Monday, October 20, 2014

The Character and The Values

Students at the French academies didn't get a whole lot of instruction from the teachers. Most of the masters came into the drawing and painting classes once a week at most, and sometimes their feedback was brief and enigmatic.

John Lavery (1856-1941), an Irish art student who spent three winters under William Bouguereau's supervision at the Academy Julien, recalled that he received just one sentence from the master.

After looking at his drawings from the nude and asking him a number of questions, Bouguereau kindly said: "Mon ami, ça c'est comme bois; cherchez le caractère et les valeurs" ("My friend, it is like wood; look for the character and values.")

William Bouguereau, Biblis, to be auctioned in NYC at Sotheby's Nov. 6 

Sir John Lavery, Miss Auras, The Red Book
Lavery admitted that he had a tough time learning French, so he probably missed out on a lot of the art talk in Paris. But looking back on his training, he said, "The rest of my training came and continued to come from what I saw rather than from what I heard."


Dan said...


To put it in perspective, Bouguereau was only one of many artists who were instructors at the Académie Julian, which had several different studios, and which also offered separate classes for men and women. (They were the first major school in France to permit women to study, and it is said that Bouguereau's influence was instrumental in later changing the policy of the École des Beaux-Arts to permit women to study there as well.)

As I understand it, the primary role of an instructor in the Académie was to "correct" student work. I.e., the method of instruction was: (1) Assignments were given. (2) Students worked independently on those assignments. (3) Once a week or so, one of the instructors would come in and look at the works in progress, offering feedback to the students. (4) Students would continue working. These assignments were difficult for students, and consequently they took a long time to complete (perhaps several weeks for a single painting). Given the long-term broad success of the Académie (it's students were eventually permitted to compete for the Prix de Rome alongside Beaux-Arts students), it seems this method of instruction was generally accepted as normal in the day, and it produced a large number of great painters, including Bouguereau himself, who was educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the French Academy in Rome.

Some other artists who came in on these weekly visits to Académie Julian studios, to correct students and offer advice, were Henri Royer, Jean-Paul Laurens, Edgar Chahine, Gabriel Ferrier, Tony Robert-Fleury, and Jules Lefebvre.

In addition to teaching at the Académie Julian, William Bouguereau also had private students who worked and learned with him in his own studio. At the same time, he was a world-renowned master for the majority of his career. His works were quite often sold before he completed them. And so of course he worked very hard to keep up with the demand, the commissions, and his submissions for the Salons and Universal Exhibitions.

Based on Bouguereau's biography, he taught literally hundreds (if not thousands) of eager students, and he was generally beloved as a teacher and mentor. He was also devoted to his students, to the point where he even occasionally made personal sacrifices to help them in their lives and careers. Many of these students went on to be quite famous, notably Pierre Auguste Cot and Elizabeth Jane Gardner (both of whom followed in the academeic style), and Henri Matisse (who obviously rebelled against it). Bouguereau would eventually marry Elizabeth Jane Gardner.

James Gurney said...

Dan, wow, thanks for all that context!

Dan said...

Looks like I got the link to the biography wrong. I'll try again:

It's a good book. It goes into a lot of detail about Bouguereau's life, and at the same time it offers a lot of insight into the surrounding events and the visual arts in France in the latter half of the 19th Century.

Robert J. Simone said...

Ultimately aren't we all self taught to an extent? Whether we've studied at academies, ateliers, in workshops or through other means we are the only ones who can incorporate what we learn into our work.

Dan said...

Robert, I don't pretend to be an expert on academic art instruction methods of the past, but I get the impression from various sources that your observation is sort of at their core. Each artist needs to solve many problems, ultimately in his/her own way. You can lecture on perspective or anatomy and give exams, but when it comes to teaching someone to draw, you sort of have to just give them something to draw and let them do it their way.

That isn't to say that there weren't, loosely speaking, methods. But even in academic circles these probably weren't nearly as dogmatic as we're sometimes led to believe. In academic art, accuracy was a primary goal in early student work. And I gather that it was common to begin with a line drawing to establish shapes and proportions, then proceed to adding tones or colors.

The accounts in Bouguereau's biography of his years in Rome as a Prix de Rome winner are interesting. Evidently they were sent to Rome on scholarship contingent on their executing certain required works to send back to France. In the common case it seems the student would come up with a compositional idea, make sketches, clear their idea with the director in Rome, making suggested changes, then do the painting more or less on their own, perhaps with critiques and suggestions from peers. The final result was then publicly exhibited and judged by the academy. Students wanted to fare well in these judgments so as to further their budding careers.

I believe modern academic training is similar (for example, at the Academy of Realist Art or the Angel Academy). Subjects and mediums increase in difficulty, beginning with copying flat drawings in graphite (Bargue plates, etc.), then casts in charcoal, then live models, progressing to still life paintings in color, etc. But in each case the student is expected to do their best work over the course of as many hours, days, weeks as necessary, with regular critiques of work in progress by an instructor making the rounds. A typical studio class is just three hours of the student working independently on their current piece, possibly receiving instructor feedback. The emphasis is more on results than on methods, in general.

Bouguereau's critique of Lavery in this post is quite interesting, because it seems like he wanted Lavery to capture the life of the model, not just the form, to see not only the shapes and tones, but also the character of the model.

An interesting side note: In Bouguereau's day there were no studios at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Its students were expected to also be studying in private ateliers. Bouguereau studied under Francois-Edouard Picot during his time there.

Mike Porter said...

Interesting you mention John Lavery, for when I lived in Ireland 20 years ago I found out about him through his wife, Lady Lavery, who was a friend of Michael Collins, the Irish patriot, who helped lead the Irish breakaway from England after WW1. Lavery is said to have used his wife as a model when he was commissioned to paint a lady for the Irish Pound Note, now long gone with the Euro. There are a number of nice works by Lavery in the Irish National Gallery in Dublin.