Picture Study Throughout the Forms

Charlotte Mason Picture Study Throughout the Forms


Picture Study is one of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education.  Sharing the beauty of art with children is something we feel strongly about at The Plenary. Giving students a love and appreciation of art is something that will stay with them throughout their lives. It can breathe life and joy into your homeschool by exposing students to pictures worthy of remembrance; to give them a “picture of beauty to carry away in their minds.”

Charlotte says “when children have begun regular lessons (that is, as soon as they are six), this sort of study of pictures should not be left to chance, but they should take one artist after another, term by term, and study quietly some half-dozen reproductions of his work in the course of a term.”

The goal is to expose students to many different artists over the course of their school years:

“Every painter, every composer, worth the name, has a few master ideas, which he works out, not in a single piece, but here a little and there a little, in a series of studies. If we accept the work of the artist as a mere external decoration, why, a little of one and a little of another does very well; but if we accept the man as a teacher, who is to have a refining, elevating effect upon our coarser nature, we must study his lessons in sequence, so far as we have opportunity. A house with one or two engravings from Turner in one room, from Millet in another, from Corot’s pictures in a third, would be a real school of art for the child; he would have some little opportunity of studying, line by line, three masters at least, of comparing their styles, getting their characteristics by heart, perceiving what they mean to say by their pictures, and how they express their meaning. And here is a sound foundation for art-education, which should perhaps, for most of us, consist rather in drawing out the power to appreciate than the power to produce.”

But how do we implement this study? And does Picture Study change as students get older? In the Parents’ Review, a newsletter published by the Parents’ National Education Union, we have outlines of these lessons given to Charlotte’s students. The “Notes of Lessons” labeled “Picture Talks” shows us how Picture Study progressed as students advanced through the Forms, or grades. It starts very simply with younger students but definitely asks more from older students.

PICTURE TALKS We attach a good deal of value to what we call picture talks, that is: a reproduction of a suitable picture, by Millet, for example, is put into the children’s hands, and they study it by themselves. Then, children of from six to nine describe the picture, giving all the details and showing by a few lines on the blackboard where is such a tree or such a house; judging if they can the time of day; discovering the story if there be one. The older children add to this some study of the lines of composition, light and shade, the particular style of the master; and reproduce from memory certain details.”


We follow Charlotte’s method here at The Plenary by choosing one artist to study per term. Traditionally, six prints are studied per term. Select six prints from your chosen artist and focus on one at a time for each two week period.

When you introduce the first print at the start of a term, provide students with a little background information about the artist. Give the students one print to study for a few minutes and ask them to quietly memorize as many details from the painting as they can. Give them a few minutes to look at the painting and then turn the painting face down. Ask the students to “describe some things you remember from the painting.” In the beginning, this may be as simple as “I saw clouds in the sky and a building on the ground.” Be patient, as the memory skills will improve with every lesson. Let the students try to recall as many details as possible from the painting, narrating back to you as much as they can remember.

After they are finished with the memory exercise, turn the painting right side up and look at it again. Here is where you can give them a little information about the painting. Relate the size, medium used, where the painting is currently located, etc. Share any related background information to help bring attention to important aspects of the artwork. Continue to look over the painting together for a few more minutes and let the students share more of their observations if they’d like to.

That is the basic method of Picture Study. Now let’s look at how this process might differ slightly in each one of the Forms.

Not sure what Forms are? Read our post Understanding Forms in a Charlotte Mason Education.


Picture Study in Form 1 can be very simple or it can be more in-depth, depending on the individual painting being studied. In this example from Volume 1, Charlotte discusses a Picture Talk with the painting Alexander and Diogenes by Edwin Landseer.

The teacher’s goals are listed as:

  • To continue the series of Landseer’s pictures the children are taking in school
  • To increase their interest in Landseer’s works
  • To show the importance of his acquaintance with animals
  • To help them to read a picture truly
  • To increase their powers of attention and observation

The time given for the lesson is 20 minutes. The steps of the lesson are as follows:

STEP I Ask the children if they remember what their last picture-talk was about, and what artist was famous for animal-painting. Tell them Landseer was acquainted with animals when he was quite young: he had dogs for pets, and because he loved them he studied them and their habits – so was able to paint them.

