I originally posted this lesson plan/art project on my previous blog (“Bubbles and Blossoms”) on Sunday, May 2, 2010. Eric was still growing happily in my womb, and Katie was a little over two-and-a-half. During the spring and summer of 2010, we immersed ourselves in the oeuvre of several artists and worked on understanding their styles. 

Studying Mary Cassatt

Katie and I have been studying the work of Mary Cassatt (leading American female painter who studied with the Impressionists in France and was good friends with Degas) this week. A portrait of hers, “Children at the Beach,” appears in one of our “touch-the-art” books (references for purchase at the end of this post), and we really love it. I figured that Mary Cassatt, known for her paintings of mothers and children, would be especially accessible for Katie as we pursue our art history studies. Indeed, Katie has responded well to her artwork. I borrowed a huge book of Mary Cassatt’s work from the public library, and we have spent time looking at the works, talking about them, speculating about the thoughts of those potrayed, and picking our favorites.

Her work also ties in perfectly to a medium Katie already loves: oil pastel. Boppa picked out a set of oil pastels for Katie for Christmas, and we love using them. Until now, however, we haven’t placed them in any particular context. Mary Cassatt, though, regularly used oil pastels in her portrait work (although that was not her only medium). Looking through the big book from the library, I showed Katie a few portraits that used the pastels, and without telling her, has Katie deduce what material Cassatt used. I pointed to the smudging and the brightness of color (Katie is familiar with the properties of her pastels) and told her that she likes to use these, too. Katie immediately guessed, “Pastels!”

And so today’s lesson plan was born. I decided that I would use a couple of our favorite Cassatts as inspiration for a mimicry project. I chose these:

Children at the Beach. Mary Cassatt. 1884. Oil on canvas.

A Kiss for Baby Anne. Mary Cassatt. 1897. Oil pastel on paper.

With our inspiration works chosen, I went into my photograph files and selected corresponding images:

Katie and Mommy on the Beach. July 2009.


A Kiss for Little Katie. August 2009.

From there, it was easy to make little reproductions for use with our pastels. (Please don’t chuckle, as I am no visual artist myself)!

A more simple version of us at the beach.

And here is a version of our kiss…

After some review of Mary Cassatt’s work this morning and teaching Katie a little bit more about Cassatt personally, we were ready to begin our pastel work. Katie was so engaged in the project that she made me call her Mary Cassatt as we were working, and she said I could play the role of her friend Degas. When I asked Katie what Degas (she has seen some of his work, as well) was famous for painting, Katie exclaimed, “Ballerinas!”

Katie works with her pastels. I participated as well, and so some of the coloring is a collaborative effort.

Katie holds up her finished work.


A closer view of our project.

We had fun with this project, and it was personal for us as well, as the love between a mother and child is at the core of most of Cassatt’s work.

Katie really has an attention for art and art history. We first encountered the “touch-the-art” series of books by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo in our Tuesday morning art class. When Katie kept talking about the books even after our first class session, I decided to invest in them (something like $9.99 apiece from Amazon). We have “Make Van Gogh’s Bed,” “Brush Mona Lisa’s Hair,” and “Feed Matisse’s Fish.” There is at least one more that Katie hopes we get (“Pop Warhol’s Top” which features more modern works). Through these books she has been exposed to famous works by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Raphael, Monet, Rivera, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and many more.

Because she loves reading these books so much, I checked out several other art references from the library in addition to some of the textbooks we also own. She loves to look at paintings and hear about them. She is so curious, about the elements in the works (“Why is that shoe there? Who is that?”) and the artists themselves. She was so tickled to learn that Diego Rivera colored all over his parents’ walls with his crayons (similar to her artistry in the supplies cabinet a week or so ago). We talk about symbolism (she loves dogs, and so I have been pointing out dogs in marriage and romantic portraits—dogs are often a symbol of marital fidelity in classic art), and color and movement. Just today, we sat for about an hour or more just combing through an art book and talking.

She even has her own interpretation of Mona Lisa’s expression. 🙂

It really wasn’t until high school that I knew much about art (either its elements or its history), and I learned quite a bit through studying for Academic Decathlon. Art interpretation is so much fun that the art category was one of the categories in which I earned a medal during my last year of competition. Since then, interpreting and enjoying art has remained a hobby of mine, and I love being able to share it with my daughter.

I am not sure who we will study next—maybe Degas. There is a natural connection to him through Cassatt, and Katie is starting a dance class in a couple of weeks so she will have even more context. I will have to think about it. I am also gearing up to start a rocks and mineral unit with Katie, since she has shown interest in my rock collection lately. I checked out some books at the library and we have some whole quartz rocks to hammer open. But that unit will need more planning and review on my part first (to know what to teach) than the art will. No matter what though, I have always LOVED lesson planning and lesson planning for my own child/children is even more fun! We’re able to dive into any subject we want to, and Katie is just so curious and engaged—teaching her is a real treat!