The Bargue Debacle

Breakdown in Classical Tradition

Many current ‘realist’ ateliers and academies use the Charles Bargue Drawing Course and a tool to teach beginning students how to draw.  This is based on the misconception that the purpose of the course was to teach artists how to draw.  Nothing could be farther from the truth and the record needs to be set straight.  The Bargue Course was developed to train engravers how to copy in the manner of a photograph.  Photography had been invented a few decades before but a printing method to mass produce these images had not yet been perfected.  The obvious analogy would be the ‘xerox machine’, a Bargue trained engravers was 19thc French version of the Xerox.  The examples of the plaster cast or ‘plates’ shown in the book were done from photos of the original cast.  If these plates are to be used at all they should be used in accordance with their intent and not a drawing method. As usually the farther away from the source one gets the more distorted the information.  If one reads the text of the book they quickly see it purpose and limitations.  This along with the “Classical Realist” sight-size method is a system developed by people that couldn’t draw to teach people how to copy.  The following information was prepared by the Academy of Art Canada and outlines The Brague Drawing Courses pro’s & con’s (mostly cons)

Charles Bargue - Homer

The Sight-Size Method and Artistic Development

“Realist art is not about external reality, it is about internal reality. If you think of just copying your subject matter accurately, then you’re lost. If you’re a beginner, you don’t think about things that can’t be copied, so you don’t get any better.”
 – David A. Leffel, representational artist and instructor

“The students will then discover the reason for more intentional inaccuracies employed by skillful artists; and in their turn can essay this compromise between taste and the strict observance of principles, a compromise which may be called the perspective of feeling, and which is only possible through a thorough knowledge of the rules, and after the actual observation of their instances in nature.”
 – Lecoq de Boisbaudran author of The Training of Memory in Art

Real Concerns

The literal bias that influences much of today’s realism is likely attributable in considerable part to the extensive use of the sight-size method of training. In his book Charles Bargue Drawing Course with the collaboration of Jean-Léon Gérôme,Gerald M. Ackerman, author of the book Jean L. Gérôme and former student of the Florence Academy of Art talks with Peter Bougie, former student of Richard Lack and director of the Bougie Academy (Minneapolis Minnesota), touching on what they believe to be the pluses and minuses of the sight-size method. Bougie describes the method as “making a drawing the size it would be if projected onto a plane extending left or right from your drawing board and intersecting your line of sight. This enables the artist to look at the subject and the drawing from a chosen vantage point and see them side by side — and appearing to be the same size.”¹

Although they primarily discuss the technique in terms of drawing, all of their comments can be applied to painting as well — painting simply defined as drawing with mass. In either case, we are essentially concerned with visual representation. Following are some excerpts, along with some of our own thoughts relating to their dialogue.

Copying Art and Copying Nature

Ackerman states: “There are several advantages to this technique when it is followed correctly. It produces an accurate transcription of the subject in the same size in which it is perceived. This permits continuous comparison of the drawing with the model.”¹

When one is working in the sight-size method from fine artistic reference, either in the “flat” (copying after Bargue drawings, for instance) or in the “round” (drawing directly from antique casts very accurate results can be attained relatively quickly and efficiently. It is important for the enthusiastic student to ensure that these promising strides are looked upon modestly. The student needs to be reminded that with such sight-size exercises, one is copying from subjects that have already been artistically transformed or pre-designed by the source artist in their interpretive reordering of the natural world. (In other words, the sight-size student is essentially making a copy of a previously resolved artistic solution, thereby experiencing the process of creating something artistic in nature via an interpretive intermediary or middle man. In the case of a Bargue drawing copy, there are actually two middle men between the sight-size practicing student and nature itself, because the sculptor looked into nature and interpreted it sculpturally. Subsequently, Bargue formulated an artistic design from the original artistic work. Then the student produces a same-size copy from a reproduction of the original Bargue design). In this process, the students, under the direction of an instructor, learn to improve their ability to see literal facts accurately; this is too wide, this angle is too acute or this is too dark, etc. However, it doesn’t necessarily make clear to the student why the original is that width, why the angle is that acute or why the shape is that dark.

Although a great amount can be learned from copying traditional source material, including the antique cast, accurately restating the facts is only one study mode and does not necessarily by itself lead to a full and useful understanding of the artistic conclusions embedded in what is being copied. If one’s aim is to produce results more in keeping with a less literal past tradition, training too heavily weighted or limited to such a mechanical method as sight-size can adversely affect the student’s ability to think and execute artistically — even with the artistic intent of producing a less literal but very realistic and natural result. To what degree, then, has the student’s accurate copying of this architectonically represented form helped prepare him or her for bringing artistic order to the randomness of nature?

