The Legacy of George B. Bridgman in the Work of His Students

Without a doubt, numerous students studied with the famed life drawing, anatomy, and antique instructor George B. Bridgman at the Art Students League, and their stories contribute to his life story. One newspaper article claimed that from Bridgman’s start at the League between 1898 and 1900, and then from 1903 until 1932, the year the article was published, he had taught more than 60,000 students.1 This was clearly hyperbole; doing the math, he would have had to instruct on average more than 1,900 students per year, which would not have been possible with class sizes usually limited to forty. The estimate of “thousands upon thousands” of students that appeared in promotional materials accompanying the publication of his book Bridgman’s Life Drawing in 1924 was vague, though more credible. George Bridgman Drawing

George Bridgman drawings
A rare photograph of George Bridgman’s student concours, 1923. Archives of the Art Students League of New York  George Bridgman drawing

The point, though, is that Bridgman taught lots of students, and their accomplishments reflect the impact the brush with the famous instructor had on their careers. The names of some of the highest-achieving students are known from the rolls of the annual scholarship and prize winners, at least until the 1917–18 season when competitive scholarships were replaced by awards based on financial need. The students’ names, together with reproductions of their prize-winning works, were regularly published in the annual course catalogue. These works became the property of the League, and account for the rich holdings of student works in the school’s collection dating back to the late nineteenth century. Seeing the names attached to these works, one’s imagination may be set to wondering what happened to these individuals who were so full of promise. The experience might be likened to watching an old film, and wondering what became of the lesser cast members who appear so young, but who one realizes must have passed away. Some of Bridgman’s students, like Norman Rockwell, are well known; however it will be my purpose to shine a light on others who did not receive the same recognition on the national, or even global, artistic stage, but whose lives were enriched by art and whose art enriched the lives of others. George Bridgman drawing

Robert C. Tolman George Bridgman Drawing

My eye was caught by this beautifully rendered study of a female figure (fig. 1) in charcoal on white paper when I first saw it hanging in the exhibition Drawing Lessons: Early Academic Drawings from the Art Students League Collection curated by Pamela Koob, then Curator of the Permanent Collection, in October, 2009. It was one of two drawings that became the face of the exhibition, so to speak, as it was reproduced on the cover (and in the interior) of the exhibition’s catalogue and on the promotional postcard. The rhythm of the pose and the solidity of the abdomen impressed me, but I was even more intrigued by the sensitive observation of the head: the soft, tousled hair, the Cupid’s bow upper lip, the high cheekbones, the thick eyebrows and the slight sidelong glance all combined to imbue the model with individuality and a no-nonsense personality. This kind of character is uncommon in académies. George Bridgman drawing

George Bridgman drawing
1 Robert C. Tolman, untitled, undated, charcoal on Michallet paper, 24½ x 18½ in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York

According to notations on the sheet, it was created in Bridgman’s evening Life Drawing class, and it earned the student a second mention for the general scholarship for drawing that school year, which was of course a great honor. At the time of the exhibition the artist’s name was misread as “Johnson,” but it can correctly be read as belonging to Robert C. Tolman (1884–1967). Registration records show that Tolman took classes at the League between 1911 and 1915. 2 He was a dedicated Bridgman student; he registered for seven months of evening Life Drawing for Men from 1911–12, and the scholarship he won in May of 1913 was based on his work for Bridgman, as indicated on this sheet.3 Although the absence of a course registration card for 1913–14 renders it uncertain what he studied that year, he was back in Bridgman’s evening Life for six months in 1914–15. Tolman made a name for himself at the League and was well regarded by the Board of Control: he was invited to become a member in the fall of 1914, and later that winter he was granted two extensions to enable him to pay his class dues.

Tolman’s figure’s well-constructed form reveals his absorption of Bridgman’s lessons, but it is instructive to note differences between it and work by a classmate. In 1913, the year Tolman was awarded second mention, S. Carleton Simonson (1882–1966) won the general scholarship for drawing with a study of the same figure (fig. 2), which was reproduced on page 16 of the 1913–14 course catalogue.5 Simonson took Bridgman’s evening Life with Tolman for eight months during both the 1911–12 and 1912–13 seasons. Though Simonson recorded the model’s same features, he did not suggest her personality as effectively as did Tolman. What may have given him the edge, however, was his handling of the figure’s legs. They are no more finished than Tolman’s, but the outlines describe curves and counter-curves that follow concepts of rhythmical beauty Bridgman inculcated in his students, whereas Tolman’s contours are straighter and less graceful (yet perhaps more accurate). George Bridgman drawing