Edwin Landseer - Alexander and Diogenes
Alexander and Diogenes by Edwin Landseer

STEP II Give them the picture Alexander and Diogenes to look at, and ask them to find out all they can about it themselves, and to think what idea the artist had in his mind, and what idea or ideas he meant his picture to convey to us.

STEP III After three or four minutes, take the picture away and see what the children have noticed. Then ask them what the different dogs suggest to them: the strength of the mastiff representing Alexander; the dignity and stateliness of the bloodhounds in his rear; the look of the wise counselor on the face of the setter; the rather contemptuous look of the rough-haired terrier in the tub. Ask the children if they have noticed anything in the picture which shows the time of day: for example, the tools thrown down by the side of the workman’s basket suggesting the midday meal; and the bright sunshine on the dogs who cast a shadow on the tub shows it must be somewhere about noon.

STEP IV Let them read the title, and tell any facts they know about Alexander and Diogenes; then tell them Alexander was a great conqueror who lived 356-323 [B.C.E.], famous for the battles he won against Persia, India, and along the coast of the Mediterranean. He was very proud, strong, and boastful. Diogenes was a cynic philosopher. Explain cynic, illustrating by the legend of Alexander and Diogenes; and from it find out which dog represents Alexander and which Diogenes.

STEP V Let the children draw the chief lines of the picture, in five minutes, with pencil and paper.

“give them another picture of beauty
to carry away in their minds”

So Form 1 students had a simple lesson on one painting which included necessary background info provided by the teacher. Here is another Form 1 example using the painting Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse which is based on a poem of the same name by Alfred Tennyson. The teacher’s goals were:

  • To give them another picture of beauty to carry away in their minds
  • To show them how the idea of a story is worked out in the composition of the picture
  • Through in reading a poem we all form mental pictures, an artist alone is able to show us its true beauty

After showing the painting to the students, the teacher asked them to narrate the painting, telling everything they can remember. Then she asked the students questions regarding the season, time of day, trees, river and other main features in the painting. She then asked them about the story of the painting: what kind of story does this painting tell? She then imparted to the students that “every artist has an idea which he or she wishes to be interpreted” and she told them that the subject of this painting is taken from a poem, conveying the idea that an artist shows us his or her conception of a subject through the painting.

The teacher then told the students the story of the Lady of Shalott from the King Arthur stories and she read a few lines of Tennyson’s poem. She read the last verses of the poem to them, revealing the curse which fell on the “Fair Lady of Shalott.”

John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott
The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
   Over tower’d Camelot;

Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
   The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
   She floated down to Camelot:

And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
   The Lady of Shalott.

The teacher then asked the students if they could discern which verse especially illustrated the picture. Afterward, she hoped the students would see “the idea of beauty which the artist has taken from the poem to express in his picture, namely, one expressing mystery, wonder, and awe.”

The next step in the lesson was to “draw out from them how the composition of the picture harmonizes with the idea of the artist. Notice the expression of the face, the silence of the night, the absence of action in the picture, so as not to destroy the idea of silent amazement and wonder. The only movement is that of the swift, quiet swallows, by contrast. Notice the careless unloosing of the chain and the dreamy attitude of the figure.”

And finally, the teacher pointed out how the artist used light and shadow as well as “how the tones of the picture harmonize with the subject.”

These two examples give you an overall idea of how varied a Picture Study lesson might be with Form 1 students, depending on the painting and subject matter.


Picture Talks with Form 2 students began to discuss a bit more detail about the works studied. They were also asked to compare and contrast within an artist’s scope of work. They were given more information about the background of each painting and were sometimes asked to think how it might relate to current events. Take this example from a Form 2 Picture Talk discussing The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild painting by Rembrandt. The time given for the lesson is 20 minutes.

