“In the years I spent in Paris I never heard the Frenchmen discussing technique. Simon, Menard, Gaston La Touche, Fantin-Latour, indeed, all my French friends were intent on expression and never bothered about brushwork.”Kenyon Cox, another American student of Gerome, remembered:
“I think there is a general impression that he is very rigid in his methods of instruction and that his pupils become, almost of necessity, his imitators. As a pupil of his during three years, and one who owes him much, I feel that this impression should be corrected. During all the time I was working in L’Ecole des Beaux Arts under his instruction I saw but two pupils whose work showed any decided imitation of Gerome’s own methods of painting, and I never saw any attempt on the part of the master to change the methods of his other pupils. Gerome has a method of setting his palette which differed somewhat from that employed by most artists: a method which could, I think, only be employed by an artist exclusively devoted to form and comparatively indifferent to qualities of color. When I began to paint for the first time under his instruction he recommended this method to me. I had already acquired other methods and did not change them, and he never again recurred to the matter. His criticism was always of results, and never, after that first time, of methods.”
The American illustration teacher, Howard Pyle, also downplayed the technical side of painting to his summer students at the Brandywine school. According to biographer Henry C. Pitz, “Pyle spent little time on drawing or technique. He looked for a creative spark, a picture that talked back.”
I was surprised to run across these quotes, because I had imagined that 19th century art students were getting a thorough training in paint-mixing and practical methods.
This revelation leads to other questions. First of all, what do these writers mean by “technique?” Cox mentioned “setting the palette.” Do they also mean such things as paint application, brushwork, paint chemistry, color mixing, underpainting methods, or methods of accurate drawing? If the academic masters weren’t teaching technique, was that because they were accepting students who had already received such training? Where was this knowledge gained? What were Gerome and Pyle teaching instead? (Their schools were very different, of course.) And finally, given the differing circumstance of our own times, what role should technique play in the design of an effective art training curriculum?
I did a little more reading and found a few preliminary answers, at least about Pyle.
Pyle himself wrote, “The students who come to me [at the Brandywine School] will be supposed to have studied painting and drawing as taught in the schools.” “My class,” he said, “was formed more for the purpose of encouraging imaginative drawing in the more advanced students.” To life classes, he told the students “not to copy the model but to make a picture.” Students should be taught, he wrote, that “all they are learning of technque is only a dead husk in which must be enclosed the divine life of creative impulse.”
The remaining questions remain unanswered, and I welcome your thoughts.
Preceding quotes from Pyle are from Howard Pyle: A Chronicle, by Charles Abbott, 1925
Cox quotes from The Lure of Paris, Barbara Weinberg, p. 111-112.
Howard Pyle, Diversity in Depth, p. 14, Henry Pitz
The Hamilton Easter Field book is online, link.
Gerome image from ARC, link.