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Katharine Martinez
Herman & Joan Suit Librarian of the Fine Arts Library
Harvard University

Civilizing Young Minds and Bodies: Picture Study and the Schoolroom Decoration Movement

American educators were deeply concerned about the affect of modern urbanization, industrialization, and popular visual culture on children, families and society at the end of the nineteenth century. Introducing the study of art masterpieces into elementary school curriculum, they believed, would produce young men and women who were mentally, morally and physically fit to contribute to a harmonious society. The Schoolroom Decoration Movement was launched in Massachusetts in 1892 and rapidly spread throughout the rest of the nation. Supporters of schoolroom decoration emphasized the connection between art appreciation and good citizenship, based on assumptions about gender norms and race. The principle underlying the movement was the belief that if a person is surrounded by beautiful pictures, they would be influenced towards leading a beautiful life. The movement relied on a set of beliefs about the relationship between mind and body, and the conviction that the mind could control the body. This paper will describe and analyze the philosophy and methodology of picture study during the 1890s, and the movement’s systematic efforts to introduce art appreciation into the public school curriculum. Art education leaders created model lesson plans for picture study for specific age groups. Exercises were purposely designed that involved posing and play-acting  to emulate figures and stories in a painting, with a goal of instructing children to conform to ideals of physical behavior and deportment, as well as spiritual health and beauty. In my presentation I will be showing a variety of photographs taken during the period, including classroom interiors and children engaged in picture study activities, as well as showing examples of preferred artwork. I will discuss the movement in the context of popular visual culture of the period, to demonstrate what the movement’s leaders thought they were working against. 

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