Interpretation and Non-interpretation

Ackerman quotes Bougie as saying, “If you wish to become an exacting realist, sight-size shows you the way.”¹ It would be best if we knew exactly what Bougie meant when he opted for the word “exacting,” which could hold different meaning for different people. The word presumably refers to the greatest degree possible that the external world can be visually replicated, in terms of a direct visual comparison, so as to form an interchangeable visual facsimile with the subject itself. Such a brand of realism (which must be limited to stationary subjects) would presumably be subjected to the strictest standards of comparison. This would stand in marked contrast to the idea of an artistic representation that conjures up for the viewer a nostalgia for the original subject and includes interpretive treatment of the visual “facts.” (The word “realist” is inherently misleading, because it seems to imply that any realism that is artistically manipulated is somehow less real, when it is only less literally real).

This interpretive treatment might touch on the student’s personal response to the subject. It may include qualities that are less visually present in a factual manner of speaking but have more to do with aspects of truth and beauty relating to the subject’s possibilities. In striving for literal objectivity, the conveyance of these qualities is curtailed or forfeited. These inner-feeling-type truths, expressed as visual translations, may be considered even more relevant than the external visual truths pertaining to the subject. Aspects of the subject that have less to do with the sum of isolated facts often play a sizeable part in the creation of an “exacting” naturalistic portrayal, albeit of a less literal type.

In the past, these aspects were considered essential in recreating not only a highly believable facsimile of the world but also a sense of life — for without the latter, how realistic can the subject be? This may also apply to the subject’s more elusive qualities of being, such as inner emotions or states, personality, atmosphere and rhythm, to name a few. Whether the representation is treated more classically or romantically, these less prosaic qualities define traditional realism’s evocativeness. If one assumes that these qualities or feelings are appreciated by viewers, the more literal interpretation may seem wanting. It may impress in its replicate fidelity (especially following 80 years of 20th-century art “isms”), but it wouldn’t necessarily stir deeper emotions or stimulate intellectual and spiritual contemplation.

Abilities and Confidence

Bougie: “When students have become proficient in the use of sight-size, they can easily correct their own work. The practice of the sight-size technique also increases a student’s ability to estimate accurately the apparent measurements of the subject and transfer them correctly to paper. This talent soon becomes instinctive; it is the greatest gift of practicing sight-size. Both abilities — being able to correct oneself and being able to estimate measurements — give the beginning student a sense of confidence.”¹

Both of these abilities can also be instilled or improved by relying more on the alternative to sight-size — comparative measurement — a measurement system involving the proportionate interrelating of horizontal and vertical intervals of the subject, in which the apparent sizes of the drawing and subject are usually unequal.) The development of an instinctive sense of proportion should be the goal of any artistic training, so it can’t be said that this is a benefit unique to the arena of sight-size. If it were, much of the world’s great comparatively achieved drawing and painting would not exist.

As for the student correcting his or her own work, it needs to pointed out that this claim is based on the assumption that the model in its literal state is providing all the correct information that is required for its depiction. This is often true in the case of well-positioned, naturally lit antique cast replicas but often significantly less so in the case of artificially lit casts, figurative work or in the outdoors. The habit of always looking to the subject for all the answers deprives the student of the awareness and tools to work intelligently from anything that is less than perfect. In contrast, the comparative method offers the additional benefits of minimal interference with the student’s capacity to later extend his or her artistic practice along more traditional lines. This allows the student to develop an important understanding of interpretive space making possible the synthesis of mechanical exactitude with artistic intent. We should bear in mind that every measure of increased mastery in the sight-size method is not without augmented dependence on these training wheels, which of course is coupled with the negative concerns that Ackerman and Bougie also express. An increased sense of “confidence” may very well result, but a confidence in what exactly? As it applies to the cast, it is a confidence derived from the ability to replicate imagery already interpreted from nature; without interpreting for oneself. The excited student might easily begin to look upon this newfound ability as more of an artistic means to an end than the simplest of means of getting started.

