The premiere pensee is a small, rapidly executed sketch, which captures the first thought of a composition. It is usually painted in oil, or the same medium as the finished work.
Here’s an example, the first idea for “Lion Hunt” by Eugene Delacroix. The swirl of strokes conjures the intertwined bodies of lions and horses.
The painted sketch was a crucial step in the French academic tradition. The goal was originality, spontaneity and sincerity. The painter Arsenne said that the painted sketch should be “the embryo of what the artist has in his mind.”
Diderot said that the premiere pensee should be “a work of fire and genius,” while the finished picture should be the result of patient study, long toil, and consummate experience.
Art historian Albert Boime argued in his landmark book “The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century” that the aesthetics of the sketch as practiced by artists of the Ecole des Beaux Arts played a role in giving birth to the later independent painting movements, which put such a large emphasis on freedom and spontaneity.