Ever since I published ‘An art history of school inspections’ a few years ago, studying the way that art has portrayed schools has been somewhat of a hobby of mine. In this post, I’ll take you through the ways that artists throughout time have interpreted that key moment in a teacher’s year: going back to school.
To begin with, one of my favourites is this classic from the Dutch Golden Age by Jan Steen, which depicts teachers in the midst of the summer holidays.
In Steen’s painting, entitled ‘Teachers on Summer Holiday’ (c.1655-65), you can see the teachers really throwing themselves into relaxing. The teachers featured in this painting were very keen to explain that the artist captured them at the moment they were “taking a short break between reading some books, eating healthily and working out at the gym”.
Another painting depicting the leisurely mood of teachers during the holidays is Lucian Freud’s ‘I Might Even Get Dressed At Some Point Today’ (1950-1), shown below. You can tell from the way that the light falls that the moment captured is around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
The pastel shades and relaxed mood of Freud’s painting is often contrasted, by critics, with the dark ominous colours of Isaac Israels’ ‘One Week In, The First “Back to School” Shop Window Display’ (1894).
Israels’ somewhat sombre painting shows the portentous moment when the idyll is shattered and the thought of having to go back to work at some point comes crashing down on the teachers stood at the window, as they stare at the display.
Moving on to the painting below, we are introduced to one of the key themes of back-to-school art: school nightmares.
This classic of the genre is Théodore Roussel’s ‘The Back to School Nightmares Begin’ (1886-7). Here, the painter portrays the dream of a teacher in the days just before the autumn term begins. The teacher dreams that she is in the staffroom looking through the staff handbook. He captures the dream in the moment just before she realises that she has forgotten to put any clothes on and will wake up in a state of sheer panic. This particular genre has been the source of many works by a range of artists, notably Bosch’s ‘I Dreamt My Voice Wasn’t Working and None of The Children Were Listening to Me’, and Vermeer’s ‘I Think I Just Said **** In Assembly’.
The above piece of artwork, by British pop artist Richard Hamilton, is entitled ‘Sorting the Classroom and Putting Up Displays’ (1964). A famous piece of contemporary art, it shows the teacher in her classroom in the days before the pupils start back at school. The teacher has spent hours making the classroom look nice and freshening up the wall displays, and here she takes a moment to look around her and absorb the room, disheartened by the knowledge that it will never look quite as nice as this again for the entire year.
As the day of return grows ever closer, such preparations truly begin in earnest, as we can see below.
Sir Nathaniel Bacon’s ‘The First Week’s Lunches’ shows a well-meaning teacher preparing her daily lunches for her return to work. She has optimistically bought lots of vegetables and fruit for various healthy meals, the sheer volume of which suggesting that her intentions are to continue in this vein. Yet the real genius of this painting is in the detail: note how the artist cleverly depicts a look of uncertainty on the teacher’s face, showing us that even she knows she’ll be eating chips from the school canteen by the second week.
There are many paintings that depict the reality of the first day back, but none are more well-loved than George Elgar Hicks’ ‘You Have to Go In, Dear, You’re the Headteacher’ (1863), below.
In the painting, the headteacher tries to pretend that it is still night-time by covering his eyes and making it dark. His wife is deploring him to pull himself together and get into work as she is sick of coming home from her tough, high-flying job in the city only to find that he’s been lounging around watching Netflix all day and hasn’t done any of the jobs around the house that he’d promised to do.
The first day back has finally arrived in Benjamin West’s ‘These Are the New Guys’ (1776), which depicts the moment when the school’s new staff members are introduced in the first staff meeting, and the entire faculty stare back at them. The new staff members hang their heads and blush as every current member of staff looks at them, some with a sense of envy at their youth, and some with a sense of pity at what these new guys have let themselves in for.
Contemporary British artist Julian Opie turns his attention to the daily commute. Opie highlights the misery of sitting in traffic every day by presenting it in relief: ‘Memories of Empty Roads’ (1998-9) cleverly shows us not the gloomy traffic but the clear open roads enjoyed by everyone during the previous six weeks, starkly reminding us all of happier, carefree times.
Perhaps the most famous image in the whole of the back-to-school genre is Henry Wallis’ ‘End of the First Week Back’ (1856). Here, the clothed teacher is bathed in early morning light, showing that he has fallen asleep in his clothes, such was his fatigue. The peaceful look on the teacher’s face is in contrast to the ripped-up paper on the floor, which is the result of various shredded worksheets that he has printed and then subsequently realised are riddled with spelling and content errors, due to his sheer tiredness. One should note that the exhausted teacher shown here is actually positively vibrant when compared to how he will look some eight weeks later.
I hope you have enjoyed seeing some of my favourite pieces of back to school art – I’m sure you’ll agree that the genre has inspired some great works throughout the centuries.