This review was originally written when I was on
the first plate of the course. At the time I was having some trouble getting
decent reproductions of the plates done, a problem I've thankfully sorted
out now, if at some cost.
The review below is quite critical of some aspects
of the book, partly as a result of the frustration I was experiencing at the
time. Graydon Parrish, one of the editors of the book, sent me a very nice
email having read this review, and considering how critical I was, he was very
Whilst I won't quote Graydon, since I don't have
his permission, it does appear that I've been a little harsh. The book appears
to have been a labour of love on the part of Graydon and his co-editor, Gerald
Ackerman. Graydon says that neither of them have gained financially from the
book, and I see no reason not to believe him. Having read his email, I do
believe that the book was published with altruistic motives, and that getting
it into print was no small task.
Although I now feel that I've been more than a
little churlish in some of my comments below, I'm letting the review stand.
This is partly because I don't like to go back and edit stuff on this site,
because it's an ongoing record, and retrospective editing would be against the
spirit of what I'm trying to do here. But I'm also letting the review stand
because to some extent I still stand by the criticisms I made. I could have
worded them somewhat better though, with hindsight. I and everyone else who
gets a copy of the Bargue book owes Graydon and Gerald Ackerman a debt of
thanks for getting this invaluable material published at all. A phrase
involving gift horses and mouths comes to mind.
In order to redress the balance somewhat, I would
like to point out, as I have in various other pages on this site, that this
book has been an absolute godsend in my ongoing efforts to train myself to
draw. It's no exaggeration to say that this book has completely changed the way
I approach all my drawings now, and for the better. I learned the technique of
sight size from this book, which I now apply to great benefit in much of my
other work. I also learned an invaluable of approach, that of working from the
general to the specific. That idea now informs everything I do.
A couple of other points from the original review
bear addressing here too: Firstly, the quality of the binding. Whilst you
certainly don't expect a book you paid £60 for to start falling apart, in this
case it's a blessing in disguise. Although it feels like sacrilege to pull such
a beautiful book apart, it's the only way to get really good, distortion free
copies of the plates. I've got the best results from having them reproduced to
their original size on a dye sublimation printer. Cheap it's not, each
reproduction costing as much as your average art book. It is worth it, however,
because the level of detail is much higher than laser copies. Secondly, Graydon
has told me since writing this that they did want to have at least some of the
plates included loose-leaf in the original size, but it was a no go with the
publisher. It's a pity it couldn't be done, but it just means a bit more effort
must be expended to get the most from the book.
If, like me, you're teaching yourself to draw
without the benefit of a drawing master or a carefully designed course, this
book should be at the top of your shopping list.
We now return you to your normal programming.
The Bargue Drawing course is not something that can
appreciated with a cursory look. This is a longish post, but read it, it'll be
fun, I promise. And you might even end up with a better idea of what this
drawing course is about if I manage to stay on the point for more than five
minutes at a time.
The Bargue Drawing Course has an interesting history. To
understand it properly, some understanding of how academic art was taught in
the late 19th century, when it was published, will help.
A typical art education in the 19th century would
begin with drawing from casts of Greek and Roman statues. This was supposed to
teach students not only to draw well, but to appreciate the noble beauty of
classical sculpture, and to be educated by copying from example in what was
then considered to be 'good taste'. Following a period of drawing from casts,
students would move on to copying old masters. This education was common to all
the visual arts, including commercial variants like industrial design. Once
this thorough grounding in good taste had been achieved, only 'fine art'
students would then go on to draw and paint from the nude.
Drawing Course is split into three parts, roughly following this pattern. The
first part is a series of drawings from casts, the second part a series of
copies of old master drawings. The third part would only have been undertaken
by fine art students and is a series of what we now call 'life drawings' -
drawings of the male nude in various poses. Students were expected to copy
these drawings with great accuracy, producing work which was to all intents and
purposes indistinguishable from the originals, assuming they were up to the
France in the 1860s there was a general official hoo-ha about the low standard
of the work being produced by the students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The consensus was that
this was due to the low standard of the work the students were copying. Goupil
and Cie, the prominent Parisian art dealers at the time (and Theo Van Gogh's
employers and for a while Vincent's too before he became a painter himself,)
saw a commercial opportunity, and organised the production of the Bargue
Drawing Course to answer the need for better models for the students to work
from. It did pretty well for them apparently, for thirty years or so, but fell
out of favour when those pesky post impressionists stopped worrying about how
accurate their drawing was and started worrying about the expression of their
personal vision instead.
simple terms, academic art institutions and ateliers at that time were mainly
concerned with reproducing nature. In fact, this idea that the goal of art was
to copy nature, either realistically or in an idealised version, had held sway
pretty much since the time of Aristotle.
be fair, Medieval art got a bit wayward and tended to subjugate the faithful
reproduction of nature to the communication of the message (Christianity), but
the artist was then even less a creative individual in the sense that we're
used to thinking about them now, he was a workman. The Renaissance marked a
return to the natural and idealised forms of classical Greek and Roman art, but
now often in the service of the Church. Those poor Renaissance artists had to
spend lots of time and energy re-learning what their Medieval brothers and
sisters had forgotten, how to represent nature faithfully. On the plus side
though, they were beginning to be seen less as low class artisans and were
gradually becoming invested with a higher social status. Michelangelo in
particular was instrumental in this change of the perception of the artist. All
the same, it wasn't until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the
expression of the personal vision of the artist became more important than the
faithful reproduction of nature.
