Frederick Whitney’s Blackboard Sketching (1909)

In his brief introduction to Frederick Whitney’s Blackboard Sketching, the American painter and educator Walter Sargent writes that “to draw easily and well on the blackboard is a power which every teacher of children covets. Such drawing is a language which never fails to hold attention and awaken delighted interest”. Aimed at educators looking to improve their lesson plans, these drawings may capture the attention of young students, but Whitney’s illustrative plates for Blackboard Sketching are also capable of awakening a childhood wonder in their adult viewer. Using simple strokes — “a straight mark with the side of the chalk”; “a quick back-and-forth movement”; “a graded stroke from side to side” — he summons lifelike oyster shells, Shakespearean castles, and cozy Christmas hearths. Out of dusty chalk, dreamlike scenes emerge. And while the natural imagery feels timeless, other details ground this carbonate imagination in a particular romantic vision of the United States at the century’s turn. There are log cabins of homesteaders, square-rigged ships on the high seas, wigwams nested in dark groves, and, in the final and most bizarre image of the book, a cut-out photograph of a child dressed in cotton batting, posed in front of a chalk backdrop of igloos and icebergs. Using this same technique, Whitney claims, “A Japanese Day, An Indian Entertainment, A Soldiers’ Camp Ground, A Lumber Camp, and many others, are easily arranged.”

The Director of Art at the State Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts (now Salem State University), Charles Frederick Whitney (1858–1949) provided art instruction to a student body composed of mostly working-class women. He lectured on “The furnishing of the simple home” and “The symbolism of color”, and taught courses on weaving, drawing, and handwork. Whitney is remembered by his 1920 pupils as having the “apparent hobby” of “looking distinguished” and for frequently uttering the phrase: “Bully, girls, very harmonious”. He seems to have appealed to harmony across his career: seven years later, students asked in their yearbook, “What would happen if Mr. Whitney wasn’t dressed harmoniously?”, and recounted visiting their art teacher’s “enchanting home”, where his “rich oriental rugs, the delicate hangings, the deep cushions, and the neutral lamp shades” created “a complimentary harmony”. As an artist, he made water-color sketches of natural landscapes, and went on to publish another book, Indian Designs and Symbols (1925). Upon retirement, Whitney was memorialized through a plaque presented by the Class of 1928, remembering their instructor as a “Teacher . . . Artist . . . Friend”.