by Deane G. Keller | January 7, 2015
For some years the fine art of draftsmanship has suffered some eclipse, just as learning the craft of drawing has been only casually addressed and even discredited by some. Whatever the reasons for this attitude, it does seem disproportionate to have undervalued such an aesthetically legitimate, unique, and powerful agent of visual expression. We have removed ourselves from its exquisite sensibility and range—both in the ability of the draftsman to record vital first ideas as much as in those refinements of which draftsmanship has always been a premier agent of visual expression. As a consequence we may fail to feel the resonance of which informed judgment on quality draftsmanship is capable.
It does seem reasonable to give serious consideration to draftsmanship if only to acknowledge all of which it is capable. It is a major component of the language of visual art, and it has been the art historical companion to the growth of civilization since the Paleolithic era.
Draftsmanship, traditionally defined, offers visual expression of a philosophy that, in order to gain a level of mastery, one must address certain principles basic and unique to its role in the visual arts: the study of light, space, form, pattern, scale, rhythm, construction, and composition, to mention but a few. Drawing is an act of interpretation informed by purpose, study, experience, intuition, and knowing one’s craft. To varying degrees, a draftsman harmonizes three domains: perceptual, cognitive, and affective—or, in other words, the sources for the drawing derive from that which is seen, known, and felt. Thus, a drawing will reflect these elements necessarily in great variety as both the hand and the heart of the draftsman are revealed. The study of nature together with learning the craft of drawing poses a rigorous agenda which seeks to move the student from a level of understanding basic principles observable in nature to a mastery of the craft through practice and performance.
Drawing is an act of interpretation informed by purpose, study, experience, intuition, and knowing one’s craft.
The study of the human figure through the medium of drawing has a long and distinguished history, from its origins to Leonardo and into our own era. While a traditional based on direct observation has been an acknowledged and key force in Western art, it renews itself in every honest attempt to study and interpret what is seen, what is known, and what is felt in all its variety. In other words, while general truths are observable and become part of one’s experience in the course of a sustained study of nature, light, form, and spatial relationships, the interpretation of these elements through selection, revision, and refinement remains open, without limit or constraint, awaiting and offering new vistas to the human spirit. The history of art is filled with revelations of this sort, and museums are in rich display of and bear enduring testimony to the change and vitality of work labeled “traditional.” This short essay is offered in unqualified support of the tradition illustrated in works reproduced here and seeks to offer some insight into its sources, purposes, demonstrated commitment, and aesthetic caliber.
It was recognized some centuries ago that learning the craft of drawing was the uncontested sine qua non without which works would be ill-informed and poor in execution and thus distant from the artist’s intention. Again, for some centuries the ability to draw was the irreducible element for those for whom fine art was to become their life’s work. Such a multitude of elements bound to what is meant by draftsmanship exist that what is intended without elaboration here is best put forth through the Italian word disegno, which translated to drawing, design, the capacity to bring mastery in its visual form the expression of an idea. From apprenticeship with a master to the academies of Europe, the record is uncontested regarding the pursuit of learning one’s craft and the priority of learning to draw. Drawing opens up most of the vistas of great art. This was the undisputed course that yielded the vision, enabling rich expression of ideas for painters, sculptors, and architects.
Drawing instruction in nineteenth-century France followed a prescribed course—not without some debate over its methods and materials—but with sources from Renaissance Italy. Nikolaus Pevsner, Albert Boime, Carl Goldstein, and others have researched those sources, purposes, and agenda set forth in the academic tradition, and in their work address much of interest regarding the practicum of the studio. It is not the intention here to review this history but only to provide some background for much of the instruction in the past that took place at the Art Students League, and for these student drawings reproduced here. One’s ability to draw was the first priority as one sought to enroll for instruction, particularly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Those failing to meet the standard sought practice at other academies: Colarossi, Atelier Cormon, Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Académie Julian, and others.
