There Is No Reason To Paint: The Human Obsession With Art (Middle/Highschool Teaching)

The Most Expensive Painting In The World

Say the name Leonardo da Vinci to students over the age of ten here in Canada and many of them will know to whom you are referring. You may have to remind some of them that you are not referring to a certain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but to a real historical person. Genius. Artist. Inventor. Scientist. Engineer. A multiple of titles have been ascribed to him. The epitome of Renaissance humanist ideal, he exemplifies the ultimate polymath of the Renaissance period. Art historian Helen Gardner referred to him as an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”(Gardner, 1926). While he appears to us as superhuman, the man himself seems mysterious and remote. As is the history around the painting known as “Salvator Mundi” (Saviour of the World) that recently appeared and was sold at auction by Christies’ of London for a massive $450.3 million dollars.

The most expensive work of art in history!

Saviour of the World

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”

Leonardo da Vinci 

Only 15 paintings have been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. This is a small number considering the enormity of his works.

A mystery: Originally said to be painted for King Louis XII of France in the early 1500 the painting Salvator Mundi remained in the French Royal Family until it accompanied Queen Henrietty to England as she became the bride of Charles I. In 1763, while still a part of the English Royal Family’s art collection, it goes missing! The painting mysteriously appears in 1958 at an auction at Southeby’s London, attributed to another artist and is sold for £45. A full 47 years later the painting turns up in an estate sale and is bought for a paltry $10,000. Alexander Parish and a small consortium had the painting authenticated as a genuine da Vinci and sold it to a businessman Yves Bouvier for $75-80 million in 2013. Within a year, Bouvier sells it to the Russian billionaire Dimytri Rybolovlev for a cool $125.7 million. Rybolovlev puts the painting up for sale in 2017 at Christies’ where it fetches an astronomical price.

Leonardo da Vinci

Engaging Learners With Cognitive Tools

This story has all the hallmarks of a great investigation for middle school or high school students. I envision this to be a unit shaped with tools of Romantic Understanding and Philosophic Understanding. (Not familiar with Kinds of Understanding and Imaginative Education?  Read this post.) The topic is full of mystery, creativity, power and ingenuity. The heroic qualities will depend on that direction of your investigation.

Students could become art investigators tracing the history of the painting’s origin and the artist. Who owned it? Why did it disappear? Where has it been? Why bring out now? What makes it a masterpiece worth so much money? Certainly investigating the properties of the painting is intriguing. What is so special about this painting? Does it involve the mathematics and geometry that Da Vinci often used in his art? Furthermore why is art so expensive and some pictures worth astronomical prices? One could also delve into what it means to be a genius.

Other areas of interest could spin off into the whole nature of art. While humanoids like Neanderthals did make jewelry, only Homo sapiens explored and developed the form. They literally invented painting, carving, sculpting, and architecture. It is not exactly clear why they went into caves* to paint pictures of animals. Was it spiritual, religious or ritual? Is it the exploration of communication for unknown others? The cave art in France, Spain, Africa and Australia display the exploration of art forms and its development.

Handprints on Lascaux Cave walls

The Great Mystery: Why Art?

This investigation has so many cognitive tools connected to it. Extreme limits of experience and reality, connections to human hopes, fears and passions, and definitely a story or narrative: Why art? In prehistoric times, art does not provide food or material gain, but it does certainly explore an avenue of culture. Being a human innovation, it must have a reason for existing and taking such a central place in our cultural development.

Now that’s a story worth discovering.


Gardener, H. (1926). Art through the Ages: An Introduction to Its History and Significance. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

* Tour of Lascaux Cave

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3 thoughts on “There Is No Reason To Paint: The Human Obsession With Art (Middle/Highschool Teaching)

  1. Hi there, I have been exploring this topic with my children, particularly Upper Paeleolthic cave art, what it might have been for or represented. I like the link to Leonardo da Vinci! Thanks so much for this, it will provide another layer to our learning. We just visited the replica Lascaux Cave centre to really learn more, as well as other original Caves in the Dordogne region of France. I’m afraid your negative handprint image is not Lascaux. It is from the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina. Some of the Dordogne caves do have negative handprints, but not grouped like this. Very recently, cave art has been found in Spain that is currently attributed to Homo Neanderthalis – dated around 64,000 years old (when Homo Sapiens is thought NOT to have been in this region). Adding that find and the cave stalagmite sculptures found recently that are also attributed to Neandethals makes the wonder and discussion even richer! My children have loved learning and thinking about all of this.

    1. Thanks for the update. I found the picture on a Lascaux image site, but I will correct it.
      The Neanderthal art must be a recent find. My research had stated they made jewelry but not painted so that is interesting. Makes me wonder about the time period. If they had seen Homo sapien at or interactions with them. If it is their own expression, it changes everything. Maybe art is a Homo genus invention and shows the power of cultural expression becoming evident.

  2. Correction: Mea culpa. I went back and checked a few things after Nav G’s comments. The picture is from a cave in Dordogne.
    In February 2018, and article was published about the dating of cave paintings in Spain. They were much older than than the time Homo sapiens appeared in Europe, and the presumption is the artists were Neanderthal. There are some cave paintings in Asia that are even older, giving the possibilities that Homo erectus may be the the earliest experimenters of art. There are debates however. Regardless, it does seem certain that art originates with the Homo genus.

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