George Bridgman drawing
2 Simeon Carleton Simonson, untitled, undated, charcoal on paper, 25 x 19 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York

Though he still took instruction from Bridgman in the evening during the 1914–15 season, Tolman made room for the study of painting in the morning. He registered for just one month of John C. Johansen’s morning Life Painting for Men, but he took Dimitri Romanoffsky’s morning Portrait Painting for five months. Given his successful capturing of the model’s individuality in his scholarship drawing, it should come as no surprise that he excelled in Romanoffsky’s class. At the end of the school year in the spring, Tolman was awarded a mention for the League Prize for Portrait Painting,6 and two of his portraits were selected for reproduction in the 1915–16 course catalogue (p. 17). 

Tolman began his transition from student to professional artist by 1915. His name appears in the artists’ section of the New York City Directory in that year, and he joined the Lyme Art Association in Old Lyme, Connecticut, with whom he was to exhibit paintings regularly.7 His contributions were critiqued and sometimes illustrated in periodicals including The New York Times, The New York Evening Post, and The International Studio. He principally painted figure studies and portraits, and reviewers recognized the confidence of his drawing more than once, as in the comment that “his line is sure and true without being too apparent.”8 Tolman enjoyed a successful career as a portrait painter; Simonson, by contrast, was employed for decades by the New York Central Railroad as a draftsman in an engineering capacity, according to records and directory listings,9 and does not appear to have used his talents to produce work for the public sphere. George Bridgman drawing

Harold W. Kunkle George Bridgman drawing

The Legacy of George B. Bridgman in the Work of His Students
4 A photograph of Harold W. Kunkle from “Kunkle, Garrison, Dyer Are Killed in Action,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 16, 1918.

One of the League’s most promising students during the 1915–16 season was Harold W. Kunkle (1892–1918). He started with Bridgman’s afternoon Men’s Life for four months during the summer of 1915, then continued with it during the following season. He added Bridgman’s Anatomy lectures in November, and began preparing for his career in Thomas Fogarty’s Illustration class in the morning. The League reproduced his drawing of a model dressed like a musketeer on page 7 of the 1916–17 catalogue, presumably from Fogarty’s class. Kunkle was awarded a scholarship in 1916 for his work in Bridgman’s class, as the notation documents on the charcoal drawing of a male figure in the League’s collection (fig. 3).10 The drawing skillfully captures the model’s pose, one that appears in work from numerous classes and that Bridgman clearly favored. Given Bridgman’s inclination toward Michelangelesque figures in his own drawings, it is not surprising that the pose was inspired by Rodin’s bronze life-size Adam, a cast of which was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1910.

George Bridgman drawing
3 Harold W. Kunkle, untitled, undated, charcoal on Michallet paper, 24¼ x 18½ in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York

Kunkle returned to the League for the 1916–17 season, and made use of his scholarship to register for Bridgman’s afternoon class again. He continued his class work with Fogarty too, after having taken Illustration in the summer of 1916 with Mahonri Young. He lived in Brooklyn with his parents and sister, and he may also have taken classes at Pratt Institute, which was closer to home. The United States’ involvement in World War I interrupted his career plans, however. Kunkle was among the first wave of volunteers who enlisted in the spring of 1917. He was deployed to Europe, and died in action September 29, 1918, one of the many tragic casualties of that conflict. We shall never know the ways he might have put to use the lessons learned from Bridgman and the effect his art might have had on its viewers (fig. 4).11

Robert Ward Johnson George Bridgman Drawing

We can make an interesting comparison between Kunkle’s drawing and another in the League’s collection (fig. 5) by Robert Ward Johnson (1881–1953). It appears to capture the same model in the same pose, as though it was drawn from a position just to Kunkle’s left—but was it? Kunkle made his drawing in Bridgman’s afternoon Men’s Life, but Johnson drew his sheet in Bridgman’s evening Men’s Life, as indicated by the notation at the lower right and as supported by Johnson’s class registration record for 1915–16. Some important differences are evident upon close examination: the model’s head and neck cast a shadow on his collar bone, upper chest and across half his left shoulder in Johnson’s drawing. In addition, the model’s right knee and shin are illuminated from a slightly different direction, and his left pinky is not separated from his ring finger (fig. 6). It seems Bridgman liked the pose so much in the afternoon that he instructed his monitor to repeat it using the same model in the evening, keeping the lighting nearly identical as well. The model’s muscles must have ached by the end of the day, having held the pose from 1:00–4:30 PM and again from 7:00–10:00 PM!