The teacher’s goals were:

  • To help the children to appreciate Rembrandt and his works.
  • To increase their power of observation.
  • To show Rembrandt’s chief characteristic as an artist: his wonderful arrangement of light and shade.
Rembrandt The Syndics of the Drapers
The Syndics of the Drapers by Rembrandt

Step I Ask the children to narrate what they know of Rembrandt’s life. Supplement by giving further details of the artist’s life.
Step II Give each child a reproduction of The Syndics of the Drapers. Let them study the picture well, then remove.
Step III Draw a detailed description of the picture from the children. Amplify, with questions as far as possible. This picture represents a company of men (drapers) who have come together to discuss the affairs of their trade. Mention the Clothworker’s Company of today. Notice and account for different expressions on the men’s faces. Notice the man with no hat in the background. He is a servant.
Step IV Return pictures to children. Ask them what they take to be the chief characteristic of the work (as regards the tones of the painting). The light on the faces, collars and book contrasting with the somewhat dark tones of the rest of the picture. This is so beautifully balanced that not a little piece of light could be taken away without spoiling the whole effect. Help the children to appreciate this quality and ask them if they have noticed this fact in the other Rembrandts they have taken.
Step V
Let the children draw from memory the leading lines of the picture.

Step #3 shows how the teacher connected the 1662 painting to modern current events. She relates the men of the Dutch guild to the current Clothworker’s Company of England. She is asking the students to compare and contrast the industry from Rembrandt’s painting to the modern day textile industry of England. Step #4 asked the students to compare the current painting with other works by the same artist that they might have seen or studied previously.


Form 3 students also studied an artist in order to help them improve their own original illustrations. They looked at the artist’s style and use of lines and transferred that information to their own watercolor paintings.

The time given for the lesson is 25 minutes. The goals of the lesson were: 

  • To give the [students] some idea of composition, based on the work of the artist Jean Francois Millet
  • To inspire them with a desire to study the works of other artists, with a similar object in view
  • To help them with their original illustrations, by giving them ideas, carried out in Millet’s work, as to simplicity of treatment, breadth of tone, and use of lines
The Sower by Jean François Millet
The Sower by Jean François Millet

STEP I Introduce the subject by talking with the [students] about their original illustrations. Tell them how our great artists have drawn ideas and inspiration from the work of other artists; have studied their pictures, copied them, and tried to get at the spirit of them. Tell them that today we are going to study some of the pictures of the great French artist, Millet.
STEP II Tell the [students] a little about the life of Millet (giving them one or two pictures to look at meanwhile); give only a brief sketch [of the art’s bio], so that they will feel that he is not a stranger to them.
STEP III Show the pictures to the [students], let them look well at them, and then draw from them their ideas as to the beauty and simplicity of the composition; call attention to the breadth of tone, and the dignity of the lines. Help them, sketching when necessary, to reduce a picture to its most simple form; half-closing their eyes to shut out detail, help them to get an idea of the masses of tone, etc.
STEP IV Let the[students] reproduce a detail of one of the pictures, working in watercolor with monochrome and making their washes simple and flat, reducing the tones to two or three.
STEP V Suggest to them to study the works of other artists in a similar way.


In Form 4, students were asked to compare and contrast an artist’s work with one or more other artists. The time given for a Form 4 lesson is 35 minutes. The goals of this particular lesson about Michelangelo were:

  • To increase the student’s knowledge of the artist studied
  • To appreciate the artist’s work
  • To point out the chief characteristics of Michelangelo’s style: his “passion, strength, perfection of line, and accurate anatomy”
  • To contrast Michelangelo’s work with the work of “several other artists, earlier and later”

STEP I Without introducing the artist’s name, “show the [students] a picture by Michelangelo, and ask them who painted it, with their reasons for assigning it to Michelangelo”
STEP II “Draw from the [students] what they already know of Michelangelo, and then give a short sketch of his life and work”
STEP III “Show reproductions of Michelangelo’s paintings, and point out their chief characteristics,” in other words, his “strength and passion, with perfect drawing, force of line and marvelous anatomy.” The reproductions of paintings shown at this lesson included details from Michelangelo’s paintings of the Ervthrean Sibyl and Charon.

