Art History for Kids: Teaching Compassion

The other day I was thumbing through a Vincent van Gogh coffee table book with our 7 year old daughter when we came across his Good Samaritan. The painting immediately caught Kolbe’s eye and she became curious. I saw it as an opportunity to talk about the virtue of compassion.

Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix, 1890

Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix, 1890, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

What is compassion?

Compassion comes from the Latin word “cum” which means “with,” “together,” or “mixed,” and “passio” meaning “to suffer.” So it literally means suffering together with. It is not to have pity upon or feel sorry for someone. Compassion says “You are not alone. I am right here beside you, suffering with you.”

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh

If anyone was ever in need of compassion, it was Vincent van Gogh. Sadly,Vincent suffered from a mental and physical illness for which there was no treatment at that time. This may in part explain why throughout his short life, he was repeatedly rejected by society; by women, other artists, teachers, even his own parents. In Arles, France, where Vincent painted his famous sunflowers, the townsfolk even signed a petition asking the mayor to banish him from their city. And even though he created over 900 paintings, some of the most famous, beloved, and prized in the world today, he sold only one during his lifetime.

Compassion and children

I told Kolbe these things about Vincent as we observed The Good Samaritan together. I also talked a little about the biblical parable which Vincent so beautifully portrayed (Luke 10: 25-37). It tells the story of a man who is robbed, stripped naked, and left on the side of the road. One man walks by and crosses the road to the other side, avoiding the dejected man. Another passerby does the same.

Thankfully, a Samaritan sees the sufferor and acts compassionately. According to the story, the Samaritan cleaned and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine upon him and placed him upon his own donkey. The generous man then took him to an inn where he took care of him, paying the innkeeper for his stay and promising to return after his journey. All this for a total stranger.

I asked Kolbe the following questions while we observed the painting together:

  1. What happened to the man who was left at the side of the road?
  2. Why do you think the first two men passing by ignored him and crossed to the other side? Can you point to these two men in the painting?
  3. How did the Samaritan treat him?
  4. Who in this story did the right thing?
  5. Have you ever felt ignored or rejected? What happened to make you feel this way?
  6. Can you think of someone you know, maybe in our family or at school, who is suffering physically, mentally, or emotionally? Someone who might be left alone or rejected by others? How can you show compassion to this individual? How can you be a better friend to your siblings?

We also talked about the following:

  1. Love has no boundaries of race, belief or social class. We are called to show everyone compassion and understanding.
  2. Compassion isn’t always easy or convenient. Sometimes it’s very difficult, but it leads to true happiness.
  3. Compassion is a feeling, but it is also a way of behaving.

Kolbe and I looked at more of Vincent’s paintings and she noticed his lovely Irises.

Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

Vincent van Gogh, 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

“Why did Vincent paint one of the flowers white?” she asked. I told her that Vincent probably often felt like the man left at the side of the road, hurt and rejected. Maybe the white Iris was an expression of how Vincent felt, different from everyone else.

Here’s an idea: download and print Vincent’s portrait here and his painting The Good Samaritan here. Place them in a prominent place in your home for the week. Hopefully, the images will inspire more discussion about the virtue of compassion, and you can quiz your children about the parable and ask them about Vincent.

If you would like to teach your child more about Vincent van Gogh, please share this art history lesson with them.

So, how do you teach your children about compassion? Do you volunteer at a soup kitchen, or maybe have a family activity which encourages compassion at home? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Also, each month I’ll be featuring a different work of art and related virtue so be sure to subscribe, if you haven’t already. See you next time!



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  1. cathy zeliff says:

    love the combination of a virtue with art, Kristen! awesome! looking forward to more…

  2. This is a beautiful post — I’m pinning this so I can share it with my kids!

    Thanks for linking!

  3. This is great. Not sure if I have ever seen this painting. I’m always looking for new ways to combine art and faith. What a great example.

  4. Loved this eye-opening post. I don’t have a background in art, but would love to share an appreciation of it with my young son. :) Thanks for writing this.

  5. Hi,
    Your site is great. After teaching art history for years, I have written a middle grade novel, The Crystal Navigator, a fantasy adventure in the tradition of the classic quest stories. A child finds her confidence when she flies back in time with her magic guide, a Corgi named Wilbur, to meet her favorite artists. Triumphing over obstacles that parallel her fear of oral reports, she escapes an ogress by jumping into Botticelli’s Primavera, helps Leonardo with a troublesome teenager named Lisa, whose portrait he is painting, and must save Wilbur’s life and get them home when marooned inside Vincent’s Starry Night. The book will be on Amazon by Monday.

  6. Thanks for this. I had never really thought about Vincent van Gogh as someone in need of compassion, and I think my children will be fascinated if I print the pictures and tell them more about him.

  7. I’ve a really good time when I discover this site! I’m a doctor and Medicine Professor at Sao Paulo, Brazil. I love Medieval Period. Maybe I think like a great painter who said:” First of all we sould learn about the darkness and gradually reach the lighting”.!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. Love the philosophy behind your teaching. Compassion and empathy, gives additional dimension to art’s history. Appreciation for Van Gogh, his works and life story is celebrated and cherished not only because of the beautiful images he has created, but also because of learning about his struggles and teaching it in a manner where the children are able to relate to his troubles and struggles. Brilliant!


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