healthy influence on [their] children."
Additionally, the crusaders thought that knowledge of drawing was the means for refining not only the people but also the quality of their work; women could beautify their homes by making articles "of taste and fancy," factory workers could more efficiently operate machines, and artisans could make better and more valuable handcrafted products. This acquired ability to discern and appreciate beauty was fundamental to America's attempts at asserting her material progress and establishing herself as an international cultural, economic, and political power. Art, therefore, could improve individual character, bring forth a more refined generation of citizens, provide a better livelihood for skilled workers, and contribute to the economic well-being of the country.
According to the crusaders, the most democratic way to teach art to the masses was through drawing manuals that could be used for independent learning, thus eliminating the need for attending classes at expensive private institutions or hiring tutors; education was to occur at one's own pace and leisure. The problem was the lack, or the inadequacy, of publications suitable for teaching, and while Chapman, Peale, and Coe had firsthand knowledge of art, they had neither familiarity with nor background in art educational practices. This, however, did not deter them from their goal. As they discussed the best practical approaches to art instruction, their ideas were soon fashioned around two well-established and complementary art theories. The first stated that knowledge of drawing helped develop an appreciation for old masters and, ultimately, for beauty and truth. Great artwork from the past was the first step toward seeing the splendor of nature, which, as the eminent manifestation of the divine origin of things, was the source of truth. The second theory affirmed that the act of observation was closely tied to moral education. The accurate vision acquired through a sensible perception of beauty was the foundation of rectitude and morality and was indispensable for leading a principled and prosperous life. The method proposed by the crusaders thus emphasized the importance of drawing as the foundation of seeing, and seeing as the basis of morality; they saw art education as the way in which less-cultured Americans could develop this power of observation in order to attain "clarity" of sight and learn the proper ethics of the dominant society.
The crusaders' ideas were also largely influenced by the writings of Swiss educational philosopher Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827). An educational reformer working in Switzerland, Pestalozzi was a fervent critic of the educational methods of his time; he disapproved of mechanical learning through drills, repetitions, and harsh discipline because they impeded the child's natural abilities and mental development. Instead, he advocated a philosophy that centered on three main tenets: the power of women educators, the fundamental role of nature, and the connection between training and life after school. He firmly believed that because of their natural disposition to love and nurture, women were the best educators, particularly a child's own mother, and that children learned best through personally observing, experiencing, and sensing their surrounding reality. He was also convinced that education should prepare pupils for the lives they would lead after school and thus be relevant and connected to an occupation or profession. This pedagogical approach was recognizably captured in his motto — to educate the head, the heart, and the hand — a dictum that was to be adopted by late nineteenth-century American educators.
Pestalozzi dedicated only one book to the subject of drawing, but it is from this volume, ABC der Anschauung, written with a teacher colleague and published in 1803, that the crusaders derived most of their pedagogical notions. For Pestalozzi, drawing was "a means of leading the child from vague perceptions to clear ideas" in that it allowed him to more clearly see each form present in nature as part of a greater whole, rather than as isolated elements. As a result, he suggested teaching drawing in a very structured and sequential manner that started with basic principles of straight lines, progressed to vertical and oblique lines, and ended with curves. He advised teachers to draw on the board and let children copy and practice until they learned how to correctly sketch the sequences presented. After these steps had been grasped, students could draw objects by using a combination of these lines and basic forms.
The crusaders' theoretical ideas about art and Pestalozzi's blueprint of fundamental drawing principles were combined into drawing manuals such as Easy Lessons in Landscape Drawing by Coe (1840) or The American Drawing Book by Chapman (1847). These books proposed a methodology that moved progressively from simple exercises with lines (straight, curved, angled) and geometrical figures to more complex pictures in perspective, landscape, and finally the human body. This step-by-step teaching approach ensured that all learners mastered the primary elements of drawing before venturing into depictions of more elaborate natural forms; and in order to do so, it included systematic instructions that guided the novices through every step of the process. For example, when it came to drawing straight lines, all manuals directed the student to start by fixing random points along a ruled faint line and then connecting them together from left to right and vice versa. Similarly, curved lines had to be drawn by sweepingly linking points marked along two parallel ruled lines. These marks exemplified the educative power of drawing for they were the "products of a disciplined mind directing a trained hand, not a spontaneous expression of uncontrolled inspiration"; consequently, manuals contained numerous and tedious exercises on these important steps. The order of learning was essential, because if a foundational element was missing, the others could not be studied and practiced. Also, according to crusader Rembrandt Peale, correct and sequential learning allowed one "to obtain and cultivate a correct vision," which was imperative. Students were taught "how to see and what to see" through basic compositional principles to be applied to the drawn objects, whether persons, a landscape, or still life. This insistent emphasis on order, rationality, and adherence to geometric style rules further testifies to the perceived role of drawing as a democratic art — something that anyone could do by simply following directions — and an instrument for teaching discipline and thus morality, as it could improve any person and character.
Drawing manuals marked the first step toward a democratization of art, soon becoming very popular and being published in high numbers; by 1860, more than 145 manuals penned by different authors were in print. Confident that this popularity would open the doors to the teaching of art in common schools across the country, the crusaders made several attempts to officially introduce drawing in Massachusetts and in the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cleveland, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite their concerted efforts, drawing manuals were never adopted as textbooks during their lifetime. Many school administrators, in fact, were reluctant to make drawing a part of their school curricula because they did not see the usefulness of this instruction for a lower-class student population; in their eyes, drawing was still a fine art and, as such, it had no relevance in the lives of future workers and manual laborers. An official rejection of drawing at the higher levels of the educational bureaucratic machine did not mean, however, that this subject was completely absent from public education; more and more teachers, in fact, began to propose it in their own classrooms and follow the steps outlined by the crusaders.
Similar attempts at introducing formal education in drawing were made by Massachusetts educator and advocate Horace Mann, one of the leading figures in the establishment of the Boston common schools. Mann's favorable attitude toward drawing was based on three main arguments: first, drawing could improve children's handwriting; second, it was an essential industrial skill; and third, it was a moral force. These ideas mostly matured during an 1843 trip to Europe and after an observation of schools, hospitals, and other public institutions in England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the German states. Mann was particularly struck by the Prussian educational system and by the close connection between penmanship and drawing that was emphasized in its institutions; he attributed the excellence of the students' handwriting "in a great degree to the universal practice of learning to draw, contemporaneously with learning to write." He concluded that children learned to write sooner and more easily if they already possessed knowledge of drawing because their eyes had already received training in observation, recognition, and imitation, that is, in skills that could later be applied to writing.
In addition to facilitating writing and penmanship, Mann conceived of drawing as an "essential and indispensable" art for any workingman or -woman; in his view, in fact, it could be applied to any kind of work, for example plotting a field, sketching a road, outlining a machine, building a piece of furniture, or even designing the structure of a house. As a result, drawing was a skill that every worker had to know: it developed the "talent of observing" and was useful to any condition in life. Lastly, Mann believed drawing to be a moral force in that it conferred on the person a new sense of reality by which he was enabled to better perform his duties in life, be more serviceable to others and thus society, and finally be more appreciative of the beauty of God's creation. Such development of the senses, complemented by proper moral and religious education, made art instruction "a quickener of devotion," a powerful instrument for the instilment of piety and zeal. One could see how the faculties acquired through training in drawing would contribute to an overall enrichment of the individual and, consequently, to his or her adult participation in society as an intelligent and productive citizen.