book is a reproduction of the entire Bargue drawing course, together with some
extra information about Bargue himself and a few other tidbits, including
excellent coverage of the technique of sight size drawing. According to the
introduction of this publication, there were a few competitors on the market at
the time, but the Bargue course had something extra going for it. It managed to
straddle the two main camps in academic art at the time, one of idealisation of
nature along the lines of Raphael, what you might call classicism, the other a
part of the growing realist movement which held that art should be honest,
including being truthfully ugly if the subject was ugly. Bargue's drawing style
represents a synthesis of these two camps, showing his models as they really
are, but with nothing so ugly that it would outrage the idealists. Bargue also
had the knack of simplifying his forms in order to make them clearer and easier
to copy for the aspiring student.
why is this anachronistic pedagogic aid being republished now? Well, what
follows is entirely my personal opinion, so take it with a pinch of salt if you
been living with the cult of personal expression in art for some time now,
which is all well and good and has produced some fascinating and even beautiful
work, but along the way something has been lost.
order to know where you're going, you need to know where you've come from, and
that's what some artists, and art education establishments, seem to have
forgotten. Compare art with music. The theoretical excesses of modern art have
been matched and even out done by modern composers. Think of Stockhausen, or
Parmegianni (some of who's work I like very much by the way). Or
"4.33" by John Cage, the performance of four minutes and thirty-three
seconds of silence. You can even buy recordings of that piece (you can also get
blank CDs from PC World which will have much the same effect for a lot less
there's a difference here between the visual art world and music. Generally
speaking, a musician or composer who indulges in this kind of thing will know
what a scale is, they'll even be able to play you a few. They'll be able to
play an instrument or two, usually to a very high standard. They'll have a good
understanding of the history of the western tonal system, and will understand
western harmony sideways and backwards. This stuff is hard, and takes years to
less than convinced that the same is true of many visual artists today. Of
course there are exceptions. Picasso, the hero of modern art, was a consummate
realist when he wanted to be. Throughout his life, after Guernica, after cubism
and the Demoiselles d'Avignon, he would still return to realism when it suited
him, and he could do it.
of the opinion that modern degree level art courses turn out students full of
'personal vision' but without the technical means to express it and with little
or no appreciation of the history and traditions of their subject. It's only in
the visual 'fine arts' that this is considered acceptable. I think that
Picasso's skill shows in his most 'primitive' work, and cubism could never have
been practiced by someone who couldn't control a brush.
getting off the point.
do believe that this wilful abandonment of the traditions of the past has given
rise to a growing representational movement which has a strong tendency to hark
back to the late 19th century. Old style academic ateliers are springing up all
over the place, and the pendulum is swinging back the other way, at least in
some quarters. It's swinging a bit too far for my liking sometimes, but it's
swinging nonetheless. There's also been a resurgence of interest in the 19th
century academic approach to drawing and painting. Thus this book.
it's a very good thing that this course has been republished, the book does
have a couple of shortcomings in it's present form. Firstly, the plates are
much smaller than the originals, which means that they have to be blown up if
you want to do a proper job of copying them. Now that's alright for the bigger
plates which are A4 size, but some of them are only a couple of inches high so
that the publishers can squeeze a few on a page. It seems pretty obvious to me
that if you reproduce something that small you'll lose a lot of the detail
because the resolution (in dpi) of these reproductions is the same as for the
large ones, so these plates may as well have not been included at all in my
opinion. To be fair I haven't tried it yet, but it does seem to go against
common sense. I wonder if they were included to justify the "in it's
entirety" selling point.
it's in book form, with a hard spine. These plates are supposed to be taped up
onto a drawing board with the copies done beside them, the same size, the
better to judge the accuracy of the copies. Of course you can get them blown
up, as I've done, but they're also difficult [to] copy cleanly with no
distortion on a flat bed scanner because of the book format. The printer I took
them to had to try a couple of times for some of them, it's not a thin book.
guess you could argue that doing both of the above keeps the cost down, but if
that's the case then it can only be to promote sales, not for the benefit of
the aspiring student. My copies cost me almost £3 each, so to reproduce all the
plates at the size and in the format I need them to be is going to cost me a
more point. I've only had this book for two weeks the pages are coming away
from the spine already. Now I know I've had it on a scanner, but only twice,
and after all it's intended to be used that way. The quality of the binding is,
in my opinion, very poor. I expect this book to be falling apart before too
long and considering the high price that's just unacceptable.
fifth plate in the cast drawings
section, showing how Bargue breaks
simplifies the forms.
Given that these drawings are supposed to give one
an appreciation of what good taste was over a hundred years ago, you could be
forgiven for thinking that the book is hopelessly out of date. I can't disagree
on that score, but what saves this book for me and makes it worthwhile is the
quality of the drawings. Bargue was a superb draughtsman, it fairly drips off
the pages, with plate after plate of beautifully realised drawings. For many of
the plates, a one or two stage simplification of the final finished drawing is
included, breaking the drawing down into simplified forms. I haven't got that
far yet (I'm still on the first plate,) but I do believe that this will be very
useful when it comes to seeing the building blocks of shapes in the real world.
It must be said also that the publishers do make
the point that the book is only partly intended as a course for students. It's
also intended to be used by historians and also simply to be enjoyed by lovers
of fine drawing, and on that score it delivers.
Apart from the reservations I've cited above, I'm
happy I've got hold of a copy of this book. Of course, as with all teaching
materials, you can't absorb the knowledge and skills through osmosis by sitting
in the same room as the book or just flicking through the pages. You have to
get your charcoal out and draw. A lot.
beautiful drawings in this book are being brought to a wider audience is a very
good thing. The manner in which it has been done is considerably less
impressive. I hope another publisher with a better idea of how to go about
their business produces a more usable, better constructed one.