Stories from the Art Students League’s Permanent Collection
by Jerry Weiss | October 30, 2020
I owe my existence to George Bridgman. It was 1940, and my father, a young cartoonist who decided he needed instruction in figure drawing, enrolled in Bridgman’s class at the League. He met my mother, an aspiring fashion illustrator, in the second floor gallery. She was on a scholarship to study with Bridgman, but skipped class because she found his critiques too brusque. By 1940 Bridgman had earned the right to be brusque; he’d taught drawing and anatomy at the Art Students League of New York for forty years. He was the preeminent instructor of figure drawing in this country and is credited with having taught close to 70,000 students, from illustrators to the avant-garde.
George Brant Bridgman (1864–1943) was born in Ontario, Canada, and grew up in Toronto, where he studied at the Ontario School of Art. In 1883 he went to Paris and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts with Gérôme and Boulanger. In 1889 Bridgman made New York City his home, and in 1898 he began teaching at the League. He would continue to instruct there, but for an interruption from 1900 to 1903, until 1943. He married, had a daughter and a granddaughter. That’s a terse biographical outline, which I’ll attempt to flesh out with anecdotal material and observations about Bridgman’s work.
Except for the error in nationality, my father’s recollections give a sense of Bridgman’s class in his later years. The following is excerpted from an interview published in 2004.
“Bridgman was a short Englishman (sic), who had a habit of pulling on his suspenders. He was bald-headed and was a genius. He’d put a piece of chalk at the end of a three-foot stick and go to work on the charcoal paper with us. He could go from A to Z with the human anatomy; he knew every muscle, every vein in the body, backwards and forwards, by name. I never knew anyone who had the amount of knowledge about the human figure that he did. He’d look at your drawing and the first thing he would ask for was your chamois, which was a little cloth (author’s note: in the version my father told me, Bridgman sat in the student’s chair and wordlessly raised his open hand for the reception of said cloth). You’d give him your chamois and he’d wipe out your drawing. In half a minute, he’d redraw your work and show you how it should be done. He drew that quickly. Once in a while, he’d tell you a joke. He was all business, but he had a sense of humor. He was a very congenial man—there was nothing mean about him. He was a little on the cocky side. He wasn’t a tough critic of his students. When your work was really good, he’d just touch it up a little bit here and there, and compliment you. Once a week he’d put his initials on someone’s drawing, which meant that student’s drawing would go into a special showcase for the best drawings of the week.”
My father welcomed the professional criticism. The experience confirmed his belief in the importance of figure drawing study. This idea had an incalculable influence on my training and direction as an artist.
During my first year of study at the League, my father and I paid a visit to Edmund F. Ward at his home in White Plains. Mr. Ward, once a prolific illustrator, was then well into his eighties and working on a very large canvas for his own pleasure. He had studied with Bridgman around 1911, and recalled that each week a numerical order was awarded to the best drawings. Ward said that he was hard pressed to finish better than second place, because the artist with whom he shared a studio always received top honors from Bridgman; we’ll return to that momentarily. Mr. Ward’s drawing belongs to the academic conventions of the era, a highly naturalistic study with a fully resolved value range. There’s more than a generation between this drawing and that of my father’s; the later work shows the influence of Bridgman’s increasingly formulaic approach. Alongside Ward’s figure is a simple demonstration of the foreshortened lower arm, lightly drawn and almost Cézannesque in its abstract cylindrical conception. It’s a more subtle expression than what we’re familiar with from Bridgman’s books, and evidences a stylistic evolution. Whether his evolution as a draftsman was a product of or influenced broader academic trends is a matter for further study.
The friend with whom Edward Ward shared a studio was Norman Rockwell. In his autobiography, Rockwell remembered Bridgman teaching in a rumpled three-piece suit, and whose degree of inebriation could be gauged by the condition of his necktie. He kept a skeleton in his locker, which would be produced to make an enthusiastic point.
“‘See that,’ he’d say, folding the wrist back toward the forearm, ‘this structure here does it,’ and he’d go on to explain how the bones and muscles of the wrist worked. ‘It’s a damned wonderful thing,’ he’d say.”
Contrary to Edmund Ward’s recollection, Rockwell did sometimes finish second, and Bridgman consoled him that a first place drawing merely indicated proficiency in copying the lessons. As class monitor, Rockwell was present when, class having ended, a janitor would bring Bridgman a beer, and the instructor sat and told stories about his heroes, the illustrators Howard Pyle and Edwin Austin Abbey. When word came of Pyle’s death in 1911, Bridgman arrived at the League tearful and drunk.
