Monday, December 3, 2007

A coveted book has finally arrived at my doorstep...


I've previously posted on my love of art, and my own desire to learn drawing and painting in the classical tradition, with the hope of one day being proficient enough to create custom sacred art for our chapel and the rest of our new home. I've read many books this past year, and done many drawings (each one a little better than the previous) and so, despite time constraints and needing to take long breaks to deal with other things, I am making good progress toward my goal. However, one very large omission to this point in my self-education, both in terms of reading and drawing, has been the fabled "Drawing Course" (or "Cours de Dessin" in its original French) by Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome, originally published as a set of lithographs in the 1860's and 70's. This was THE drawing course in France and many other parts of Europe during the period in the 19th century just before the onset of modernism, and it was used to train expert realist artists in the truthful rendering of nature. The course is a set of lithograph master drawings of steadily increasing difficulty that a student is to copy, by sight and using the "sight-size" method, informing their mind's eye of the nuances of the human form. Most students had to reproduce all 197 lithographs, in the process becoming a master draftsman, before moving on to painting. The formation in drawing alone could take over two years before painting, and only afterward was a student allowed to transition into putting their own spin and expression in their artistic composition (having now had the foundation from which to make those expressions coherent).

Of course, "copying" has an awful connotation for us moderns. How can one "express themselves" and be "creative" if you have to copy something? This is the mindset of modern education, and it's no surprise that the Bargue Drawing Course was quickly discarded as a method of education in the early 20th century. Great artists were no longer made; each person was expected to show some sort of innate creativity to be a good artist and thus one need not go through formalized training in accurate representation. In fact, "great art" itself became subjective, and any art based in the classical tradition was labeled as "pandering to the viewer," or "rigidly dogmatic," "stifling," or a "relic of the past." (See any connections to the mass rejection of Church teaching in the 20th century?) Thus we have almost an entire century devoid of objective beauty in art, and a whole legion of artists that were never given the chance to have the training that those in the past received.

But, through that whole upheaval of the 20th century, small artistic workshops called "ateliers" quietly kept the classical traditions alive, and these ateliers survive today and in fact are now flourishing with a renewed interest in classical training and art. It was mainly for ateliers, and for art historians, that Gerald Ackerman painstakingly researched and gathered images of all 197 lithographs of Charles Bargue's original Drawing Course and published them in 2003 in a massive, extremely well-done volume, along with the history of the course and the method of how to move through it as was done in the 19th century.
Here's some examples of the plates that make up Bargue's course:

For the first time in decades the Bargue drawing course was now available for use as a teaching tool, and, seemingly to the surprise of those at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York (who published the book in the United States) and even the author, the book sold out within a year or two. Now I come along, in 2007, voraciously learning anything I can about classical drawing, and upon learning that this book was by far the most recommended book on classical drawing and one that is used widely in ateliers around the world, I immediately wanted to get a copy (even at its $95 price). Being out of print, the only way to get a copy was through small book stores that were selling it at a price of anywhere between $300-$1,000! So, I've been on the waiting list at the Dahesh Museum of Art for a new printing for months (probably with every atelier in the country).

Finally this Fall a second printing was completed, and I received my own copy at the end of November! The book is fantastically done, with excellent graphic design and heavy, quality paper. It's an awesome read in itself, but its use as a training method will be even more valuable in the coming years. Anyone interested in drawing, or anyone interested in art, should definitely buy a copy while they are still in print now (here or here). It's still $95, and it's worth every penny!


Adoro te Devote said...

Wow! That's incredible! Thanks for the recommendation.

One of the great sadnesses of my life was my inability to study classical drawing. In college I couldn't WAIT to take the drawing course, but because I spent a semester in Mexico and the course was non-essential to my degree, it was the course waived.

Sacrifice...we must all make sacrifices....

Brendan Koop said...

Never too late to start! I don't know what college you went to, but I would be surprised if they offered a course on drawing that is truly rooted in classical training. Such is the state of modern college and university level art curricula. Ateliers are some of the only places to get a real training in classical drawing and painting, and luckily there are more and more books coming out that teach classical methodologies for those of us that can't attend actual classes (such as the one profiled in this post).