Art Education for Men
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, American art students returning from Paris and Munich found themselves confronted by a completely unexpected situation : they had been deeply absorbed in the enjoyment of advantages offered in schools where instruction was given at a nominal cost by the greatest living masters, and lacked time and inclination for the consideration of domestic prejudices of which they were unaware. In Europe, so far as art was concerned, they had been leading an ideal life, and their first real knowledge was based upon the high standards by which they were surrounded, and which their masters took much pains to inculcate. It was, therefore, impossible for them to know that the world at home could not immediately appreciate results which, without years of training in the art of seeing, they themselves would not have recognized. The men from Paris knew that the logical teaching they received was good, and founded upon the best artistic knowledge of the Old World, but did not understand that their countrymen in the United States wanted critical qualifications, and that it would take years to uproot prejudices based upon loyal affection for conditions made dear by tradition, and to alter the long habit of liking things, which, for the most part, competent judges would have estimated lightly.
The returning artists, a few of whom had received some recognition abroad, were surprised and disappointed to find their wares unsalable ; therefore they banded together, formed the Society of American Artists, and gave annual exhibitions which in real merit were in advance of that to which our public had been accustomed ; but very few pictures found purchasers, while sales were comparatively large at the National Academy, where American conventions were more closely observed. So the newcomers, in order to earn a living, were compelled to resort to other means. Illustrated magazines reaped, and are still reaping, a great harvest from this “ill wind; ” but artists do not always have the gift of illustration, so many resorted to teaching, and the private art class came into vogue, composed, as never before, almost exclusively of women, by whom, at the present time, nearly all our art schools are patronized and supported. Many an artist can attest that, without the opportunity thus offered, it would at times have been very difficult to earn a livelihood. But it is true, that while better illustration does much for the advancement of American art, teaching of this kind does very little. Women pupils, in the beginning, make better progress than men, and some of them become excellent artists ; but a very small percentage continue in the profession, no matter how brilliant at the start their work may be. This defection may be explained by the fact that women, no matter how well endowed intellectually, are usually physically incapable of the great strain caused by incessant work, such as male art students undergo without inconvenience.
Although the demand for good American pictures daily grows, very few of our artists could live without teaching or illustrating, and so the necessity of circumstance has prevented them from emulating the generosity of Frenchmen, who generally receive little or no remuneration for the instruction they give to art students. For various reasons this is to be deplored. If an artist gives his services, his criticism will not be hampered by fear of losing a pupil. Instruction which is paid for is in danger of being less severe, and therefore may invite persons of no-distinct artistic ability or ambition to clog the studios. One cannot but surmise that many such persons are in search of means whereby to make an ostentatious display, rather than sound knowledge of principles wherewith to express original thought. So it was, and so it is, that American art is in part a society fad rather than a recognized necessity, and many of its real aims and uses are rendered abortive.
If an artist could teach as he desires, benefit might accrue, but instruction determined by fashion injures the teacher, and is of doubtful benefit to his pupils. Such instruction lacks sense and dignity, and is even now giving way to wiser methods.
If good art is of moral and financial benefit to a country, advantages should be given to the poor, not because so many of the world’s greatest artists have come from that class, but because in view of its national importance it should be cultivated and encouraged for the public good.
If American artists understood — as they would without delay were the matter brought to their attention — that, with slight inconvenience or expense, free night schools might be formed for men and boys wishing to engage in the serious study of art, such schools would become common ; and their influence would be of benefit to all arts and industries.
Perhaps the best way for me to explain the value of this statement is by giving a brief sketch of my experience as a teacher in a school of that kind, — to wit, the Connecticut League of Art Students, which was not established after a premeditated plan, but was the natural outgrowth of a necessity common to all cities.