The Legacy of George B. Bridgman in the Work of His Students
Above: 5 Robert Ward Johnson, untitled, undated, charcoal on paper, 24½ x 18½ in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York. Below: 6 A comparison between Kunkle’s and Johnson’s drawings of the same model in the same pose.

Johnson excelled in his course work at the League from 1912 through 1918. In 1913, at the end of his first year, he won the prize for etching.12 During the same year he took Antique Drawing and attended Anatomy lectures with Bridgman, and split his Life Drawing classes between Bridgman, Frank Vincent DuMond, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Of the three instructors he clearly preferred Bridgman, and signed up for a triple dose of his classes—morning and afternoon Life Drawing and Anatomy lectures—during the 1913 summer session. He came back for more Life Drawing with Bridgman during the 1913–14, 1915–16, and 1917–18 seasons, and during the latter even registered for Bridgman’s Anatomy lectures for the third time. He absorbed Bridgman’s instruction so well that he won the League’s general scholarship for drawing in 1916,13 and two of his female figure sketches were reproduced in the 1916–17 catalogue (p. 7). This charcoal drawing on white paper of a female figure (fig. 7) exhibits the sculptural forms and rhythmic relationships within the body that Bridgman stressed, and may have counted among the works for which Johnson received the scholarship.

He might have taken more classes with Bridgman if he had not traveled to Europe, first to Munich to study at the Royal Academy from 1914–15, and then to France to work for the Red Cross in the spring of 1918. He remained in Paris after the war to study art further and to travel—he had some catching up to do, having turned to art relatively late. He had initially attended the Virginia Military Institute, then earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1904.14

George Bridgman drawing
7 Robert Ward Johnson, untitled, undated, charcoal on paper, 24¼ x 18½ in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York

The traces of Bridgman’s effect on Johnson can be observed in the assured draftsmanship of his paintings and illustrations. In addition to producing work, Johnson was active as an instructor at the Art Students’ League, and here he had the best opportunity to share with others what wisdom he had acquired from his own teacher. He first taught evening Men’s Life for the 1924–25 season, and judging by the solidity and accuracy of his student’s male figure drawing reproduced in the 1925–26 catalogue (p. 13), the critiques he gave must have aligned with his former instructor’s. In October, 1936 the 71-year-old Bridgman suffered a fall at home and was temporarily too injured to teach his classes, and the Board of Control hired Johnson as one of the Bridgman-approved substitutes to cover his classes.15 When Bridgman resigned in the fall of 1943 due to illness, shortly before his death in December, the Board divided his classes between Johnson and Francis J. Reilly;16 from 1944 until his death in 1953, Johnson was formally named the instructor of afternoon Life Drawing and Anatomy, effectively serving as one of Bridgman’s replacements.

Kenneth F. Camp George Bridgman drawing

Many of Bridgman’s students went on to successful careers in illustration, and among the most familiar are Norman Rockwell, McClelland Barclay, and Neysa McMein. A 1932 newspaper article celebrating Bridgman’s accomplishments listed these three former students, but included also was the name of Kenneth F. Camp, today a less well-recognized artist.17 Kenneth F. Camp (1897–1963) grew up in Utica, New York, and began his studies at the League by the 1916–17 school year at the age of 19.18 He must have demonstrated talent in Bridgman’s Antique Drawing class that year, because he was chosen to serve as monitor for the class during the 1917–18 school year. The United States’ entry into World War I interrupted his studies, however, and his tour of duty in the army began in April, 1918. He received three shrapnel wounds in July, 1918, but it was reported that he had recovered sufficiently by the fall that he was “in a position to take a course in the Paris Art School at the expense of the Government.”19 He could not have studied in Paris for long, however, since he was discharged and back in the States in February, 1919.

It is possible that Camp resumed his studies at the League right away, but he certainly enrolled for the 1919–20 season. He secured a place in Bridgman’s afternoon or evening Life Drawing for Men, and distinguished himself probably over the course of the whole season. One of his female figure drawings in charcoal on white paper from Bridgman’s class was chosen for illustration on page 11 of the 1920–21 catalogue, and today resides in the League’s collection, complete with notations about how it should be cropped (fig. 8). The underside of the model’s jaw and of the stool on which she rests, and the slight foreshortening of her torso indicate that Camp made the drawing seated in the front row of students, presumably with his drawing board resting on the legs of an overturned chair as was customary in life drawing classes.

