Art State of Mind

School and Learning in the Eyes of Artists

Europeana 2 September 2020 min Read

This year changed a lot about the way children and students attend school. While some students around the world will go back to school this September, many will continue taking classes online. Art is a great way to put things into historical perspective, so let’s see how painters from various countries and periods in history depicted the theme of school.

Home Schooling

This year many children and their families experienced education at home for the first time. Yet, before the introduction of compulsory school attendance (in the majority of countries in the 19th and 20th century), learning at home or within the local community was a common practice. Of course the amount and quality of learning was related to wealth and status.

Back to School in Art: Adriaen van Gaesbeeck, Young Man in a Study,
Back to School in Art: Adriaen van Gaesbeeck, Young Man in a Study, 1640, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The young boy in this painting, Adriaen van Gaesbeeck, was initially incorrectly identified as Hugo de Groot, Dutch humanist, diplomat, and lawyer. He is standing in front of a work table in the interior of a study. An open book, map, lute, ink set, globe, and a statue of Venus sit on the table. Shelves against the wall contain books and a map in rolls. In the foreground are another book, a map and a plaster head on the floor. On the right is a staircase to the upper floor and on the stairs is a girl with a book under her arm. In the middle stands a column with a painting of a child's portrait.

A Village School

This work by Oscar Björck depicts the classroom in the small school in Skagen, a village popular among Scandinavian painters because of its picturesque landscapes and the warm local community.

Back to School in Art: Oscar Björck, In the Village School,
Back to School in Art: Oscar Björck, In the Village School, 1884, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

The teacher, dressed in black, resembles a Madame Henriksen who can be seen in several paintings with motifs from Skagen by Björck and other artists. She is spinning wool, while the students concentrate on their reading.

The First Day of School

The first day of school is an important milestone for both children and their parents. On the left, we see a group of schoolboys. Behind them walks a servant carrying an embroidery frame (needlework was a favorite pastime of women in affluent Turkish circles). Following them all is a mother, accompanied by a group of women, bringing her daughter to school for the first time.

Jean Baptiste Vanmour, The First Day of School,
Back to School in Art: Jean Baptiste Vanmour, The First Day of School, 1720-1737, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Jean Baptiste Vanmour specialized in depicting life in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. His works illustrated both official events as well as daily life in and around Istanbul.

Evening school

Evening or night schools for children were established in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 19th century. This type of school served children who could not attend school during the day or who wanted to continue their education.

Back to School in Art: George Gillis Haanen, The Evening School,
Back to School in Art: George Gillis Haanen, The Evening School, 1835, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In this painting by George Gillis Haanen, we see the interior of an evening school. A mother with a lantern brings in her son. In the middle, we see the master behind his desk. On the right students are reading by candlelight while on the left, two boys are standing by a stove.

Open-Air School

Currently outdoor lessons are being discussed mainly in the context of children's health. The schools set up during the outbreak of tuberculosis in the period leading up to the Second World War are another example. However open-air teaching in many parts of the world has been taking place for various reasons: from socio-economic issues to lifestyle or climate-related.

Leopold Carl Müller, Schule in Oberägypten
Back to School in Art: Leopold Carl Müller, Schule in Oberägypten, 1881, Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria.

This painting by Leopold Carl Müller presents an open-air school in Upper Egypt in 1881. The students sit on the ground and concentrate on reading and writing. Meanwhile a serious-looking teacher is observing them. In the background, we see more groups of children with their teachers. Leopold Carl Müller spent a lot of time in Egypt, painting the local life and landscape and is renowned as the most important Austrian painter of the Orient.

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