Art Should Be Truth

When we stood before the work of the apprentices, Master studied what they had done.  Then he took a brush and painted an annihilating red stroke through Cristobal’s picture and stood silent (which was praise) before Alvaro’s.  They had been set to do a still life-a piece of moldy cheese, wine in a glass, and a hard crust of bread.  Cristobal’s painting was beautiful; the wine glowed ruby through the crystal glass, the cheese looked golden and creamy, and the bread was in shadow.  Alvaro’s showed the cheese dry and covered with green mold, as indeed it was, and further, he had painted a great ugly roach on it. 

“Unimaginative Alvaro,” commented Master, smiling.  “There was a roach?”

“Yes, Master.”

Oh, how foolish, I thought.  He should have frightened it off, not painted it.

Cristobal was sulky. 

“I would like to ask, most respectfully,” he said, in a disrespectful tone, “why my painting was destroyed?”

“To teach you not to beautify.  It is a great temptation.”

Cristobal struggled not to say more, but he could not help himself.  He looked at Master with rebellion in his bright eyes.

“I thought Art should be Beauty,” he muttered.

“No Cristobal.  Art should be Truth; and Truth unadorned, unsentimentalized, is Beauty.  You must learn this, Cristobal.” 

Taken from I, Juan de Pareja written by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino.

I, Juan de Pareja is told through the voice of the slave of the great Spanish master painter Diego Velazquez.  It is the 1966 winner of the Newberry Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

Diego Velazquez lived from 1599-1660.  That was a long time ago.  You might wonder if his life, his work, and his feelings and beliefs about art could be relevant to young art students today.  (Don’t worry, I would never be as severe and harsh to my students as Diego Velazquez was to his.)  I read this passage from I, Juan de Pareja to my drawing students because I want them to understand that art is not always pretty and I want them to start to think about the many ways art can be truth.

Jen’s Chicken 1, (30 seconds)
Jen’s Chicken 2 (3 minutes)
Jen’s Chicken 3 (4.5 minutes)

Oh November

chicken profile vase, All Images by Christyl Burnett.  Copyright 2018

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

-Robert Frost

from a Boy’s Will published in 1913


I love this poem for so many reasons.  It is moody like November.  It so fits my mood in November.

If you look around on the internet you can hear a recording of Frost reading the poem himself.

I like to have my drawing students read this poem because so much of being a visual artist is about expressing feeling and mood.  To be able to do that they need to feel things.  They can’t just perfect their hand-eye coordination and other technical skills and be done with it.  If they want their work to really speak to people it has to be more than nicely rendered drawings of quaint scenes.   Also, some people write November off as an ugly month but I want to encourage my students to get outside and feel November like Frost does in his poem.   No one always feels “beach party in July.”  Sometimes we are “pity party in November.”  Sorrow is just as important in human life as joy.  Lastly I want my drawing students to read this poem because other forms of art are employed all of the time to convey feeling and mood.  As visual artists we can learn so much from exploring how other artists, such as poets and songwriters, delve into feelings and mood.