Picture Study Movement

The study of art appreciation in America began with the Picture Study Movement in the late 19th century and began to fade at the end of the 1920s. Picture study was an important part of the art education curriculum. Attention to the aesthetics in classrooms led to public interest in beautifying the school, home, and community, which was known as “Art in Daily Living”. The idea was to bring culture to the child to change the parents.

Picture study was made possible by the improved technologies of reproduction of images, growing public interest in art, the Progressive Movement in education, and growing numbers of immigrant children who were more visually literate than they were in English. The type of art included in the curriculum was from the Renaissance onward, but nothing considered “modern art” was taught. Often, teachers selected pictures that had a moral message. This is because a major factor in the development in aesthetics as a subject was its relationship to the moral education of the new citizens due to the influx of immigrants during the period. Aesthetics and art masterpieces were part of the popular idea of self culture, and the moralistic response to an artwork was within the capabilities of the teacher, who often did not have the artistic training to discuss the formal qualities of the artwork.

A typical Picture Study lesson was as follows: Teachers purchased materials from the Perry Picture Series, for example. This is similar to the prepackaged curriculum we have today. These materials included a teacher’s picture that was larger for the class to look at together, and then smaller reproduction approximately 2 ¾” by 2” for each child to look at. These were generally in black and white or sepia tone. Children would often collect these cards and trade them much like modern day baseball cards. The teacher would give the students a certain amount of information about the picture and the artist who created it, such as the picture’s representational content, artist’s vital statistics, and a few biographical details about the artist. These were all included in the materials so an unskilled teacher could still present the information to his or her class. Then the teacher would ask a few discussion questions. Sometimes suggestions for language arts projects or studio activities were included in the materials.

The picture study movement died out at the end of the 1920s as a result of new ideas regarding learning art appreciation through studio work became more popular in the United States.