A young man called at my studio, and said that he wished to be an artist; that he was working at his trade, and that what he earned, although sufficient for his maintenance, was too small a sum to permit him to pay the price which he thought would be asked for lessons in drawing. I was sure he meant just what he said, and suggested that as I had a few plaster casts, he might come and draw from them each evening, and inasmuch as I would correct his drawings only at my own convenience, I would charge nothing. He seemed very grateful, and since that time, twelve years ago, has frequently proved his gratitude. Presently he brought a friend who wished to learn to draw; then another dropped in, and I think during the first year there were only three pupils ; but the following autumn a few more came, the gathering assumed the dignity of a class, and each member seemed actuated by an earnest desire to get out of it all he could. Perspective and anatomy had been studied in an irregular manner, but at the commencement of the third year, when there were about twenty members, I began to act upon an idea which I had for some time believed to be a pressing necessity, that each pupil should acquire a complete knowledge of the rudiments of these branches. A local surgeon and architect, both competent men, upon my invitation, offered their services, and regular courses were organized. A friend presented us with a good skeleton. Many casts had been added by voluntary subscription from the pupils, and altogether the class was in a flourishing condition. But with a steadily increasing membership it became apparent that my studio, although large, was too cramped for the needs of its occupants, and the question arose as to whether the members could afford to pay the rent which would be required for more spacious quarters. At this juncture a well-known author, and a few of his friends, kindly offered to relieve the situation by paying what was necessary, which they did for four months, but at the end of that time a committee of the members called upon me, presented a vote of thanks for the only pecuniary assistance the class had (or ever has) received, and informed me that a system of dues had been agreed upon, and that thereafter no outside aid would be required. This move necessitated a more formal organization, and officers were elected, and shortly afterward corporate rights were granted to the school which since that time has been called the Connecticut League of Art Students. Shortly after this, Trinity College, in acknowledgment of advantages which one of its undergraduates had received at the League, with a kindness which has been and is now deeply appreciated, offered free instruction in certain branches of its curriculum to League members.
The system of rules governing the school was created and is enforced by its officers, elected from its members at the annual class meetings.
The dues are regulated by the existing needs, and consist at present of five dollars entrance fee and monthly payments of two dollars by each member. This covers the expense of rent, light, models, and the occasional purchase of casts, chairs, and other incidentals.
The studios are situated in the large attic of a business block, and conveniently separated by board partitions. The main walls are of brick, and when the League first took possession it was rather a dreary looking place, but little by little drawings and painted decorations have transformed its barrenness into something more cheerful. Nevertheless, visitors — and they are very rare — can see at a glance that they are in the working place of a serious set of men, who, however, take considerable pride in adding picturesqueness to their simple surroundings. As the members through their officers make their own rules, no nonsense of any kind is tolerated. Idlers and absentees are summarily warned or expelled, but so long as students conduct themselves properly, they are accorded all privileges. As many of the men work at their respective trades during the day, the teaching and regular class meetings take place at night. But the studios are open from sunrise until half past ten in the evening every day in the year, and there is rarely an hour of that time when some one is not taking advantage of his opportunity, and busily engaged in study of one sort or another. When the days are sufficiently long, a machinist may be found drawing an outline from a cast before the sounding of the seven o’clock whistle which calls him to his shop. At the noon hour, members frequently run in and push their drawings a little farther, sometimes with lunch in one hand and crayon in the other. If space permitted, many a story might be told of individual cases where this voluntary desire to make use of every minute has led to good results.
To illustrate the fact that pupils in the school are quickly imbued with the importance of conforming to its regulations, and that this is impressed upon newcomers by the conduct of the older members, I may state that during its existence there has been no case of intoxication, and that although there have been some quarrels they have ended harmlessly. This may be thought extraordinary, when it is considered that there are no requirements for entrance except an expressed desire to study and the formality of signing the Constitution and Bylaws, that many nationalities and creeds are represented, and that most of the time there are no teachers on hand to enforce discipline.
About ninety per cent of the applicants for admission have never received any instruction in drawing except that given in the public schools, and nearly all are obliged to begin in the same way. They are taught to sit well into their chairs, so that their spines will be parallel with the chair back, and to hold the drawing board or portfolio in an almost perpendicular position on their knees. The back of another chair is sometimes used as a rest, but no easels are allowed unless the pupil stands while drawing. The crayon or charcoal must be held between the thumb and first two fingers of the hand with which he draws, the fourth finger being used as a rest. Square blocks, books, or something of that kind serve as models for beginners, and they are obliged to attend the regular Friday evening class in perspective and continue in it, until they are able to determine the correct perspective of any object placed before them. In beginning to draw from the antique, they are given the profile of the most clearly marked heads and taught to look first for the envelope, and then determine the construction or place and relative position of each feature, and express it in outline. Next, by means of a cylinder placed well out of a circle whose centre is marked by the electric arc light, the focus of light and dark, the half-tints, and reflections are explained.
