Plate from the Charles Bargue drawing course.
In a time when “inspiration” is all and execution and technique suspect, it is useful to remember the training artists underwent in much of 19th Century Europe. Artists were trained at academies, where the work was rigorous and the competition for prizes was fierce. It was this training that helped foster an artistic tradition of remarkable technical ability and polish – the fusion of expertise and artistic passion. That the dominant form of 19th Century art is now called “academic” is a tribute to this tradition.
One of the most prestigious schools was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded in the 17th Century. To join the Ecole, student artists had to be male, less than 30 years of age, and recommended by a teacher. The Ecole worked to position artists as more than craftsmen – for, in addition to practical training, Ecole students were taught history, aesthetics, and theory. This academic curriculum included intensive drawing, from plaster casts and the live model, and students competed for prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome (awarded from 1663 to 1968).
The rigors of competition seem incomprehensible in today’s world of post modern finger painting, but at one time, art was a discipline that required skill, erudition, insight and … endurance. Competitions would last over the course of 106 days. For the first lap, 100 artists would have 12 hours to sketch in paint a topic chosen by supervisor. In the next round, 20 artists would work through four seven-hour sessions painting the male nude. This would weed out half, with the remaining 10 artists producing an oil sketch in 12 hours on topics chosen by judges. And then, at last, finalists had 72 days to create a large-scale painting based on the oil sketch.
Happily, there seems to be a movement in the art world (among artists, at least) to move away from the stunted, anti-human modernism and post modernism so prized by dealers and galleries, and return to both more rigorous artistic training and work in a more humanist ideal. Fine Arts schools, neglected for decades by the art establishment (or, worse, sneeringly dismissed) are now flourishing across the country. As working artists seek to recapture the expertise of the Old Masters, they find that many secrets have been lost to time. Work to unlock and update these secrets continues apace, and I suspect that we will see a new flowering in years to come of the academic ideal.