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My Parents (1977)
by David Hockney (b.1937)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 182.9 x W 182.9 cm

This large, almost square canvas, is a double portrait of Laura and Kenneth Hockney, the artist's parents. It was painted a year before his father's death. Laura Hockney looks lovingly at her son, who paints them, while his father seems to be preoccupied with the book he is reading on his lap. What is it that makes Kenneth appear restless in his chair?

The cabinet in the middle of the painting seems to be carefully positioned with some interesting objects on display, including a mirror that reflects a reproduction of a Renaissance painting that later hung in the artist's studio.

This is a good opportunity to discuss family dynamics and relationships.

How does the precise and graphic style of the work and its colour palette relate to the mood of the scene?

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figures and what's going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: in class, you can view a full-screen version of the image on the Tate website.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How have the characters and identities of the people in the painting been expressed?
  • How are they feeling at this particular moment in time? How do you know?
  • Are there any other clues or symbols that tell us something about their personality or identity?
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting? What elements help create the mood in this scene?

Suggested activity: strike a pose!

In pairs, ask your students to take turns recreating the pose and facial expression of each sitter in the painting. What do they think? Who is the most successful in showing each sitter's pose and expression, and why? 

Now they have explored the physical pose and facial expression of the sitters in the painting, ask your students: how do they think the sitters may have been feeling?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Expression & Gesture

Colour

Space

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 


Comparison activity

Compare Hockney’s My Parents with Joan Eardley's 1955 oil painting Brother and Sister.

In order to support, you may wish to support discussion with the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Figures, Colour and Materials & Techniques.


Cross-curricular activity: Maths

Extend into a Maths lesson exploring symmetry and order.

 

Symmetry

To complete this activity, students will need:

Note: If you are unable to print copies of the paintings, you may wish to skip this activity and do the activity on order, further down, instead.

Ask your class to divide Hockney's My Parents in half along both axes, as below.

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They can do this by measuring the artwork carefully with a ruler and pencil, or by precisely folding a printed copy of the painting. If you ask them to fold a printed copy of the painting, make sure that the artwork is either full page (the page trimmed to fit to avoid distorting the artwork), or exactly centred in the middle of the page – otherwise it won't work.

When everyone has completed this, ask them if anything in the picture lines up with the central vertical line on the canvas. 

It does! The outside of the mirror on the cabinet coincides precisely with the central vertical axis line. This tells us that Hockney had carefully planned this composition.

Now ask your students to repeat this task with a copy of The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, which is seen reflected in the mirror in My Parents.

Exploring symmetry with Piero della Francesca's 'The Baptism of Christ'

Exploring symmetry with Piero della Francesca's 'The Baptism of Christ'

See if your class can spot that the dove is positioned very precisely – just like the outside of the mirror! The dove is important in this painting as it represents the Holy Ghost, so just like Hockney, Piero della Francesca has carefully planned his composition.

 

Order

Hockney, like Piero della Francesca, was interested in precise line drawing. Many elements of Hockney's My Parents are straight (rather than curved).

  • How many straight lines can your class spot?
  • What effect do they think all these straight lines have on the painting?

Straight lines create a sense of order and reinforce the idea of everything having its place. Compared to a curved line or a series of diagonals, it helps make the scene calm and quiet.

Task your students with drawing two parallel vertical lines followed by two parallel diagonal lines.

Straight lines versus diagonal lines

Straight lines versus diagonal lines

Now ask them to compare them. Which set of lines create stillness and which creates dynamism and a sense of movement? They will hopefully be able to describe that the diagonal lines feel more energetic and show movement.

Now compare the lines shown by the two sitters in My Parents. Who has more movement, Mrs Hockney or Mr Hockney? Who looks more restless?




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