Art historian Albert Boime has described how a student would start with a linear contour and advance to the modeling of the forms in full light and shade (dessin ombré), but only when the contour drawing gave a secure accounting for the action, proportions, and shapes appropriate to the model. Inexperienced students were required to draw from casts—the antique—and from drawing books, which contained illustrations of hands, feet, etc. The point is that students were prohibited from entering the painting studios for instruction until their drawing ability was of sufficient caliber. Charcoal and the use of the stump (estompe) as a blending tool replaced the pencil at about mid-century. The debate between line and mass drawing has had a long history, but these drawings resolve somewhat the bifurcation of these methods. The linear contour of the figure was drawn first, to be followed by the modeling of the forms. From studying the drawings of Jean-Léon Gérôme and his American students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it seems clear that the Art Students League’s drawings derive from the Gérôme atelier through the teaching of Kenyon Cox, a pupil of Gérôme, who taught at the League for twenty-four years. Gérôme’s atelier at the Ecole was popular with American students studying in Paris, which complicates the problem somewhat in that the roster is formidable and contains many others who also taught at the League including Thomas Eakins, Everett Shinn, J. Alden Weir, Douglas Volk, George DeForest Brush, and George Bridgman. One of the best surviving documents on Gérôme, both as mentor and instructor, comes from the letters of Julian Alden Weir, written to his half-brother John Ferguson Weir, the founder and long-time director of the Yale School of Fine Arts. Of Gérôme, Weir writes:
[He] makes his pupils practice blocking in and drawing in the outlines with merely the principle shade, striving entirely for the action of the figure…then by degrees he pushes one on in modeling and wants him to model and carry his figure as far as he possibly can, but not attempt this until he becomes acquainted with the figure and knows what he is about, otherwise he considers it as so much time that could be spent more profitably.
Kenyon Cox studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, working with Gérôme for three years, and then at the Academie Julian. Cox returned to America, teaching at the League continuously from 1885 to 1909. He authored many articles on the classic point of view asserting the authority of tradition in the face of the growing popularity of modernism. On the basis of drawings by Gérôme and Weir, his pupil, and the classicism of Cox, these student drawings are consistent with the Gérôme-Cox approach as described by Weir. Linear contour is clearly the important element in establishing the initial priorities of action and proportion; following this, the modeling of the figure in light and shade was “pushed” and studied in a full range of values in order to address the form of the figure.
It is important to note here that drawings were produced mainly in preparation for painting, and that much of pre-Impressionist painting entailed underpainting. The painter, armed with such preparatory drawings, then transferred them to canvas, underpainting in earth tones the shadow areas from his drawing with a brush. This was allowed to dry before the application of color to the canvas. This process addressed major elements of composition, edges, drawing, drapery, light source(s), initiated by the paint quality, which left but color and impasto of pigment to finish the work. For these reasons great pains were given to drawing preparation since the work of the draftsman informed, to a major extent, the work of the painter. Underpainting is little used today and as a consequence the craft of draftsmanship as an absolute and necessary skill for the painter has somewhat eroded. All that really remains from that era is the familiar 18 by 24-inch charcoal pad. It was felt in the past that preparatory figure drawings done at or about this size would yield sufficient information (size of extremities, anatomical description, etc.) to enable the painter by squaring the drawing to transfer it to canvas in preparation for underpainting. This practice was used by a few painters into this century but is little followed today, and its integrity and use has been eroded by the succession of abstract movements that superimposed their manifestos upon tradition and its merits.
To conclude, I believe the influence of the Gérôme atelier retained a strong presence at the Art Students League particularly through Kenyon Cox. These drawings reflect that same respect for the craft, training, and preparation that was the distinguishing attribute of drawing instruction of the period. It is to the League’s credit that it has maintained studio classes that offered traditional drawing along with anatomy lectures when such study was held in contempt. The year Cox left marked the advent of instruction by George B. Bridgman at full maturity, who had, by 1909, developed the mastery of his sculptural approach to figure drawing and anatomy. Bridgman went on to offer his brand of the tradition (since he was also a Gérôme student) to an estimated 70,000 students. In this context it is worth remembering that the practice of approaching painting armed with a portfolio of preparatory drawings has had a much longer history and practice than other approaches such as Impressionism or even direct painting from life.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 print issue of LINEA.