Limitations and Concerns

Ackerman and Bougie rightfully express concern for the negative influences of the sight-size method. Ackerman writes, “Using sight-size as the only way of drawing might make practitioners model-bound and interfere with their depiction of objects from memory. Since models are incapable of holding dynamic poses for more than a few minutes, it may delay learning the elements that give motion to drawing. In addition to increasing the student’s dependence upon the model, it also creates a dependence upon ideal conditions — typically those encountered in a studio.”¹ Ackerman quotes Bougie: “I find a problem in sight-size: if carried on too long, the students become model-bound and limited to poses they can set before them. This keeps them from attempting motion, some expressions, interactions between personages.”¹ Bougie also makes remarks regarding corrective measures that are headed in the right direction, “Sight-size is very useful in many ways but has definite limitations. It’s a good teaching tool, and we insist that everyone use it because it sharpens the beginner’s eye for proportion relatively quickly and provides an objective context in which to work. It’s good for use in the studio in a controlled setting, but it’s impractical for landscape painting (not theoretically, but in practical terms) or making studies from life on the fly. I’ve also noticed that for some students who are naïve (in their drawing experience), or of a strong logical mindset, sight-size gets in the way of seeing when they reach a certain point in their development. You’re right about the shortcomings of sight-size, it’s strictly for working in controlled situations, and it does breed a dependence on the model. I’m going to try having students do more work from flat copy of expressive figures, figures in motion, and so on, to try to bridge the gap between the study of nature and its application to making pictures.”¹

The problem with sight-size is that it doesn’t leave any room between the model and the artist for visual judgment to weigh in — especially when the degree of artistic interpretation called for is relatively substantial. Too fixed a relationship between model and artist often proves too imposing for artistic judgment to play a primary role — resisting attempts of a progressively developing visual memory (assuming that an attempt at such important development is being made) to form an expressive confluence with other kinds of visual truth. A drawing mode that facilitates the interplay of interpretive knowledge and hard fact is what allows for things to be conceived rather than perceived (sometimes to convey a large degree of naturalistic believability) and charging the subject with an artistic ebullience.

Admittedly, the sight-size method can give the beginner a jump start in his or her effort to achieve mechanical accuracy. However, as the student advances, sight-size really works against the grain, impeding the interpretation of nature that is necessary to transform it along traditional, classical and romantic lines. The big question becomes “how much is too much”? Programs that load up on the production of “finished” sight-size works at the expense of expanding the student’s executable capacity and powers of artistic judgment leave the student unable to transcend the limitations Bougie refers to.

Judicious distortion defines the essence of much of the world’s finest art. It needs to be considered at the earliest possible time while maintaining responsible academic vigilance. Infringing on this idea by emphasizing literal replication is likely to put students at cross purposes with any effort to breathe life into their work.

Bougie adds: “[Sight-size] is an excellent method for any artist who wishes to use it in working directly from life in a controlled setting, because once you have mastered it you are able to fix solid reference points on a drawing or painting quickly, and save yourself a lot of misapplied effort. [It] is a well known and proven method for taking measurements in a setting where the model is posed or the subject is stationary. It’s a tool. It is no more theoretical than a paint brush. It’s useful when it’s used in the right way.”¹

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The bias showing here lies in the assumption that artists working in a controlled setting should exactly match the placement of points to corresponding points on the model, even in the event that they have chosen to limit themselves to what will ultimately convey a faithful, naturalistic representation. The use of any number of other pictorial aids could help accomplish this — slide projector, for example. Like a projector, sight-size may perhaps (but not necessarily) save some time, but ideally, artistic judgment applied to design and the interrelationship of parts must overrule any information derived from the employment of these “tools”.

But an artist who wished to make an anatomical portion of the model appear more truthful and beautiful (while appearing no less real), might decide to make it narrower (or wider) than its actual measured size. The reality is not factual but artistic. Raphael created in this way and so too did Velazquez, Delacroix, Degas, Ingres, Bouguereau, Vermeer and Rembrandt and countless others. Many current realist academies either do not know or fail to stress the degree to which, the conceptual informs an emotively effective and universally embraced naturalism.

Minor movement in the model was often welcomed by masters as they searched out “the pose.” In figurative work, minor torque in the figure was explored in a number of quick, more essential studies, to capture the essence of the movement. Then the figure was in a sense assembled into a collage of its parts. The artist worked toward capturing a distilled essence of the various particulars as one whole design. This was sometimes done in a single figure using more than one model. Raphael might use one model for the hands, one for the figure, one for the head and one to change the nose.

“Finished” Drawings

At the AAC, one concern is that novices are immediately impressed by highly finished work before they have had the opportunity to learn about what qualities are to be found in the finest drawing and painting along more classical or romantic lines. The more traditional idea aims higher: once things are real enough, artistic philosophy as interpretation should weigh in.

At the AAC, we utilize the benefits of sight-size and quickly yield to the comparative method, with an eye toward future artistic growth. This goes along with our emphasis on studying traditional interpretative thinking. We do not use sight-size in working from the figure, portrait, landscape and still life.

