Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Perspective - The 1880's - 1900-1920, "Composition" - 1900-1920, 'School Arts' - 1900-1920, Art Education Associations - 1900-1920, Art Education in the Museum of Art - 1900-1920, The Modernists - 1914-1920, War and Post War - 1920's, Progressive Education - 1920's-1930's, Professional Stabilization - 1930's, Museum Education during the Depression - 1930's, National Government in Art - 1940's, A Psychology and Philosophy for Art Education

Notes from: Logan, Frederick M . Growth of Art in American Schools, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Growth of Art
in American Schools

The Years 1900-1920, 'Composition'

For most of the years after 1900, art education was intent on discovering the nature of the plastic arts and on the methods of using that knowledge in teaching. In common with other special fields, art education dwelt upon the separate contribution of art to the individual, and was only vaguely interested in the place of art in the total educational program. [pg. 108]

Arthur Wesley Dow was fortunately the dominant influence in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

His work at Teachers College in New York City from 1904 to his death in 1922, and the earlier years at Pratt Institute, influenced generations of public-school art teachers and supervisors. There is little doubt that the art graduates of Teachers College took over the leadership in art education which had been held since 1875 by the Massachusetts Normal Art School.

The title 'Composition' has been given to this book because the system of art instruction which it represents has come to be commonly known by that name. The term composition is, however, too limited, as the system in its full development includes not only so-called composition, but all the stages of the creation of a work of a space-art . . . . This is the first publication of any consecutive series based upon the scheme of art education whose elements are here presented." [Arthur Wesley Dow, 'Composition',Bowels, 1899. p . 5] [pg. 109]

Studied art in Paris in 1890, 1981 . . . . turned to comparative art history and particularly to the study of pictorial structure, or the composition of paintings... acquainted with structural studies of Seurat and Cézanne . . . . indebted, as were the impressionists and many American artists... to the Oriental arts. Ernest Fenollosa of the Boston Museum [Curator of Eastern arts] . . . . .contributed most heavily to Dow's art analyses forming the basis for his system of instruction. [pg. 109-110]

No pronounced originality is to be discerned . . . . [His ideas] were current in many forms in advanced European art circles and among a growing scholarly group in American schools. Dow simply turned from naturalistic representation as the first requisite in the arts to a knowledge of structure, of the organization of the plastic elements of art forms. [pg. 11 0]

Most older American systems of art instruction assumed that only the artist able to draw in a highly naturalistic way was equipped to portray "ultimate truth." The recent agreement to tolerate crude children's drawings as valuable because of the interest the children took in them only put of the day when instruction in "artistic" drawing began. The academic mind did not recognize any value in individual use of design or of color; those qualities were only incidental to a work of art . . . . Opposed to this view, Fenollosa believed that beauty, not realism, was the true aim of art, and Dow's philosophy started with composition as the essence of beauty. [pg. 11 0]

The first edition of 'Composition' based instruction on the mastery of the elements of line and "notan." Color was only barely mentioned as a third element. Notan was a term borrowed from Japanese arts to describe value, or dark and light. Also borrowed from the Japanese was the suggested medium of stick ink and brush. Illustrations used in the book were from Japanese brush drawings. The numbered exercises were just as formally set down as any produced by the Prussian schoolmasters or by Walter Smith. Significantly, Dow's interest was in a new interpretation of art forms and a means of learning the practice of art through that interpretation. [pg. 11 0]

Only much later in life did his writings and teaching turn to educational methods in which student ability and interest determined the kind of work used to develop an idea. [pg. 11 0]

'Composition',revised and republished in 1913, contained exercises first in line and in "fine" proportions of spaces created by lines, then in areas of flat forms created by notan. The notan exercises started with black-and-white space division only and then moved on to the use of one or more middle gray values. All the exercises in line and in notan began with lines at right angles within rectangles. Next geometrical forms were used, and finally flower and plant motifs followed by landscapes. In the plant forms and the landscapes, flat decorative forms were used exclusively. Only a few fuzzy charcoal drawings indicate the faintest interest in three-dimensional feeling . . . . color was obviously a minor element, or a difficult one for Dow. He refers to the hue, value, and intensity as properties of color; briefly describes the Munsell system of color notation; and states rather wistfully that ". . . . color with its infinity of relations is baffling." [Arthur Wesley Dow, 'Composition',Doubleday, 1913, Chap. XIV.] [pg. 111]

The 1913 edition [of 'Composition'] more clearly outlined his Elements and Principles of Composition. The Elements remained as he had first stated them: line, notan, color. The more specifically defined Principles were: opposition, which was defined as the right angle, or the vertical contrasted to the horizontal; transition, illustrated as any line or mass which might be placed at the spot of the formation of a right angle to soften the angle by a diagonal line, a curved line, or some other shape; subordination--of the parts of a form or a design to a single element such as to a central axis or to a dominating mass--was the third principle. Repetition, the fourth principle, was noted as the source of rhythmic feeling; and symmetry, providing a picture or design in exact balance, was the fifth and last principle. [pg. 111]

. . . . the fact that for years composition courses were the fundamental work given to teacher training, while life class was the backbone of "professional" art preparation, continued to separate needlessly the two groups of students. The normal-school art classes produced graduates weak in drawing and quite inexperienced in almost all painting. The professional art students were realistic draftsmen all too slightly interested in art structure. And both groups were obviously hesitant, ill-equipped technically or through experience to make much use of color. [pg. 112]