A Time magazine profile written in 1942, the year before Bridgman’s death, acknowledged his influence but framed his commitment as eccentricity. He was known for “carrying around a batch of wrist and finger bones in his pocket and earnestly examining them at odd moments on subways and in restaurants. At home he kept a hand pickled in glycerin and carbolic acid and studied it for weeks until putrefaction forced him to bury it in the garden to the horror of his Negro gardener. Once a taxi driver, aware of his interest in cadavers, appeared on his doorstep with a dismembered human leg that an unidentified medical student had left in his taxi.”
Even without the racism buried in its account, Time’s prose is patronizing. To anyone who’s spent time in an art school with serious anatomists, these are reasonably standard stories. Well, maybe not so much the severed leg. While teaching a basic drawing class, one of my students, a retired doctor, gifted me with a skeletal hand and pelvis. Such are the occupational benefits.
More problematic was his teaching style. Rockwell remembered that Bridgman would extract a piece of red chalk from his pocket,
“walk to the model stand and draw the muscles of the stomach and the line of the rib cage right on the model with his chalk. The models disliked this. They say it gave them a queasy, squirmy sort of feeling to have their muscles marked on their skin in soft red chalk. And then there was no place at the League where they could wash properly and they’d have to go home with their muscles outlined in red.”
My mother wasn’t alone in being put off by Bridgman’s penchant for wiping down a student’s hard-fought charcoal to rapidly replace it with a correction (to be fair, Kenyon Cox, whose depiction of a female draftsman has long served as the League’s logo, also obliterated his student’s drawings prior to correcting them). Somewhere along the line, I picked up a story that Bridgman once sat before a student’s drawing and embellished the paper with a dollop of tobacco, squirted from his mouth. Lloyd Goodrich, later an art historian and director of the Whitney Museum, studied with Bridgman before the First World War. His recollection, from an interview transcript in the Smithsonian archives:
“I remember the first criticism I got from Bridgman. Of course he turned out students by the tens of thousands, I guess. Nobody ever had as many students as George Bridgman did, teaching anatomy, drawing from a cast, and so on, a very skillful, academic draftsman. He took my drawing and just rubbed it all out with a chamois cloth and began to draw it himself all over again. I said, ‘Well, Mr. Bridgman, I don’t see it that way!’
“He said, ‘Consult an oculist!’”
“Bridgman had a formula. He couldn’t have taught if he hadn’t had a formula. Teaching as he did, I suppose, several hundred pupils a week, he had to teach them a certain kind of drawing, tricky but knowledgeable. He was a great old boy, and people loved him up there.”
I had a few of Bridgman’s books when I was a kid, and didn’t much connect with their formulations. In large part this owed to the distance between the drawings and direct observation. The stylized emphasis on serpentine movement, hinges and wedges, block and cylinder shapes overwhelmed individual characterization. My first figure drawing teacher cautioned that Bridgman’s work was too mechanical. Fine with me—I was happy to find a less systematic aesthetic. For the next twenty-five years there was no reason for me to reconsider the matter.
Deane G. Keller prompted my reassessment of Bridgman. Like Bridgman, Deane taught life drawing and anatomy at the League. His stint was brief, owing to ill health, but he’d previously instructed and lectured for many years at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, where we were colleagues. Deane’s father, a longtime instructor of art at Yale and one of the famed Monuments Men of World War II, had studied with Bridgman.
Deane lionized Bridgman. Not long before his death in 2005, he came upon a collection of Bridgman’s figure drawings, done in charcoal on sheets of paper that were each roughly five by nine feet. One evening I joined Deane, students and colleagues as they unrolled the pages to be photographed. These were demonstrations for Bridgman’s anatomy classes, and their scale and power were unlike anything I’d seen. His books are a testament to the efficacy of his instruction, but they lack the substantive thrill of the actual drawings—and, one surmises, the in-person lectures. The energy Bridgman brought to an ostensibly clinical subject must have been something to behold. The drawings are absolute in the confident expression of the anatomist’s knowledge (the manner of his successor, Robert Beverly Hale, was poetic and cultivated by comparison). It is no wonder that Bridgman’s stylizations are instantly recognizable in his students’ drawings.
The purpose of Bridgman’s drawing was pedagogical—his lessons were meant to be seen from across a crowded classroom. Instructors’ demos are the most ephemeral of artworks, and all the more so when drawn on enormous sheets of cheap paper. My hope is that more will come to light, so that artists and students can get a better sense of what Bridgman brought to the League and, by extension, to American art.
JERRY WEISS (@jerrynweiss) teaches painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York.