George Bridgman drawing
8 Kenneth F. Camp, untitled, undated, charcoal on paper, 18½ x 12¼ in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York

Though Camp has given the figure as much sculptural presence as in studies by Bridgman’s students in previous years, he achieved the effect less through a meticulous modeling technique than by the retention of strong contour lines, notably on the model’s right side where one might expect thinner or discontinuous outlines due to the direction of the lighting. Tolman and Simonson also established careful outer contours on their figures, but they thinned, lightened or blurred these lines to conform to the modeling of the forms they bounded. Camp’s drawing marks the beginning of a trend in Bridgman’s students’ works from the 1920s and 1930s toward the faster completion of finished studies, with greater dependence on line. Bridgman appears to have been quite pleased with Camp’s drawing, only critiquing the model’s right knee and shin as areas of anatomical uncertainty in his sketch at the lower right.

Camp scored his first successes as a commercial artist with magazine work in the early 1920s, building his career of figurative illustrations on the skills he honed at the League. This period saw changes in his personal life, and in September, 1921 he married Ruth C. Hambidge—herself an illustrator—the daughter of illustrator and writer on Dynamic Symmetry, Jay Hambidge. The couple had a daughter, and moved to New Rochelle, home to Rockwell and other illustrators and cartoonists of the day. In addition to his creative work, Camp was an educator; in the 1940 Federal Census he gave “Instructor” as his occupation—in addition to “Artist”—at the “W.P.A. Art School,” which I have not been able to identify. Without more precise information, one can presently only speculate what aspects of his education under Bridgman he passed on to a younger generation.

Marjorie A. Starke George Bridgman drawing

Marjorie A. Starke (1900–1934) took a majority of her classes at the League from 1922 to 1926 with Bridgman. She began with one month in his morning Women’s Life in the spring of 1923, followed by eight months in the class from October 1923 through May 1924. She returned to the class perhaps for a refresher in May 1926, but otherwise she took a smattering of classes with DuMond and Charles Hawthorne from 1924 to 1926. She excelled in Bridgman’s class, and her black and white chalk drawing on gray paper of a female model was illustrated on page twelve of the 1924–25 course catalogue (fig. 9). Starke exploited the range of values supplied by the chalks and paper to give the figure solidity, making use of a technique that Bridgman seems only to have introduced into his classes in the 1920s. This technique allowed students to create the effect of convincing volume more rapidly than using charcoal on white paper, and reflected just one of the ways that Bridgman’s pedagogy changed during his career to achieve quicker execution and greater liveliness of the figure.

George Bridgman drawing
9 Marjorie A. Starke, untitled, undated, charcoal and white chalk, 19 x 12 in. Collection of the Art Student League of New York.

The pretty, red-haired Marjorie started taking classes at the age of twenty-two, having moved to Manhattan from her home in Ludington, Michigan, and one supposes that her relocation was for the purpose of realizing her artistic ambitions. For Starke’s first few years as a student she lived at the upscale residential Hotel Collingwood at 45 West 35th Street, then at the Gladstone Hotel at 114 East 52nd Street. From here she moved to the residential Barbizon Hotel for Women at 140 East 63rd Street, and then to a luxurious apartment at 36 East 61st Street; all of these residences attest to a financially comfortable life that was supported by her family, who were employed in watch manufacturing.20

Starke was reportedly occupied as an artist and a designer subsequent to her years at the League, and must have put to use the education she received there. I have not identified her employment or exhibition activity during the late 1920s and early 1930s, but evidently she became despondent over her inability to live up to self-expectations.21 Perhaps she believed the success she experienced in Bridgman’s class would translate to the working world. Sadly, pressure and feelings of guilt became more than she could endure, and she opened the jets of the gas range in her apartment on July 20, 1934, ending her life. She was found with a note written to her parents, expressing what she felt was her selfishness and her lack of artistic success, and in which she implored them to “please forgive this last selfish act, if that is possible.”22 One can only speculate what kind of artistic career might have been.

All of these students shared the experience of Bridgman’s instruction, which we might think of as the hub of a wheel, and their lives and careers as the spokes radiating outward to a range of compass points. Though their work probably could not be characterized as influential, nevertheless they participated in the creation of art in America and play a role in its history. Bridgman’s impact on the formation of successful, highly visible artists is certainly essential to gauging his influence in the twentieth century, but not to be neglected was his effect on the relatively unrecognized artists who made up a much higher percentage of the “thousands upon thousands” of students with whom he came in contact over the years. Examining the careers of Bridgman’s students affords us a richer appreciation of his accomplishments, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the history of twentieth-century American art. George Bridgman Drawing


JEFFREY M. FONTANA holds the Harry E. Smith Distinguished Teaching Professorship in Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Austin College. 

Related posts