A Visit from the Master

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Napoleon in Egypt, Jean-Leon Gerome

A visit from Jean-Léon Gérôme was a special occasion for students in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, occurring only once a week. When the master was not in attendance, the students harassed each other, dueled with mahl sticks, and joked around.

On a typical morning, they went about their normal routines, making coffee, and, according to a student who was part of the class, “arranging themselves in the tobacco-smoke, setting palettes, filling pipes, trimming crayons, moistening bits of bread, and wringing them into erasing-balls in the corners of handkerchiefs.”

Gérôme arrived exactly on schedule, removed his hat, and placed it on a peg reserved just for him. The students came to attention and the Italian model perked up.

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He started in one corner of the room and went systematically from student to student, standing or sitting in their place, and regarding their drawing or painting with full attention and unsparing criticism.

“Observe,” he said, looking at a very neat drawing by a student, “Your muscles are inlaid against one another. They are carpentered. There is a something—that is not the vivacity of flesh. Go next Sunday to the Louvre and observe some of the drawings of Raphael. He does not use so much work as you, yet one feels the elasticity of his flesh, packed together of contractile fibers, based upon bone, and sheathed in satin. You tell me you will express that texture afterward. I tell you Raphael expressed it from the first stroke!”

“Your color rages,” he said to another student. “That of the model is lambent. Besides, your figure is tumbling, it is not on its legs. I will save you labor by telling you the simplest way of correcting this. Turn the canvas upside down and draw it over. The error is radical.”

To another, he said: “You do not yet understand the continuity of forms in nature. You accent too highly. That is vulgarity. For instance: it appears to you that the internal and external vastus, when gathered in at the knee, cause a break in the outline, like the cap of a pillar. Similarly under the calf. You are deceived, and should use your eyes; the accent is not in the line, it is in the shading beside the line, and even there far more slightly than you think. Here again, the vein crosses the forearm. You make a hideous saliency. Nature never, absolutely never, breaks a line.”

The excerpts are from The Nation, May 6, 1869, Page 352. “ART-STUDY IN THE IMPERIAL SCHOOL AT PARIS” by Earl Shinn

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