Nineteenth-Century Painters and Their French Teachers
by H. Barbara Weinberg; Abbeville Press; 295 pages; $95.00.
Thousands of American artists of the last century spent time studying abroad. Some chose Germany or Spain, but the vast majority gravitated to France. The names of the institutions they attended (Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian) and the teachers they worked under (Gérôme, Cabanel, Carolus-Duran) turn up over and over again in studies of American art, but, for most of us at least, they don’t mean much. In The Lure of Paris , Barbara Weinberg, who is curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, sets out to discover just what these schools and masters taught. It is a temptation simply to leaf through a big book like this, comparing works by John Vanderlyn, Thomas Eakins, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, and others with those of their French mentors. But don’t neglect the text. Dr. Weinberg has sifted through artists’ journals and letters for descriptions of student life, and she has turned up an astonishing number of engaging firsthand accounts.
Arthur Wesley Dow, for example, kept a journal in which he recorded what he was learning at the Académie Julian. On October 23, 1884, he noted, “I made my first drawing from the nude today. First—find center of paper. Start from sternum—get center of figure—plumb it carefully strike out an idea of the action . Get something to correct. Don’t feel your way—take straight lines.” A fellow student at the school, Henry Ossawa Tanner, remembered bedlam and smoke. “I had often seen rooms full of tobacco smoke,” he wrote, “but not as here in a room never ventilated. … Fifty or sixty men smoking in such a room for two or three hours would make it so that those on the back rows could hardly see the model.”
William Fair Kline, an art student who arrived in 1891, described a visit to the Louvre after his first sampling of white wine. “It all went well for a time,” he wrote, “and then I noticed the pictures commenced to move. All the fellows did not drink the wine only another fellow and me. I said to him ‘You will have to pilot me, I am a little saggy,’ and he said, ‘I was going to ask you the same thing.’” Frederick Arthur Bridgman recalled conversing with Gérôme in halting French: “How I made myself understood I cannot now tell … but he appeared to think—with a tact which is a rare quality among the French with respect to the talk of foreigners in their tongue—that I spoke his language as well as need be.”
The painter Edwin Blashfield, who studied under Léon Bonnat, remembered hearing from friends working with Carolus-Duran about “a Boston boy named Sargent, a painter who was the envy of the whole studio and perhaps a bit the envy of Carolus, himself. … There was not any story of his painting an angel as did Da Vinci for Verrocchio in the latter’s picture, nor was he as yet a Michelangelo so overtopping his master Ghirlandaio, but all the same we wondered whether Carolus were teaching him or he were stimulating Carolus.”
Until 1897 women artists were barred from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Even studios that did accept women invariably charged them higher fees than those paid by men. In 1873 Elizabeth Jane Gardner, who later married Bouguereau, got permission from the police to dress up as a man so that she could attend a life-drawing class.
Gardner’s work and much of the art reproduced here—idealized nudes, genre scenes in exotic settings—has not been fashionable lately, but it is a pleasure to look at nonetheless, and it makes the later achievements of artists like Eakins, Sargent, and Henri all the more impressive.