Learning to See Art History with Ben Leeming

One of the first homework assignments in History of Art involves what instructor Ben Leeming calls “five minutes of agony.”

And students love it.

Those five unpleasant minutes are spent in pursuit of one of the course’s overarching goals, says Leeming. “Art history teaches you to slow down and look deeply at an image,” he says, noting that today’s students live in an unprecedentedly image-saturated world. “Their interaction with the world is through imagery, in a way that’s never been matched in history,” he says. “But kids are trained to go through images very quickly. They linger maybe two seconds on an image, and then they’re on to the next thing.” Arguably, visual literacy is more crucial—yet less attainable—than ever.

Art history is the antidote. For that agonizing homework assignment, students spend 30 minutes looking at one image, Édouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” “I instruct them to open it on their computer and have it take over the whole screen,” says Leeming. “No tabs, no music, no notifications—nothing but this image.” They are asked to jot down their observations and reactions as they unfold over the half-hour session.

Kids who study art become very sharp observers of the world. And that’s important, whether you’re a doctor or an economist or in law enforcement. Art history equips students with skills that are broadly applicable.

Students report that the first five minutes are difficult. “But if they stick with it,” reports Leeming, “the most wonderful thing happens. They report noticing things they hadn’t seen at first. New things jump out. It teaches them the act of slowing down; being present and still in the presence of a work of art reveals layers of meaning we miss when we race by.”

The year-long advanced elective, offered to eleventh and twelfth graders, surveys Western art from the cave paintings of Lascaux to modern works of the 20th century. In November, as the fall trimester wound down, students spent a portion of one class discussing, in small groups, two works of Roman art created during the rule of Augustus Caesar, then sharing their observations with the class. Enabling the activity—and, says Leeming, revolutionizing the way art history is taught—were the images students were able to pull up on their individual iPads.

Leeming has taught art history at Rivers since the 2005 retirement of legendary teacher Jack Jarzavek, who created the course and built a dedicated following for it. Much has changed in the ensuing years, but the most dramatic innovation in this particular class is the iPad, which every Rivers student receives at the beginning of the school year. The device doesn’t lend itself to every subject, Leeming says, but for art history the experience has been “transformative.”

When he started teaching, says Leeming, slide carousels ruled the day, and there were limits to the number of images available to share with students. “Today,” he says, “I can find virtually any work of art in the world.” Moreover, the shift to digital enables video views, fly-throughs, and panoramic perspectives that were previously unobtainable. “They are able to essentially go into cathedrals and stand inside them, to stand on the Acropolis and get a sense of geography and scale, to virtually visit ancient Pompeii,” says Leeming. In many of these cases, the functionality of a tablet bests that of a laptop. And the iPad allows students to annotate works of art directly on the screen, using an Apple pencil.

Sharing their observations on the ancient Roman works, the students supply answers to their own questions, supported and encouraged by Leeming. He amplifies their thoughts and fills in blanks when necessary, but he allows this highly engaged group to take the lead, as the spirited discussion winds its way from the religious practices of the Romans to the etymology of the word “pope” to a brief history of pants. As the class ends, students chat happily about that evening’s much-anticipated field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Like many fields of academic exploration, art history at Rivers proceeds from a question. In this case, it’s the broadest question possible: “We begin by asking, ‘Why study art history?’” says Leeming. After all, he admits, “The society-wide trend toward STEM fields has left those of us in the humanities scrambling to make the case for why we’re still relevant. Art history makes one of the strongest cases. Kids who study art become very sharp observers of the world. And that’s important, whether you’re a doctor or an economist or in law enforcement. Art history equips students with skills that are broadly applicable.”

The argument is persuasive. “After the first three days I’ve got the majority of the class convinced, and they’re pretty excited,” says Leeming.

Created By
The Rivers School


Photos by Jane Dornbusch