In 1904 John Dewey left Chicago University and the Laboratory School he had been instrumental in founding to join the Teachers College Faculty at Columbia . . . . While he was on the faculty of the Univ. of Chicago, [he] contributed time and leadership to the elementary Laboratory School. All the art work the children did in that school was closely tied to the general activity of the day or week. Illustrations made by the children were of the social, historical, literary, or geographical material being studied, though the visual interpretation was obviously child like and individual. Craftwork was a so planned to amplify academic study and included work like candlemaking, papermaking, simple weaving, Sloyd work, clay modeling, and sandtable work. The faculty, with the guidance of a special art teacher, welcomed honest child expression, and was more interested in a gradual maturing of art powers than in forced mimicry of adult naturalistic drawing. [pg. 112]

It was this preference which was so well met by Dow's approach. Ordinarily, few children readily develop naturalistic drawing ability at an early age. A great many children much more easily acquire a power of organizing line, color, and shapes into a composition or design which possesses a personal distinction. [pg. 113]

Teaching art in the elementary school so as to increase the child's ability ^to compose pictorially has proven closer to natural child growth patterns than was the older attempt to teach drawing skill. [pg. 113]

The booklet, 'The Theory and Practice of Teaching Art',which Dow published in 1908, repeats with variations some of the composition problems already common in many normal-school art courses . . . . but there are glimpses of change in point of view about the application of the system to children's work. [Dow] had come to observe that younger children might wish to paint directly, and that picture making of a direct and naïve sort might have to precede for some years the beginning of any more intellectual exercise. [pg. 113]

In the Introduction he wrote: "The purpose of art instruction is the development of [creative] power . . . . the education of the whole people for appreciation." [Arthur Wesley Dow, 'The Theory and Practice of Teaching Art',Teachers College, Columbia University, 1908, Introduction.]

The happy accident of collaboration between a philosopher who believed in child expression in the arts and an artist -teacher who formulated a system of aesthetic education which aided the child's creative power gradually changed the objectives of general art education in this county.

Dow was not to contribute much more to the literature of art education after 1913 . . . . he did, in 1917, write one of the few magazine articles by any American art teacher welcoming the work of painters like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne. [Arthur Wesley Dow, "Modernism in Art," American Magazine of Art,January 1917, p. 113.] John Dewey . . . . continued his interest in the arts, which culminated in the world-wide influence of his book, Art as Experience , in 1934 [pages 202-206] .

- - - - -

After 1900- The New Century
After the Spanish-American War our national affairs were no longer merely local in importance, although to this day many American citizens wish they could be managed without regard to the rest of the world. [pg. 116]

What steps were taken in art education prior to 1900 all seem to have been attempted in the most sanguine spirit. The best of European art education and of general education, as exemplified in the kindergarten was dedicated to a liberal democratic objectives and seemed altogether available for transplanting into our schools.

After 1900 this process continued, but the country was no longer disposed to look to Europe as an unchallenged fountainhead of all wisdom in the arts, not to accept European innovations as readily and unquestioningly as in the past. For we were possessed of a large group of established and recognized artists, schools and art curricula, and a large corps of teachers with a vested interest in the school system; so that new influences from any source were meeting with the reluctance of a fully organized society to change its ways too speedily.

Then, too, the new century in America brought the beginning of doubt and of reconstruction in all phases of society. This was evident in the arts, just as much, if not more prominently, than in political life, in economic matters, and in social customs. In the twenty years before 1917, the Congress was confronted with problems like the Spanish-American War, and the unruly conscience with which some Americans rebelled at supporting a government of imperialistic intentions. The laws to attempt the curbing of monopolitic trusts, to protect natural resources from unrestrained exploitation, to equalize economic opportunity through the federal reserve banks and the income tax, and finally the decision to enter a war with the stated aim of preserving democracy beyond our boundaries were certainly efforts to stabilize and to adjust a form of society. [pg. 117]

The arts and art education during this time met problems which could not be solved simply by encouraging more activity. The new influences to be assimilated were decisive in nature, hard to understand, and are not even yet quiescent as leavening elements. The very basis of aesthetic quality was being called into question, and fundamental differences of educational method and objectives were bitterly debated. A discouraging stalemate ensued, but it was probably inevitable. No progress of value could be imagined without serious questioning of a great deal of the early teaching of drawing and the arts. [pg. 117-118]

Studies of the sort brought out conclusions in three large areas. First was a better understanding of child ability to learn some of the mechanics of drawing. Second, there began to be established an observable pattern by which children come to a maturity of visual perception and picture making. And third, there were the hazy and often contradictory attempts to reconcile excellent views on the nature of children and their art with the prevailing doctrines on art and beauty and philosophical idealism. [pg. 122]

It was at once apparent that drawings done independently of dictated lessons showed no interest in abstract or geometrical forms. [pg. 122]

An art program based on the painstaking drawing of squares in the first grade ran counter to any normal child interest. Furthermore, few young children showed any great interest in ornamentation of the surface of crafts objects, or in drawings of ornamental borders or all-over patterns on paper. Perspective as a formally taught discipline was also listed as impossible to the lower grades, and even in the upper grades there was a difference of thought. Some believed that the study of perspective and proportion should be deferred until the upper grades; and other opinion voted realistically that even in the upper grades, proportion and perspective were learned, 'here a little and there a little." In this connection, too, undefined opinions are often found that some sort of "grammar" of drawing is needed for the upper grades. What the grammar would be, what classroom activities would be used to teach it, is not made clear. [pg. 122]

. . . . the subject of child study [after the Chicago World's Fair Congresses] became the dominant form of psychological inquiry in university departments of education and in the leading normal schools. Studies aimed at discovering what children are replaced treatises guessing at their ideal potentialities. One of the most useful implements for these purposes of discovery was the product of the art and drawing classes. [pg. 118]


[Notes from: Logan, Frederick M . Growth of Art in American Schools, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.]



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