Thursday, February 26, 2015

Beaux-Arts Instruction (Part 1 of 4)

What kind of instruction did the students receive at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century? This begins a four-part series about the concepts and criticism in the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), based on a rare first-hand account of an American student who reported his experience in 1869.

A Visit from the Master
A visit from Jean-Léon Gérôme was a special occasion for students in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, occurring only once a week. When the master was not in attendance, the students harassed each other, dueled with mahl sticks, and joked around.

On a typical morning, they went about their normal routines, making coffee, and, according to a student who was part of the class, "arranging themselves in the tobacco-smoke, setting palettes, filling pipes, trimming crayons, moistening bits of bread, and wringing them into erasing-balls in the corners of handkerchiefs."

Gérôme arrived exactly on schedule, removed his hat, and placed it on a peg reserved just for him. The students came to attention and the Italian model perked up.

He started in one corner of the room and went systematically from student to student, standing or sitting in their place, and regarding their drawing or painting with full attention and unsparing criticism.

Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea
"Observe," he said, looking at a very neat drawing by a student, "Your muscles are inlaid against one another. They are carpentered. There is a something—that is not the vivacity of flesh. Go next Sunday to the Louvre and observe some of the drawings of Raphael. He does not use so much work as you, yet one feels the elasticity of his flesh, packed together of contractile fibers, based upon bone, and sheathed in satin. You tell me you will express that texture afterward. I tell you Raphael expressed it from the first stroke!"

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520)
Study of David after Michelangelo
"Your color rages," he said to another student. "That of the model is lambent. Besides, your figure is tumbling, it is not on its legs. I will save you labor by telling you the simplest way of correcting this. Turn the canvas upside down and draw it over. The error is radical."

To another, he said: "You do not yet understand the continuity of forms in nature. You accent too highly. That is vulgarity. For instance: it appears to you that the internal and external vastus, when gathered in at the knee, cause a break in the outline, like the cap of a pillar. Similarly under the calf. You are deceived, and should use your eyes; the accent is not in the line, it is in the shading beside the line, and even there far more slightly than you think. Here again, the vein crosses the forearm. You make a hideous saliency. Nature never, absolutely never, breaks a line."
The excerpts are from The Nation, May 6, 1869, Page 352. "ART-STUDY IN THE IMPERIAL SCHOOL AT PARIS" by Earl Shinn
Thesis about Earl Shinn by Daniel Timothy Lenehan
Three excellent book sources:
The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers
The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century
The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century


Jacob A Stevens said...

Do you think students grow more from a "tough love" approach or with positive encouragement?

James Gurney said...

Good question, Jacob. What made Gerome so effective as a teacher was that although he was brutally honest, the students knew he supported them, wanted them to succeed, and respected a variety of approaches.

As we'll see in a future post in this series, one of Gerome's students said, "As a teacher he is very dignified and apparently cold, but really most kind and soft-hearted, giving foreign pupils every attention."

Melle Ferre said...

Thank you for this. I feel as though he is talking directly to me! I think when one is highly motivated one needs less positive and more clear instruction, even more when one is struggling. So that success is possible and that motivates in and of itself. One needs lots of positives when one has no natural motivation or one has only been allowed to experience defeat. Positives are great but they are best when paired with success. And careful, clear instruction makes that possible. Otherwise one blames oneself for failure, not understanding where one went wrong and how to fix it!

Tobias Allen Wolf said...

It's interesting to note how Gérôme seems to constantly be reminding students to focus more on the "Gestalt" or bigger picture aspects of their work. Which totally reminds me of college.

It's funny how there is a tendency to picture individuals in the past as being backwards in many ways due to primitive technology and certain beliefs, but when you engage in the same tasks as they did, you quickly realise that you really are no better. Which is humbling and informative as it makes you more appreciative of the collective wisdom of the past.

There is almost an implicit cultural belief in the west that we are forever getting better at everything and the world is always improving, but it really is kind of a fragile progress because the "meatware" of humanity changes so slowly. Without great teachers like Gérôme, building on accomplishments, it's easy to imagine progress quickly grinding to a halt and with it a dark age. Great post!

Anonymous said...

You've launched me on yet another journey to catch up with my curiosity.
Now I'm anxious to learn what came first in Gerome's case; did he come right out of the starting gate as an instructor who only visited the atelier once a week and then delivered withering critiques or did it take him some time to establish this "tough love" method as Jacob describes it.
In my cocky youth If Mr. Gerome had come on to me with that attitude I would have been foolish enough to have dropped him like a hot rock (although I'd like to think if I knew his insight was going to turn me into the next Sargent or such I would have bit my tongue).
Fun stuff, looking forward to the rest.

James Gurney said...

Lou, I know what you mean, and I find myself wondering how I'd do with Gerome's style. Those were different times, and the masters of the ateliers commanded immense respect. Gerome in particular had a kind of military bearing and upright style that made people almost want to salute. I'll get into more of the teacher/student relationship, and the content of criticism in future posts.

Keith Patton said...

This is awesome James. I don't know where you get all this information at. You rock!

Unknown said...

i wish i could find such a teacher one day in my life so that i could work under their tutelage for some time, if not forever. It is really difficult to find art teachers of such high teaching caliber where i live. if i find one ever i would give my heart and soul studying under them. just wished to write this out here. Hope someone gets me and the passion with which i write this. Looking forward to future posts.

James Gurney said...

Aman, you sound like a teacher's dream student. There are a lot of excellent academic teachers and ateliers all over the world now in many cities of the world. It used to be very hard to find such instruction. The Art Renewal Center has a list of recommended ateliers:

S. Stipick said...

Best of luck Aman. I truly hope you are able to find what you are looking for. Should you did that you are unable to find an atelier near you, perhaps the tools of the digital age might be your solution. While far from ideal, I might be able to help you find an instructor (of the atelier kind) that might be willing to work with you through Skype or some sort of other tool. Send me an email and I'll put a few feelers out.