Long before he became known for his seascapes, Winslow Homer was a magazine illustrator. He also spent the 4 long years of the Civil War as a wartime artist and correspondent.
After the war, like most Americans, Homer wanted to put the tragedies of war behind him, get back to normal life, and look ahead to the future. What better way than to show children involved in everyday activities such as school?
In 1871 Winslow Homer painted The Country School, showing a moment in the day of a teacher and her students at a rural one-room school.
Before we look at the painting, let me explain that I usually do 4-part series about an artist and his or her work–one series per month. Starting this month you’ll receive one weekly post. Most will follow this format:
- Post 1: a short bio of an artist and 1 or 2 fun ways to enjoy the artwork with your children
- Post 2: a kid-friendly devotion related to the painting
- Post 3: an art activity related to the painting
- Post 4: an interview with a children’s author or reviews of books for children and other activities. These may or may not be related to the artwork.
For those who have been reading my blog for a while, the content hasn’t really changed. It’s just spread out over 4 weekly posts. (December and the summer months are usually exceptions to this format).
So here in Post 1 you’ll find:
- A short bio of Winslow Homer
- Activities to help you and your children enjoy and understand The Country School (You don’t have to do them all. Pick the ones that fit you and your children)
The Artist, Winslow Homer
Homer was born in Massachusetts in 1836, and grew up in a rural area near Boston. He preferred outdoor activities to school but did have an interest in art. He first learned art skills from his mother, who was an accomplished watercolor artist. After high school Homer apprenticed to a printer, then began free-lance illustrating for magazines. He specialized in scenes of everyday life and people.
When the Civil War began Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the front as an artist- correspondent. Homer’s sketches of battles and camp life helped people at home understand the life of a soldier. After the war, Homer turned some of his sketches into oil paintings which won awards and took him to Paris for a year.
Back home Homer continued painting ordinary people at the seashore,
Long Branch, New Jersey by Winslow Homer, 1869,Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, public domain
in the mountains, and on farms, as well as school scenes and the life of former slaves. He decided to return to Europe and spent 2 years living and painting in a small fishing village in England.
When Homer returned to America, he moved to the coast of Maine, where he lived and painted for the rest of his life. His studio still sits above rocky cliffs on a point that juts out into the Atlantic.
That’s the point as seen from across a tidal river. This is the gentler side of the point. The rocky cliffs are on the other side.
In Maine Homer painted his famous scenes of sea rescues and storm-tossed waves.
Sunlight on the Coast by Winslow Homer, 1890, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, public domain
During Maine’s cold winters, Homer often traveled south, painting marine watercolors that glow with light and color.
Homer took a few art lessons, but was mostly self-taught. He closely observed his subjects, whether people or landscapes. One time he walked backwards all the way home from a store so he could study a sunset. For his marine paintings, Homer carefully studied how the waves rolled in and broke on the rocks below his studio. He once said he didn’t like painting the ocean when it was too calm, likening it to a duck pond.
The Painting, The Country School
The Country School by Winslow Homer, 1871, St. Louis Museum of Art, public domain
In art a genre scene captures a moment in the life of ordinary people. The people in these scenes don’t pose, but go about their activities as if the artist isn’t there. A genre painting might show a young woman gathering eggs, or a farmer reaping grain.
Gathering Eggs by Winslow Homer, 1874, National Gallery of Art, Wash. D.C., public domain
The Reaper by Winslow Homer, 1878, public domain
Homer’s genre scenes of everyday life and people are warm and realistic. And although his career spanned the era of Impressionism, and he, too, filled his scenes with light, Homer didn’t dissolve the edges of people or objects, as the Impressionists did.
Activities to help you and your children enjoy and understand The Country School
Here’s a link to the St. Louis Art Museum where The Country School painting lives. Here you can enlarge the painting and move around it with your mouse.
Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary. Here are a few things to help the discussion.
In The Country School, it’s as if we’re standing in the school’s doorway, looking in at a moment in the day of a teacher and her students. So, let’s do that. At first glance we see light streaming in the windows of a one-room school house onto the desks of girls on one side and boys on the other, with a teacher in the center.
Take your time. The blackboard naturally draws our eyes. Because it frames the teacher, we notice this calm and serious young woman right away. Even though her dress is also black, her white apron and bright face make her stand out against the black. She’s what is called the focal point or most important part of the painting.
The teacher’s gaze takes us to the boys, who are reading aloud. Did the little girl’s red sweater catch your eye? Homer used red on purpose so your eyes don’t get “stuck” with the boys. He wants you to look around and notice other details. Artists often use bright colors in this way, so let’s go on a scavenger hunt to find and talk about some of those details.
How many of these things can you find?
- A straw hat; whose is it?
- A girl in a red sweater
- The boy with a hole in the knee of his pants
- All the girls with striped socks
- 2 metal cans or pails on a desk, do you think these might be lunch pails?
- slates; these look a little like modern tablets, but are like small blackboards
- the slate on a bench with its attached writing tool hanging off the bench
- A bunch of flowers in a glass vase
- Another big bunch of flowers; who probably picked these?
- The flower that’s fallen on the floor
- sunshine making patterns on a curtain; what’s creating the pattern?
- 2 ink bottles; imagine having to write without a computer or ballpoint pens!
- A Bible; even public school teachers could read from the Bible in class at that time!
- A bell; what’s it used for?
- All the high black boots
- 2 barefoot boys
- A little boy who’s crying
- 2 girls sharing a book
This is also a great painting to spark discussion and stories. Here are some questions to get everyone talking:
- Why do you think the girls and boys are on opposite sides of the classroom?
- Everyone is reading together. Follow the teacher’s gaze to see who is reading aloud.
- Do the children look interested and attentive?
- Why do you think the little boy is crying? This could be a good story-starter.
- Describe the clothing and hairstyles of the girls and boys. Do these children look wealthy?
Here are more ideas for discussion and/or written assignments:
The Country School by Winslow Homer, 1871, St. Louis Museum of Art, public domain
- What are some ways this classroom is like and unlike today’s? Do you see any posters on the walls? What are the desks and chairs like? This would be a good way to spark interest in researching schools of the 1800s and writing a list or short essay comparing and contrasting schools then and now.
- Children could also research clothing styles and foods of the time.
- What are some of the sounds you would hear in this classroom? (don’t forget the bell!!) Is it mostly quiet or loud?
- Write an acrostic poem using the letters from Country School to describe the sights and sound and smells of this classroom. Then write one about your present-day classroom.
- Choose one of these boys and imagine the chores he may have to do when he gets home from school. Then tell what he likes to do for fun.
- Choose one of the girls and write about her days as if she’s writing in her diary.
Winslow Homer has used careful observation to show us many things about The Country School and its teacher and students. Molly and I hope you’ll enjoy looking carefully to find all the details about the life of school children in the late 1800s.
Here’s Molly, the artsy corgi, enjoying the painting! Maybe in that second photo she can smell the lunches !!
If you write a poem or have any comments about The Country School, be sure to share them in the comment section.
We hope you’ll come back next week for a short devotion based on the painting.
Before You Go
If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter. Just click the sign-up button above on the right. You’ll receive a free guide to making art museum visits a fun masterpiece for your whole family. Even if your family isn’t into museums, the quarterly issues have lots of fun stuff for kiddos!
Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages, and coloring pages. There’s also an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.