Attendance at the Anatomy Lectures illustrated by means of a skeleton, a plaster écorché, a living model, and drawings, is compulsory. Figure drawing from the antique is taught in the same simple manner as the head drawing, great attention being given to construction, and this teaching is reënforced by the lecturer on anatomy, who explains by means of the living model the possible and common movements of the figure : for instance, that no matter what the pose may be, the shoulders or hips remain at right angles to the vertebra at that point; also the rational equilibrium of the figure.
Competitions are held continually, and appointments to the life class made by the director of instruction.
From the beginning of this course pupils are encouraged to paint from still life out of the regular class hours, and submit such studies to the teachers, who confine their corrections to a criticism of planes, values, and the laws of complementary colors, and until these are pretty well understood by the pupil, he is not allowed to paint from the living model. The entire school is frequently asked to compete in composition from a given subject, and the results as shown even by the younger pupils are often very interesting.
The course of instruction has from the beginning been directed by a desire to enable each member to earn something through the skill he might be able to acquire in his studies. Many students are at present engaged in designing, engraving, decoration, portrait painting, landscape and figure painting, illustrating, sculpture, and teaching, and are more or less self-supporting. One ex-member is art manager of an important magazine published in New York ; other members have gone abroad to study further, and several are engaged in their profession in various parts of the country.
From first to last, correct construction is insisted upon, and is taught by a long and severe course in outline drawing. Elaboration of drawings is discouraged, and the modeling is confined to a rational expression of articulations and plain values. There is no studio sketch class or any other fanciful adjunct. But, in lieu of this, many members paint out of doors, when the weather will permit, and all such studies are submitted for criticism to the instructors.
No public exhibitions are ever given, as they work injury to the pupils by leading them into catering to popular and sometimes injudicious appreciation. The motto of the school is, “ Le dessin est la probité de l’art,” and that its signification is observed is frequently proved by the fact that members of the life class often reënter “ the antique ” of their own volition, and pass consecutive months in drawing outlines with great care, giving especial attention to articulations which are too often apt to be neglected for lack of understanding. This outline drawing I consider the most beneficial feature of the instruction, as it is difficult to make a specious presentation, and exactitude is indispensable ; moreover much time is saved, which otherwise might be wasted in minute attention to unimportant detail ; the process of calculating the dimensions of the larger parts is ever before the pupil, and his progress, although less evident to the casual observer, is really far more rapid than when he tries to get at measurements by “ shading,” which he usually considers the easier way.
Just as necessity prompted the formation of the Connecticut League of Art Students, so has it prompted its system of instruction. No one becomes a member in order to gratify an æsthetic taste, but rather because he believes that in the application of what he may learn, he will be able to solve more readily the ever present bread-and-butter question. Occasionally appears a college student wishing to be an artist, or a person well to do seeking experience among men who are earnest in the struggle to accomplish something professionally, but the main body is composed of men to whom two dollars a month is an important item, and who would leave instantly if they did not think they were receiving greater value in exchange. They are studying something which is to be applied as quickly as may be. Their wits have been sharpened in the school of daily want, and no artistic dilettanteism will serve their purpose or ambition. They know that the basis of all that part of art which can be taught lies in an ability to measure by the eye with intelligent correctness, whether the measurement is to be expressed by outline, values, or color. A sign painter quickly realizes that he will receive more for his labor if he possesses a knowledge of perspective, and the same argument holds no matter how high the ambition of the worker ; what each member desires is advice and enlightening in regard to the logic of those laws which should govern us in getting at the appearance of things.
