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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Artistic Education In France And England

Title:     Artistic Education In France And England
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Is the introduction of the subject into art the one and only cause for the defeat of the brilliant genius which the Revolution and the victories of Napoleoncalled into existence? Are there not other modern and special signs which distinguish the nineteenth century French schools from all the schools that preceded it? I think there are.

Throwing ourselves back in our chairs, let us think of this French school in its _ensemble_. What extraordinary variety! What an absence of fixed principle! curiosity, fever, impatience, hurry, anxiety, desire touching on hysteria. An enormous expenditure of force, but spent in so many different and contrary directions, that the sum-total of the result seems a little less than we had expected. Throwing ourselves back in our chairs, and closing our eyes a second time, let us think of our eighteenth century English school. Is it not like passing from the glare and vicarious holloaing of the street into a quiet, grave assembly of well-bred men, who are not afraid to let each other speak, and know how to make themselves heard without shouting; men who choose their words so well that they afford to speak without emphasis, and in whose speech you find neither neologisms, nor inversions, nor grammatical extravagances, nor calculated brutalities, nor affected ignorance, nor any faintest trace of pedantry? What these men have to say is more or less interesting, but they address us in the same language, and however arbitrarily we may place them, though we hang a pig-stye by Morland next to a duchess by Gainsborough, we are surprised by a pleasant air of family likeness in the execution. We feel, however differently these men see and think, that they are content to express themselves in the same language. Their work may be compared to various pieces of music played on an instrument which was common property; they were satisfied with the instrument, and preferred to compose new music for it than to experiment with the instrument itself.

It may be argued that in the lapse of a hundred years the numerous differences of method which characterise modern painting will disappear, and that it will seem as uniform to the eyes of the twenty-first century as the painting of the eighteenth century seems in our eyes to-day. I do not think this will be so. And in proof of this opinion I will refer again to the differences of opinion regarding the first principles of painting and drawing which divided Ingres and Gericault. Differences regarding first principles never existed between the leaders of any other artistic movement. Not between Michael Angelo and Raphael, not between Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, and Rubens; not between Hals or any other Dutchman, except Rembrandt, born between 1600 and 1640; or between Van Dyck and Reynolds and Gainsborough. Nor must the difference between the methods of Giotto and Titian cause any one to misunderstand my meaning. The change that two centuries brought into art was a gradual change, corresponding exactly to the ideas which the painter wished to express; each method was sufficient to explain the ideas current at the time it was invented for that purpose; it served that purpose and no more.

Facilities for foreign travel, international exhibitions, and cosmopolitanism have helped to keep artists of all countries in a ferment of uncertainty regarding even the first principles of their art. But this is not all; education has proved a vigorous and rapid solvent, and has completed the disintegration of art. A young man goes to the Beaux Arts; he is taught how to measure the model with his pencil, and how to determine the movement of the model with his plumb-line. He is taught how to draw by the masses rather than by the character, and the advantages of this teaching permit him, if he is an intelligent fellow, to produce at the end of two years' hard labour a measured, angular, constipated drawing, a sort of inferior photograph. He is then set to painting, and the instruction he receives amounts to this--that he must not rub the paint about with his brush as he rubbed the chalk with his paper stump. After a long methodical study of the model, an attempt is made to prepare a corresponding tone; no medium must be used; and when the, large square brush is filled full of sticky, clogging pigment it is drawn half an inch down and then half an inch across the canvas, and the painter must calculate how much he can finish at a sitting, for this system does not admit of retouchings. It is practised in all the French studios, where it is known as _la peinture au premier coup_.

A clever young man, a man of talent, labours at art in the manner I have described from eight to ten hours a day, and at the end of six or seven years his education is completed. During the long while of his pupilage he has heard, "first learn your trade, and then do what you like". The time has arrived for him to do what he likes. He already suspects that the mere imitation of MM. Bouguereau and Lefebvre will bring him neither fame nor money; he soon finds that is so, and it becomes clear to him he must do something different. Enticing vistas of possibilities open out before him, but he is like a man whose limbs have been kept too long in splints--they are frozen; and he at length understands the old and terrible truth: as the twig is bent so will it grow. The skin he would slough will not be sloughed; he tries all the methods--robust executions, lymphatic executions, sentimental and insipid executions, painstaking executions, cursive and impertinent executions. Through all these the Beaux Arts student, if he is intelligent enough to perceive the falseness and worthlessness of his primary education, slowly works his way. He is like a vessel without ballast; he is like a blindfolded man who has missed his pavement; he is blown from wave to wave; he is confused with contradictory cries. Last year he was robust, this year he is lymphatic; he affects learning which he does not possess, and then he assumes airs of ignorance, equally unreal--a mild, sophisticated ignorance, which he calls _naivete_. And these various execution she is never more than superficially acquainted with; he does not practise any one long enough to extract what good there may be in it.

