The Bargue Course

Dates:
Variable, but typically one afternoon a week.
Hours:
A minimum of 12 hours per month
Tuition Cost:
On Request
Application Deadline:
One week prior to commencement
Provided:
Bargue copies, pencils, paper, kneaded erasers, mirrors, plumb lines.
Materials required:
-
Level of Difficulty:
Suitable for all levels of experience.
Location:
Atelier Canova studio

THE THEORY

In the mid nineteenth century, Jean-Léon Gérôme claimed that he had become increasingly disappointed with the standard of work exhibited at the Salon each year. His theory to explain the poor quality of painting of that time, was actually the poor quality of drawing skills. He decided to redress the drawing programme by giving students the opportunity to work from (and therefore observe) classical sculptures. He approached the lithographer Charles Bargue, and together they created the Cours de dessin. It was a huge success and quickly became the standard of traditional art instruction across Europe.

There are now only a few complete sets of Bargue lithographs known to still exist, one set is in the Victoria and Albert museum in London and another at the Musèe Goupil, in Bordeaux, France. The Bargue course was not the only drawing training programme at the time (it was in competition with the Julien course), but it soon became the most popular.

Among the artists who used the Bargue course for their initial training were Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. In September 1880, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “I am still working on Bargue’s Cours de Dessin, and intend to finish it before I go on to anything else, for both my hand and my mind are growing daily more supple and strong as a result.”

On the necessity of discipline in learning drawing through the Bargue method, van Gogh summed up the philosophy, saying, “So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course and that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

The Drawing Course, which is comprised of 197 lithographs, was designed to “instil classical canons” and to prepare students for work in a variety of fields in addition to painting, from architecture to industrial design.

It was divided into three parts:

  1. Drawing After Casts
  2. Copying Master Drawings
  3. Life Drawing

The course enjoyed a long period of fame but fell from popularity during the Impressionist period and the subsequent revolt against everything “academic”. Art fashions had changed and the tastes of the time began to move on from the classical approach. Today the Bargue Course is experiencing a revival, and once again it finds itself  to be a core component of many art courses. This now encompasses not only Europe, but Canada and the United States of America as well.


Bargue drawing of a torso
An example of a Bargue lithograph

Bargue drawing of a man's head
Another example of a Bargue lithograph

THE PRACTICAL

Students are requested to complete five small Bargue drawings in pencil, and one large drawing in charcoal. Each student works at his own pace, and there are no time restrictions. Each drawing may take several months to complete, depending on the level of expertise and the time each student is willing to devote to his or her studies.

Bargue drawing of a torso

Preliminary stages of a Bargue lithograph at the Harlem Studio

ADVICE

This class is designed to introduce students to the sight-size approach to drawing, and is extremely helpful in training the eye. It should be said that this is not the original intention of the Bargue Course but I use it for these purposes, as it is very helpful to introduce beginners to the medium of pencil and charcoal and develops a strong sense of the value scale. Good drawing is the basis for a good painting and those students who have dedicated their time and followed this class continue to comment on its rewards.

Bargue drawing of a horse head
Andrea J. Smith’s student copy of a Bargue lithograph

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