Sunday, April 12, 2009

En Loge Competition

Drawing plaster casts and nude models from observation was only a part of the French academic art curriculum in the 19th century.

The ultimate goal for most students, and the surest way to fame, was to win the Prix de Rome competition. If you won this contest, you were sent to Rome at government expense to study the old masters.

But winning it required a combination of memory and imagination.

To enter the Prix de Rome competition, you had to qualify by winning the concours d’esquisse, where students composed a painted sketch based on a theme provided by the professors. If you made it this far, you had already been sifted out of a large bunch of aspirants.

Then you went on to a captive sketch competition called the the concours de dessin, or ‘en loges,’ (the loge was an area of cubicles, illustrated above.)

The finalists were ranked and then sequestered into the little stalls. They were all assigned the same surprise theme, usually from Greek or Roman history, mythology, or the Bible.

They were given twelve hours to complete an outline drawing. They could not leave their cubicles, nor could they talk to anyone. (I assume they were given some bread, water, and a chamber pot.)

In 1876, the assignment was a scene from the Iliad: “Priam pleading for the body of his son Hector from Achilles.” The drawing below was submitted by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

When they finished the session, the professor signed and stamped their entry. The supervising professor in 1876 was W.A. Bouguereau, who won the contest himself with "Zenobia Discovered by Shepherds on the Banks of the Araxes" (below) in 1850.

Then the students each were given 72 days to complete their paintings, using the full benefit of models, costumes, and props. But they could not deviate in any significant way from their sketches.

The paintings were then publicly exhibited and received the full scrutiny of critics, fellow students, professors, and the public. Joseph Wencker was criticized for changing the pose of the head of Achilles, but he won anyway.

Dagnan-Bouveret took second place.

Success in this competition required the ability to draw figures and compositions from memory and imagination. It also required a familiarity with hundreds of possible stories from the standard myths and biblical texts.

Most ateliers offered some form of imaginative sketch practice, and, according to A. Boime, “the results often reflected a verve and expression lacking in the other studies.”

For this post I drew information and images from three books that I've mentioned before: "The Studios of Paris" by John Milner, "The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century" by Albert Boime, and "Against the Modern" by Gabriel Weisberg.

The painting at the top is by W.A. Bouguereau, "The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs" from 1852 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, link.
Added later: Gallery of Prix de Rome subjects and images, Link. (Thanks, Saskia)

Book on Grand Prix de Rome, (Thanks, Darren) link.
Wikipedia on Prix de Rome, link.


Saskia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saskia said...

So what happened to the Prix?
Wikipedia says:
"The Prix de Rome was suppressed in 1968 by André Malraux, who was Minister of Culture at the time. Since then, a number of contests have been created [...]"
I wonder what the winners of those contests paint like.

Here's anice glimpse at winning entries:

Gregory Becker said...

Those are some useful exercises to practice today. They should still do this if you ask me. It's a good way to push ourselves toward excellence.
Thank you for the post. Very insightful.
I honestly believe that a person could get a better art education just reading your blog than going to college.
I may be wrong but if I am don't tell me. Reading your blog is an important part of educating myself.
Thank you so much for the work you do.

r8r said...

the exercise reminds me of the annual '24-hour comic', in which artists gather to create in one day a fully-finished written/drawn/inked comic.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. It's informative, has great images, and gives an historical perspective to the process of painting. Very well done.


Julia Lundman said...

The contest demonstrated the values of the time, that artists were not just expected to render a figure accurately, but also develop imagination. In my own career I often wish that art schools today had emphasized development of imagination with equal importance as I know from experience this is vital to working as an illustrator.

Thanks again for your post James Gurney! I agree - reading this blog is a great way to learn! It's just fantastic!

Victor said...

It should be noted that the winner of the Prix de Rome was often not determined only by merit, but also a great deal of behind-the-scenes politics; a student who had placed for a number of years but had yet to secure the prize might be favored by the jury over a more talented new-comer. Jacques Louis David didn't win until his fifth try.

Similarly, it is interesting how many notable French "academic" artists failed to win the Prix de Rome (Bouguereau seems to have won because there were two spots available that year), and also how many of the winners are totally unknown today.

Here's a list of Prix de Rome winners.

Nonie said...

Wow, that sounds amazing. I would love to have this kind of hardcore competition going on today.

Victor said...

If you think about it, this was kind of the "Top Chef" and "Big Brother" of the 19th century.

stephen erik schirle said...

great post.

M said...

Interesting post, as always!

As I was reading this, I thought that it would be even more interesting if when secluded in those cubicles, if the artists were given nothing except paper and pencil and paint and canvas and brushes. In other words, if they had to do the finished piece entirely from imagination and memory with no benefit of models or reference, and required to finish the work in a continuous sitting.

It would be very interesting to see what kind of works would have come out of that!

J. Bustamante said...

wow, just wow! as a student i wonder where my peers or i would stand at something like this. Either way its so inspiring, back to work now!!

badbot said...

very interesting indeed.

it would be great to have such competition today. In France this "excellence culture" seems have vanished during the twentieth century ( that's the way i feel about it ).

i agree with Gregory Becker, this blog is a school of it's own.

thanks a lot.

Terry Daniels said...

In my experience, modern Art History curriculae depict "The Academy" as a boring, frivolous, stodgy Goliath-like monolith which was rightly and properly rebelled against by... Well, I can't remember who the Davids were, exactly. The point was rebellion, man! Right? Revolution! Skill Is Theft! Down With Knowing Stuff!

And here I am looking at this work, thinking how much I'd like to knuckle down and try my hand at a truly Biblical painting. Something with dimensions measured in feet, featuring semi-clothed people and subject matter you have to look up in a history book.

Regarding the two examples, it looks like Wencker started out with a less-developed sketch, but ended with a cleaner composition than Dagnan-Bouveret. I agree with the judge's final decision!

Timothy Tyler Artist said...

Victor, have you been in an art competition that was free of politics? Once David figured out the politics he was able to slip from being friends with French Nobility to painting Napolean -surviving the French revolution without loosing his head no pun intended. I think he learned politics very well.

Timothy Tyler Artist said...

Terry, according to your logic should the millions of people who find modern non-represntational art dull, mindless and pretentious rebel against it?

Visit an auction house sometime in London or NYNY and see what sells and what art has increased in value over the years/centuries. The buyers are not rebeling.

Jesse Hamm said...

Strange how rough-looking Bastien-Lepage's sketch was, given that he had 12 hours. I wonder if he had settled on something else, and then changed his mind at the last minute.

James Gurney said...

Jesse, I was wondering the same thing about Bastien's sketch. With 12 hours you could do a pretty comprehensive oil study, really. Bastien's drawing looks like it was developed over tracings (did they have tracing paper back then?

I also wonder why the contest required line drawings and not tonal sketches. Was it to leave open options later? I get the feeling the artists didn't want to commit themselves too much in the sketch stage so that they had freedom later.

Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful and helpful comments and great links.

Angela said...

I love when you have these kind of posts - I find them so interesting.

josembielza said...

I know that by late XIX two brothers Eugenio and César Álvarez Dumont were attending classes on the Spanish Art College in Rome, and they may have entered the contest. Although the information is rare about them both.