To set before the reader the full story of the French decadence, I should have to relate the story of the great schism of some few years ago, when the pedants remained at the _Salon_ under the headship of Mr. Bouguereau, and the experimentalists followed Meissonier to the Champs de Mars.[Footnote: See "Impressions and Opinions."]The authoritative name of Meissonier, the genius of Puvis de Chavannes, and the interest of the exhibition of Stevens' early work, sufficed for some years to disguise the progress and the tendency of the declension of French art; and it was not until last year (1892) that it was impossible to doubt any longer that the great French renaissance of the beginning of the century had worn itself out, that the last leaves were falling, and that probably a long period of winter rest was preparing. French art has resolved itself into pedants and experimentalists! The _Salon_ is now like to a library of Latin verses composed by the Eton and Harrow masters and their pupils; the Champs de Mars like a costume ball at Elysee Montmartre.

In England it is customary for art to enter by a side door, and the enormous subvention to the Kensington Schools would never have been voted by Parliament if the bill had not been gilt with the usual utility gilding. It was represented that the schools were intended for something much more serious than the mere painting of pictures, which only rich people could buy: the schools were primarily intended as schools of design, wherein the sons and daughters of the people would be taught how to design wall-papers, patterns for lace, curtains, damask table-cloths, etc. The intention, like many another, was excellent; but the fact remains that, except for examination purposes, the work done by Kensington students is useless. A design for a piece of wall-paper, for which a Kensington student is awarded a medal, is almost sure to prove abortive when put to a practical test. The isolated pattern looks pretty enough on the two feet of white paper on which it is drawn; but when the pattern is manifolded, it is usually found that the designer has not taken into account the effect of the repetition. That is the pitfall into which the Kensington student usually falls; he cannot make practical application of his knowledge, and at Minton's factory all the designs drawn by Kensington students have to be redrawn by those who understand the practical working out of the processes of reproduction and the quality of the material employed. So complete is the failure of the Kensington student, that to plead a Kensington education is considered to be an almost fatal objection against any one applying for work in any of our industrial centres.

Five-and-twenty years ago the schools of art at South Kensington were the most comical in the world; they were the most complete parody on the Continental school of art possible to imagine. They are no doubt the same to-day as they were five-and-twenty years ago--any way, the educational result is the same. The schools as I remember them were faultless in everything except the instruction dispensed there. There were noble staircases, the floors were covered with cocoa-nut matting, the rooms admirably heated with hot-water pipes, there were plaster casts and officials. In the first room the students practised drawing from the flat. Engraved outlines of elaborate ornamentation were given them, and these they drew with lead pencil, measuring the spaces carefully with compasses. In about six months or a year the student had learned to use his compass correctly, and to produce a fine hard black-lead outline; the harder and finer the outline, the more the drawing looked like a problem in a book of Euclid, the better the examiner was pleased, and the more willing was he to send the student to the room upstairs, where drawing was practised from the antique.

This was the room in which the wisdom of South Kensington attained a complete efflorescence. I shall never forget the scenes I witnessed there. Having made choice of a cast, the student proceeded to measure the number of heads; he then measured the cast in every direction, and ascertained by means of a plumb-line exactly where the lines fell. It wasmore like land-surveying than drawing, and to accomplish this portion of his task took generally a fortnight, working six hours a week. He then placed a sheet of tissue paper upon his drawing, leaving only one small part uncovered, and, having reduced his chalk pencil to the finest possible point, he proceeded to lay in a set of extremely fine lines. These were crossed by a second set of lines, and the two sets of lines were elaborately stippled, every black spot being carefully picked out with bread. With a patience truly sublime in its folly, he continued the process all the way down the figure, accomplishing, if he were truly industrious, about an inch square in the course of an evening. Our admiration was generally directed to those who had spent the longest time on their drawings. After three months' work a student began to be noticed; at the end of four he became an important personage. I remember one who had contrived to spend six months on his drawing. He was a sort of demigod, and we used to watch him anxious and alarmed lest he might not have the genius to devote still another month to it, and our enthusiasm knew no bounds when we learned that, a week before the drawings had to be sent in, he had taken his drawing home and spent three whole days stippling it and picking out the black spots with bread.