An art school, like any other, is not of the slightest use unless it accomplishes something. It should benefit pupils directly, and teachers indirectly. The influence of a free school for men is far-reaching in its good effect, and a little experience will prove this beyond all doubt. Especially is it true of night schools, because through them a class of men is reached who could not take advantage of opportunities offered during working hours. Among men so situated are intelligent minds and fine talents going to waste because opportunity lacks. If a young man enters such a school and becomes interested, he creates a refining influence for himself, which is continually shown by his improved mental and physical appearance.
Moreover, the chances are that in his effort to discover what is true in art he will become more discriminating in regard to what is or is not true in all matters. In contact with others he will unconsciously impart a sense of what he feels. This I have frequently seen illustrated. He will not care for anything mean, cheap, or low, and his family and friends, knowing this, are equally sure to be influenced by it. If he is a clerk, while studying the great truths of art he will become a better clerk, and if he is a machinist, his increased power of seeing will make him a better machinist. The streets and such theatres as he might frequent will lose by his discriminating power a charm which they might otherwise possess, and incidentally some important names may be added to the list of the world’s great artists.
No one can be taught to paint a charming picture any more than he can be taught to be charming himself when to be so is not in his nature. He might ape a charming manner, and he might imitate in his work the charm of a landscape by Corot, but the ability for such imitation would not constitute an asset of any considerable value in the sum of his intellectual attributes. There are two distinct classes of students, amateur and professional, and the latter, after a year or two spent in a serious school, realizes that one’s chief business should be to equip himself with the indispensable and fundamental principles of his vocation. His mind is bent upon the accomplishment of a certain aim, and, in view of that condition, it may be best for his teacher to bear in mind that when instruction in drawing is to be given to a body of men largely composed of the American artisan class, he would do well to get as far as possible into the mental conditions of his pupils. He should make for himself a few rules, and observe them rigidly, otherwise his school will cease to be. He should realize that unless he can explain without hesitation the reason for every correction he makes, it may not be accepted. He should try to confine his criticism to those points which come within the ordinary range of the common laws of proportion and construction. The ancient Greeks called it “ symmetry.” He should not try to teach all he knows the first time he meets his pupil, and he should not attempt to teach too many pupils, for he will find some who will wish to express in the drawing of a head each hair belonging to it, and possibly also parts which are outside the range of their vision ; while others of a diametrically opposite tendency may be inclined to neglect important essentials. He should, therefore, know his pupils individually, which might be impossible were they too numerous. He should never fail to give credit for an effort to do conscientious work no matter how bad the result, and above all he should avoid sarcasm and exaggeration in the correction of faults. To quote Washington Allston, " It is easy to see the defects in a picture, but it takes an artist to find the good points.” I think that remark covers much ground, and should be deeply pondered by all art teachers.
A schoolboy once said to me, “ I like my teacher because she is just.” Children see quickly, and men perhaps more surely, and they both know immediately whether a teacher is giving them only words or something deeper. I have heard that at one time Gérôme advised a pupil in his class at the Beaux Arts to give up and try something else, it being evident that he had no ability, and that at a later time the man became a great artist. I can readily believe the story. The most hopeless pupil that ever entered the Connecticut League of Art Students, at that time a boy of sixteen, afterward developed the greatest talent ever seen in the school. For the first two years I was greatly puzzled by an anxiety to tell him that he was wasting his time. Later he confessed to me that during the first part of that period it was “ hard for him to distinguish the cast from the wall upon which it hung.”
Art is long, difficult, and various, and artistic ability does not always show itself at the first blush. Something precious may be hidden away in the interior of that which if judged by the exterior would cause no expectation of genius. Therefore teachers should be careful, and, to avoid serious mistakes, should constantly reverse the mental process, and imagine themselves the pupils. Could this in reality be done, some of us would meet with great surprises.
Styles, fashions, and ideas are ever changing, and schools will call themselves by newer names. Varying conditions continually require another kind of expression in art. Intellectual changes and the ever changing consensus of public opinion alter our manner of seeing the surface of things, but nothing lives if not based on truth ; correct construction, as understood by artists, is and always has been the sine qua non of all good work, as it was the underlying inspiration of the immortal words of Ingres, “ Le dessin est la probité de l’art.”
Charles Noël Flagg.