The Twilight of Contour

Let us begin with what is known as the Boston School of Painters. Key figures in the Boston School were Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank Weston Benson, and William McGregor Paxton, all of whom trained in Paris at the Academie Julian and later taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Other painters associated with the Boston School include Joseph DeCamp, Philip Leslie Hale, Lilian Westcott Hale, John Joseph Enneking, Gretchen Woodman Rogers, Aldro Hibbard, Frederic Porter Benson, Lilla Cabot Perry, Elizabeth Okie Paxton, Hermann Dudley Murphy, W. Lester Stevens, and others. The Boston School has an impressive lineage to French and German Academic training. Most of them spent years studying at the best academies in Paris and Munich. They were, by definition, Classically trained in drawing and painting.

The Boston School influenced many painters that would follow, including R.H. Ives Gammell. Gammell, who created the designation ‘The Boston School Painters’ even writing the definitive book on the subject. He knew many of them on a first-name basis and was close friends with several.

Gammell took classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for two years but avoided William McGregor Paxton’s drawing class. One could ponder on a reason, but our guess is he was somewhat intimidated. It is no great secret that R.H. did not draw proficiently.

Most of the faculty quit the Museum School in 1913 and Ives went to France to study at Academie Baschet in Paris, during his short stay there his instructors, Henri Royer and William Laparra were highly critical of his manner of drawing and he was looking for other instruction when War broke out and he returned to Boston.

Sometime later that year Gammell would hire William McGregor Paxton to teach him how to draw and physically help him with his drawings and paintings. Gammell paid Paxton for private lessons including help on his own work for over twenty-five years. Because Gammell was wealthy Paxton was most likely paid handsomely for his efforts. Paxton and Gammell both occupied studios at Fenway.

Gammell learned most of what he knew about a traditional academic painting technique from Paxton but little of drawing in the manner of the great Academicians. This is mainly due to the fact that Paxton was far from a Master Draughtsman himself.

Paxton appears to have worked in somewhat a site-size manner and Gammell credits him with coining the word. One cannot really be sure who coined the term but it was used constantly in Gammell’s studio where everything was done sight-size. This is evidenced by the terrible foreshortened leg in Paxton’s drawing to the right. Sight-size is only effective for Still-life and straight-on figure work. It does not work at all for foreshortening.

One should point out that the Sight-Size method that Gammell taught had little or nothing to do with the mimetic parallelism taught in today ateliers. That seems to have come about at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. Perhaps this paradigm shift was not from Lack directly but certainly started to take shape in short order via consequent instructors. What gets lost here is the Impressionist aspect of what Gammell was trying to convey which was the underlying tenet of the Boston School. Atelier Lack did a quantum lead backwards to the ‘Grand Manner’ coloring book outline approach to drawing.

Paxton had studied with Gerome and Boulanger, who were both good draughtsmen and both studied with Paul Delarouche who was a Master. Gerome and Boulanger both are known to have worked from photographs and neither was as fine a draughtsman and Delarouche but they both were certainly stronger than Paxton.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that many of the major players of the Boston School stressed a high degree of observational drawing. Of what we consider the four major players. Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, William Paxton, and Joseph Decamp. Only Paxton and Decamp attended the Academies, Paxton the Ecole des Beau Arts, Decamp the Academy of Fine Arts Munich. Tarbell and Benson attended Boulanger and Lefebvre’s Atelier at Julian. Their primary influence however was William Turner Dannat whose Atelier they attended of afternoon painting classes. Dannat’s manner of painting had a tremendous impact on Tarbell and Benson. Of the four Decamp is in our opinion the superior draughtsman and painter. Decamp was sort of the odd man out in terms of training having been one of the Cincinnati Duveneck Boys.

Thousands of students from fifty plus countries pasted through Academe Julian a few great some good and the majority mediocre. It all sounds very romantic but in reality, most of what one learned they learned from fellow students or doing Master Studies at the Louvre. The Atelier’s namesake like Bouguereau, Tony-Robert Fleury, Gabriel Ferrier and Jules Lefebvre would show up once or twice a week to correct and critique a few students work.

Some instructors were more in attendance than others. At its zenith, Academie Julian had several Ateliers throughout Paris. Each Atelier was busting at the seams with students. There were generally two instructors per Atelier who would come in once or twice a week and correct and critique a couple of student drawings while the others watched.

We have shown a large number of Atelier photos to illustrate how crowded these studios were and that each of the instructors had as upwards to a hundred students. Of course, much of the time was spent copying MasterWorks at the Louvre especially in the cold of winter.


Claims That They Are Patterned After The French Ateliers Of The Second Half Of The 19Thc Century Are Obviously a Total Fabrication.