Historical Confusion

There seems to be a substantial amount of historical confusion over the sight-size method. Ackerman refers to the “endless debate about how old the technique is and who practiced it.”¹ He states that “as a studio method it seems to be a late nineteenth century development.”¹ His footnote traces back the method’s use to the studio of William Paxton (1869-1941). Ackerman also quotes Bougie: “The sight-size method of measurement was a common method of working for both students and accomplished artists prior to the twentieth century during which it fell into disuse in most art education settings.”¹ However Ackerman remarks: “The examination of many etchings, drawings, paintings, and photographs of early ateliers in session — some as far back as the Renaissance — depict none of the upright easels necessary for the practice of sight-size. In many other depictions of older ateliers, one constantly sees the younger students seated on the ground, with their drawing boards in their laps.”¹

Art academies in the 19th century did not make substantial use of the sight-size method. Very much to the contrary, academic art students were trained comparatively. Although the comparative method is more difficult to learn, it will always remain the foundation of expressive drawing, no matter how realistic. Even Bougie acknowledges that sight-size will interfere with a student’s progress, especially for a certain type of student, and that ultimately the parts of the whole subject have to be interrelated with themselves. “You have to look and compare.” Comparisons, absolutely — but not necessarily to the literal versions of themselves. What about comparisons with what the parts should be according to the artist’s conception?

“But I’ve Heard that Some of the Old Masters Employed Sight-Size”

There is some historical evidence that some artists may, at times, have set up their easels directly beside their subjects — though the majority did not. A mature artist who possesses an artistically resolved mind might work one-to-one as a convenient way of setting things up at certain times. However, we should not extend this to mean it is therefore the most appropriate training method for the early to middle years of development, before a strong artistic viewfinder is adequately developed.

The small amount of information available on the historical use of sight-size does not inform us about the degree to which its practitioners were focused on nature’s individual facts. The purpose for which sight-size comparison may actually have been done is also open to speculation. If, on occasion, an artist like Velazquez used such a method, it would not have been used so much to accomplish his drawings as to “check up” on the degree of faithfulness to his artistic interpretation. This is plainly evident in his work. It is the concept, not literal nature, that always comes first. One must not lose sight of the big idea, which is to make the object look like the painting, not the other way around.

The Conceptual Role of Memory and Taste

Ultimately, in the making of art, one cannot copy reality without being forced to make decisions, because there is not one truth — but only truths. These truths demand, to one degree or another, simplification, embellishment and organization, but they do not themselves communicate what forms those orchestrations will take. Your painting will largely depend upon what you allow to influence your perception. One learns just as much from art as one learns from nature. Many artists, including Whistler, believed that more is learned from art. Copying external reality as faithfully and painstakingly as possible will lead to a certain type of result, the quality of which would be determined largely by the reference and not by the artist. Learning a great deal about what goes into a Rembrandt, for instance, would no doubt shift the artist’s thinking and so lead to considerably different results. Traditionally, the more important questions are those concerned with the creation of pictorial energy while also maintaining consideration for beauty and truth in the platonic sense. The result appears no less naturalistic, only less literally naturalistic.

Even faithful practitioners of the sight-size method will sometimes admit that there are limits to how exactly their work can be made to look like the model. This concession inadvertently confirms the presence of an interpretive capacity while suggesting that the exploitation of this capacity be determined by the inherent limitations of what is possible in trying to make an exacting representation without any conscious attempt at interpreting it. This stands in marked contrast to a conscious effort being aimed at trying to understand more about interpretive decision making and making use of it for one’s own representational purposes.

Great masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Velazquez, Ingres, Titian, Corot, Van Dyck, Sargent, Degas and Reubens knew that nature only gives you the answer when you ask the right question, and so they set about learning how to view the world around them in the context of a higher, universally poetic truth, cultivated by keen appreciation and understanding of fine artistic examples. They all possessed highly trained visual memories that operated within the framework of a strong, governing and interpretive artistic intuition, setting up in any convenient way, employing any mechanical aides they found helpful or that saved time. When working from nature, these powers of observation, interpretation and representation were most often facilitated by working from the model slightly off to one side, the setup allowing for sparking their visual memory and leaving room for the play of the imagination while not allowing them to stray too self-indulgently from nature’s truth. Leaving a space for memory to intervene in the comparison between their work and the model allows artistic judgment to play a larger role and permits the dominance of factual comparison to yield to artistic synthesis.

  ¹Gerald M. Ackerman, Charles Bargue Drawing Course with the Collaboration of Jean-Léon Gérôme (Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 2003) 318-325.
  ¹Robert Beverly Hale and Terence Cole, Anatomy Lessons from the Great Masters(New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1977)
  ¹Robert Beverly Hale, Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1989)
  ¹Dr. Paul Richer, translated by Robert Beverly Hale, Artistic Anatomy (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1971)
  ¹In Italian disegni means drawings. Translated literally it means designs. Notice that there is no distinction made between the two.
  ¹Gregg Kreutz, Problem Solving for Oil Painters (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1997.)

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