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New Card System Helps You Learn Art History

The Masterpiece Cards are a box set of 250 cards. Image via themasterpiececards.com.
The Masterpiece Cards are a box set of 250 cards. Image via themasterpiececards.com.

LOS ANGELES — I first came across them at the College Art Association conference. Amidst a sea of booths with e-readers and regular books, with scatterings of art supplies and artist signings, I saw cards. I stopped tapping and swiping my iPad for a second and looked at them more carefully: hand-sized rectangular cards. With art on them.

Masterpiece Cards are a new art learning system from Susan Benford, who heads up the company. Benford developed the cards as a learning tool of those studying art history.

“I believe that those who gravitate to paintings are typically visual people, who also tend to be tactile,” noted Benford in an email interview. “The Cards foster immediate comparisons between paintings, styles, painters and movements.”

Each card contains extensive information about the works, making them useful as flashcards or simply as an educational tool. Click to enlarge.
Each card contains extensive information about the works, making them useful as flashcards or simply as an educational tool. Click to enlarge.

I flipped through the cards and found a number of works I knew, and many I didn’t. Each painting had information on the back about their author and how they came to be. I laid them out on the table and shuffled them around. Benford’s right: it’s easier to make connections and learn about the pieces than if I simply had them on an iPad.

The collection, dubbed 250 Masterpieces in Western Painting, is a sweeping overview of classics. To select the works, Benford sifted through nearly 25 books of art history and noted the most frequent paintings cited, starting with the Renaissance and moving on up to Pop. She then picked out the top 250 and made sure each painter had at most three paintings in the card collection.

The cards are targeted at those studying art history (Benford has a few suggestions for educators here), especially at the intro college or AP high school level, but they’re a lovely way to brush up on your knowledge and find some creative inspiration. Hopefully over time, Benford will be able to develop other collections, perhaps with other selections like Laitn American and Asian art, or with more focused selections, like Impressionism or even New Media. I’d also love to see sculptural and photographic works.

But for now, the cards make a great companion set for a Museum Mile visit. “If you cull the lime-bordered Cards,” Benford suggested, “you’ll have a starting itinerary for the Met, MoMA, Frick Collection, Whitney, Guggenheim and Hispanic Society of America (which has a little known, killer Goya).”  Call me a traditionalist, but that sounds a lot more fun than carrying around an iPad.

Masterpiece Cards can be purchased online through themasterpiececards.com.  They currently have a special discount for College Art attendees, and, by extension, all of you as well.

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