It is difficult to pinpoint when form-based mass conception gave way to shape-based sight-size observation of nature but by the time we get to Gammell, any consideration of geometric form is totally put aside and the search for the truth in nature takes center stage.

It is curious to note that George Brandt Bridgman studied with Gerome and Boulanger as did Paxton, George taught a full 180° turn toward academic form-dependent constructive drawing. Paxton must have skipped of few of Gustave’s critiques.

We mention this because there appears to be no vestige of classical form-based draughtsmanship in Gammell drawings. It appears he viewed drawing as preparatory for painting. It is safe to say that Gammell’s mural-centric decorative style relied more on composition and graphic effect than it did the knowledge of academic form oriented drawing. The painting to the right represents what we believe to be Gammell’s mature style.

Between the Wars, Paxton helped Gammell build up a body of work that incorporated the aesthetic of the Boston School but it is hard to judge those paintings because some of the finishing touches could be from Paxton’s hand. Much like it was done in Renaissance and Baroque Workshops where apprentices did the underpainting and the Master made corrections and added the final few brush strokes.

It is difficult to look at Gammell’s painting above and Paxtons to the right and not see Paxton in both works. It has been documented that Gammell paid Paxton for over twenty years to correct and critique his works and that appears to be at play here. One can see where Paxton painted part of the gold shawl on the top right and Gammell painted the bottom and left parts.

The sight-size relational drawing approach practiced by Gammell at Fenway Studios was an abbreviated form of Paxton’s naturalistic draughtsmanship. Paxton more than likely tailored this approach, especially for Gammell. Even though the ‘Classical Realist’ attempts to do so it is a stretch to try to trace its roots back beyond this point. What emerged at Atelier Lack was a total focus on shape-based drawing the window shade coloring book approach if you will. Gammell taught sight-size as a tool, not as a method which is an important distinction.

Rather than using sight-size to create a highly rendered copies, he using it primarily for placement, proportion and a naturalistic representation of what he considered important. What Gammell taught were traditional drawing aesthetics that he would have learned from multiple sources must notably Paxton. Quality of line, the subtlety of edges and relationships of values and what happens when those values meat. He and the Boston School painters were concerned with the whole much more than it parts. He introduced his students to the visual dialogue between line and tone. Gammell taught them the difference between outline and contour, between shading and shaping.

He never used Bargue Plates and never would. R.H. would have been appalled by the tediously rendering practiced in the majority of todays Ateliers.

Students were discouraged from the overuse of plumb bobs and other mechanical measuring devices. Gammell believed in training one eyes and visual recall. He had his students routinely practice the memory drawing methods practiced by Lecoq de Boisbaudran whose best-known students were Rodin, Fantin-Latour, and Alphonse Legros.

Though seemingly a part of the Boston School Gammell was in practice worlds apart.

Gammell represents a fork in the road of academic draughtsmanship. Rather one works with the Plutonian aesthetics that Ideal Form exists beyond nature or the Aristotelian concept that the ideal can be found within nature is irrelevant. Most Master Draughtsmen have operated somewhere in between. Classicism however encompasses the concept of ideal form and drawing is always something other than what one sees, otherwise it is rote copying.

Paxton was heavily invested in the Aristotelian naturalistic domain. Gammell, on the other hand, was all in, he and Aristotle would have been good drinking buddies.

To which side of this equation one leans does not matter, this is a centuries-old philosophical debate that will never be resolved. The point, however, is that the ‘Classical Realist’ movement claims its lineage goes back to Gammell, Paxton, Boulanger, Gerome, Delarouche, and Jacques-Louis David, we beg to differ. The ‘Classical Realist’ movement is the sole possession of Richard Lack and does not even make its way back to R. H.. It is also obvious that Paxton was the weak link in this chain and did not have much to offer Gammell. Somewhere during this interchange, traditional academic drawing was ushered the building in favor of the overall impression.

From what we know about R. H. Ives Gammell he was not concerned with Classicism versus Realism he was interested in professionalism. He provided a resource for serious artists that wished to learn traditional Fine Art Aesthetics and skill-sets. He tried in his own way to preserve the knowledge given to him by the older generation of painters he had studied with.

Following in the foot steps of Kenyon Cox Gammell appointed himself ‘Keeper of The Keys of Culture.’ He attempted to preserve the aesthetic values of classicism while moving the ball forward. His book The Twilight of painting could be seen as a sequel to Kenyon’s ‘The Classic Point of View’

So exactly what did R. H. Ives Gammell pass along to his students, first and foremost a great work ethic, secondly he introduced them to the cultural aesthetics of the Fine Arts. His knowledge of painting and painters was unsurpassed and he passed much of that knowledge along to his students. He gave them financial assistance studio space and in many cases lodging. Many of his apprentices would not have had to opportunity to become professional painters without Gammell’s guidance, educational resources, and financial assistance. He had the best intentions and breached a gap that needed breaching after the Armory Show of 1913 which ushered in Modernism and changed the perception of what constituted art for collectors, critics, and museums.