The poor drawing had neither character nor consistency; it looked like nothing under the sun, except a drawing done at Kensington--a flat, foolish thing, but very soft and smooth. But this was enough; it was passed by the examiners, and the student went into the Life Room to copy an Italian model as he had copied the Apollo Belvedere. Once or twice a week a gentleman who painted tenth-rate pictures, which were not always hung in the Academy, came round and passed casual remarks on the quality of the stippling. There was a head-master who painted tenth-rate historical pictures, after the manner of a tenth-rate German painter in a provincial town, in a vast studio upstairs, which the State was good enough to provide him with, and he occasionally walked through the studios; on an average, I should say, once a month.

The desire to organise art proceeded in France from a love of system, and in England from a love of respectability. To the ordinary mind there is something especially reassuring in medals, crowns, examinations, professors, and titles; and since the founding of the Kensington Schools we unfortunately hear no more of parents opposing their children's wishes to become artists. The result of all these facilities for art study has been to swamp natural genius and to produce enormous quantities of vacuous little water colours and slimy little oil colours. Young men have been prevented from going to Australia and Canada and becoming rough farmers, and young ladies from following them and becoming rough wives and themothers of healthy children. Instead of such natural emigration and extension of the race, febrile little pilgrimages have been organised to Paris and Grey, whence astonishing methods and theories regarding the conditions, under which painting alone can be accomplished, have been brought back. Original Kensington stipple has been crossed with square brush-work, and the mule has been bred in and in with open brush-work, and fresh strains have been sought in the execution at the angle of forty-five; art has become infinitely hybrid and definitely sterile.

Must we then conclude that all education is an evil? Why exaggerate; why outstrip the plain telling of the facts? For those who are thinking of adopting art as a profession it is sufficient to know that the one irreparable evil is a bad primary education. Be sure that after five years of the Beaux Arts you cannot become a great painter. Be sure that after five years of Kensington you can never become a painter at all. "If not at Kensington nor at the Beaux Arts, where am I to obtain the education I stand in need of?" cries the embarrassed student. I do not propose to answer that question directly. How the masters of Holland and Flanders obtained their marvellous education is not known. We neither know how they learned nor how they painted. Did the early masters paint first in monochrome, adding the colouring matter afterwards? Much vain conjecturing has been expended in attempting to solve this question. Did Ruysdale paint direct from nature or from drawings? Unfortunately on this question history has no single word to say. We know that Potter learned his trade in the fields in lonely communication with nature. We know too that Crome was a house-painter, and practised painting from nature when his daily work was done. Nevertheless he attained as perfect a technique as any painter that ever lived. Morland, too, was self-taught: he practised painting in the fields and farmyards and the country inns where he lived, oftentimes paying for board and lodging with a picture. Did his art suffer from want of education? Is there any one who believes that Morland would have done better work if he had spent three or four years stippling drawings from the antique at South Kensington?

I will conclude these remarks, far too cursive and incomplete, with an anecdote which, I think, will cause the thoughtful to ponder. Some seven or eight years ago, Renoir, a painter of rare talent and originality, after twenty years of struggle with himself and poverty, succeeded in attaining a very distinct and personal expression of his individuality. Out of a hundred influences he had succeeded in extracting an art as beautiful as it was new. His work was beginning to attract buyers. For the first time in his life he had a little money in hand, and he thought he would like a holiday. Long reading of novels leads the reader to suppose that he found his ruin in a period of riotous living, the reaction induced by anxiety and over-work. Not at all. He did what every wise friend would have advised him to do under the circumstances: he went to Venice to study Tintoretto. The magnificences of this master struck him through with the sense of his own insignificance; he became aware of the fact that he could not draw like Tintoretto; and when he returned to Paris he resolved to subject himself to two years of hard study in an art school. For two years he laboured in the life class, working on an average from seven to ten hours a day, and in two years he had utterly destroyed every trace of the charming and delightful art which had taken him twenty years to build up. I know of no more tragic story--do you?

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George Moore's essay: Artistic Education In France And England