Art schools can be cruel places.
David McCullough’s book, “The Greater Journey” is a chronicle of decades of American artists, authors and scientists, seeking education and inspiration in Paris. A master collector of terrific anecdotes, McCullough shares two stories that caught my eye, as familiar tales of criticism faced, and tough lessons learned.
Of Samuel Morse’s painting lessons in London, under Washington Allston:
As a teacher, Allston was exceedingly demanding. His critiques could be “mortifying”, Morse wrote, “when I have painted all day, very hard and begin to be pleased with what I have done…to hear him after a long silence say, ‘Very bad, sir. That is not flesh, it is mud, sir. It is painted with brick dust and and clay!” ‘ At such moments, Morse felt like slashing the canvas with his palette knife. He felt angry and hurt, but with reflection came to see that Allston was no flatterer, but a friend, “and that really to improve I must see my faults.”
On George Healy’s first day studying at the atelier of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros:
In the world of the Paris atelier, rigorous hazing was an established tradition any newcomer, let alone an estanger.
Proficiency in drawing came first and foremost. Drawing was the foundation of everything, it was preached, and most of every day was devoted to drawing a live model, the students packed at their easels elbow-to-elbow. Once, during an early session, while a model was taking a break and Healy concentrated on looking over his efforts, another student, short, rough-mannered, and older than the rest, suddenly stepped in and shoved him aside, saying “Donne-moi ta place, Petit” (“Give me your seat, Kid”).
“He coolly turned over my sheet of grey paper (Healy would remember) and sketched the model, who resting, had fallen into a far better attitude than which we had copied. The outline drawing was so strong, so full of life, so easily done, that I never had a better lesson.”
The rough-mannered student, Thomas Couture, was to become one of the celebrated French painters of the day, and as a teacher have great influence on many more Americans to follow. He and Healy became fast friends.