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Robert Hale Ives Gammell began his famous Apprenticeship program in the 1950s and seriously mentored less than 19 students over a 30-year time frame. Many of them drew better than Gammell others painted as well or better so he gave to each what he had to give. The creative culture that existed in the 46 studios of the Fenway Studio Building in the Gammell era can never be duplicated. Many of Gammell students lived and worked there. This teacher student model is far different from what was to follow.

Worth noting that the work of Ives proteges show diversity of style as well as technique.

Though many current day Ateliers claim a direct lineage to Gammell, we have it on good authority that he would not approve of their programs or what comes out of them. He probably would have viewed it as narcissistic exhibitionism and would have been quick to decry any such lineage. We know he wanted nothing to do with Fred Ross and The Art Renewal Center because he was approached by Ross and declined. Ross yet claims Ives as one of the Godfathers of the ‘Classical Realist’ Atelier Movement.

The label ‘Classical Realism’ was coined in 1982 by Richard Lack after Gammell’s death. In reference to academic art it is an oxymoron because the two are diametrically opposed. In actual theory it is a Machiavellian concept that ties politics to the human condition. Gammell undoubtedly saw this and wanted no part of it.

When former Gammell student Richard Lack opened Atelier Lack in Minneapolis the aesthetics of drawing started to go south in a hurry. The sight-size approach turned into the sight-size method. The teacher student Gammell model turned into the Lack Atelier system.

In the Atelier system, and established painter opened his studio to a select group of students who paid a modest fee. These students were taught the elements of the craft of painting under the guidance of the master. They might even assist the painter with his own work, but the main emphasis was on developing their skills and talents to the point where they could be on their own as fully-trained painters...

The student was close enough to the Master to observe all the procedures necessary to complete a successful picture. The studio was under the guidance of the Master at all times, which enabled him to watch the development of each of his pupils, gearing his instruction to each individual need.’ _Richard Lack_

The problem going in was Atelier Lack was never going mirror Gammell’s approach. Gammell only mentored two or three Apprentices at a time and charged nothing. Lack had to monetize the program and needed far more students to make it work. The more students the less time Lack had to spend with each student. So Lack would spend time with the more advanced students and the more advanced students would instruct the less advanced students who would get less instruction so forth and so on until beginning students had little or no contact with the Master. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ironically Gammell made mention this problem in his autobiography when describing the Ateliers he visited in Paris. “The severe training implicit in the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Léon Bonnat, Jean-Paul Laurens, William Bouguereau, and their contemporaries had not been given to their pupils, who were turning out greatly weakened versions of what their seniors had done far better. . . . As teachers, they merely dispensed minor corrections to large classes of students who naturally benefited little from that sort of instruction.” _R. H. Ives Gammell_

What Lack and his instructors did over a short period of time was to turn sight-size into a method where there was a overly rendered prototype drawing to emulate before students were allowed to move on to the next project.

The intellectual practical theories of draughtsmanship took a back seat to shape aping and tonal trancing. The sensitive conversation between line and tone gave way to the silence of window shade Rendering. In essence drawing was replaced by laborious shading and the duration of each discipline doubled or tripled to pad the program, i. e., a few months of cast drawing became a whole year of cast drawing.



Paxton had adopted a more direct manner of the painting taught by Sargents teacher Carolus-Duran. Carolus-Duran was first influenced by Courbet and later by the direct painting methods of Velasques.

Carolus-Duran studied at Atelier Suisse where: Cezanne, Daumier, Manet, Monet, and Pissarro also attended.

Paxton, Tarbell, and Frank Weston Benson adopted many their tenets from Duran and other painters of Atelier Suisse they fostered in the era of American Impressionism. They had far more kinship with the methods of Carolus-Duran, and John Singer Sargent than Boulanger, Gerome, Delarouche, and Jacque-Louis David. The ‘Classical Realist’ claim of any of this lineage is a total misdirect. Through the Boston trio of Tarbell, Benson, and Paxton were enrolled in Ateliers the bore their names these overcrowded Ateliers were merely gathering places. The Boston three were influenced by the current trends of what was happening in Paris at the time which was direct painting in the manner of Duran, Sargent, Manet, and certain other Impressionists. Trying to line up the Boston School Painters with the Gerome, Delarouche, and David is disingenuous.

The only lineage that does exist is a technique without substance. ‘Classical Realists’ Ateliers teach one to paint pictures that mirror their Academic predecessors but they do not feel like them.

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