Michelangelo Erythrean Sibyl
Erythrean Sibyl by Michelangelo

STEP IV Contrast the artist’s work with examples by Murillo, Botticelli, and Raphael; “notice the chief differences in style and execution,” especially Michelangelo’s force and passion.
STEP V Show the students several photographs of Michelangelo’s sculptures, “noticing that they are characterized by the same features as the paintings, but are more sublime and magnificent. Notice the exquisite play of light and shade. Show how Michelangelo’ s own character is seen in his work. He was a man of strong passions and fiery patriotism, and though bitter and even cruel to those who opposed his work, he was loving and gentle to those who loved him. He sought always to expend his passion in strong physical labor, and that is what gives such passionate strength to his work, especially to his sculpture. Like many earlier Italian artists, he studied many arts, and was a sculptor, painter, draughtsman, architect, poet, and military engineer” all in one.
STEP VI Compare and contrast his sculpture with other artists’ sculptures.

Michelangelo Tomb of Giulino de Medici
Tomb of Giulino de Medici by Michelangelo

Sculptures studied included Michelangelo’s Victory, Battle of Centaurs, and the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo di Medici.

We can extrapolate the information from Form 4 to the higher grades in Forms 5 and 6 even though no specific “Notes of Lessons” article could be found for those specific Forms.


These various “Notes of Lessons” articles give us a lot of information about how to adjust Picture Study based on the age and ability of the students. The goals for the lessons gradually increase in complexity. Some of those goals included “the idea that every artist shows us his or her conception of a subject through a painting”; that “the idea of a story is worked out in the composition of the picture”; and that “every artist has an idea which he or she wishes to be interpreted.” What idea is the artist trying to convey? And how does he want us to interpret that idea? These are grand ideas that should easily facilitate grand discussion.

“The idea of a story is worked out
in the composition of the picture”

Our Plenary Picture Study Guides provide background information and a range of discussion questions for each painting. Some paintings will have more information than others, depending on the artist’s intent and the amount of information readily available. The types of questions provided range from simple questions for younger students to more complex questions for older students. Feel free to choose background information and discussion questions that resonate with you and your individual students.


After one Picture Study lesson is completed, display the painting until a new piece is introduced. Let the students become familiar with the work by displaying it in a common area where it can be seen daily. If space permits, display all the included paintings for the length of the term.

“Paintings are now familiar friends”

At the end of the term, review all the prints together. Ask the students to compare and contrast the artist’s work. Conclude the study by asking the student to choose a favorite (or favorites) and least favorite. Discuss. Have fun. These paintings are now familiar friends that will stay with them throughout their lives.

The subject of Picture Study will give your students images worthy of remembrance; pictures of beauty “to carry away in their minds.” We hope you enjoy Picture Study with The Plenary!


Blease, Dorothy, “Notes of Lessons: Picture Talk.” Parents’ Review, Vol. 15, No. 10. 1904.
Cox, Avice M. “Notes of Lessons: Picture Talk.” Parents’ Review, Vol. 14, No. 11. 1903.
Hammond, K.R. “Picture Talks.” Parents’ Review, Vol. 12, No. 7. 1901.
Haslam, G.J. “Notes of Lessons: Picture Talk.” Parents’ Review, Vol. 17, No. 2. Feb. 1906.
Mason, Charlotte. Home Education Series: Volume 1. Home Education. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., LTD., 1905.
—. Home Education Series: Volume 3. School Education. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., LTD., 1907.
—. Home Education Series: Volume 5. Some Studies in the Formation of Character. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., LTD., 1906.
Tetley, Elsie R. “Notes of Lessons: Picture Talk.” Parents’ Review, Vol. 17, No. 1. Jan. 1906.

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