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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alphonse Legros

The Tinker, 1874, Alphonse Legros.
One of the factors we often fail to think much about in contemplating the art world of today is how much the art and science of art instruction have changed over the past couple hundred years (never mind the centuries before that). Roughly two-hundred years ago, the basic, academic framework of art instruction was well-established (some might call it entrenched). Paris was the capital of the art instruction world, with Rome, Amsterdam, and London rivaling for second place. Of course many other smaller cities had their art academies (some of them quite outstanding) including Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Venice, Florence, Milan, Madrid, etc. Each tended to proclaim their strengths as reflected by the strengths of their instructors, while minimizing deficiencies. Hey, there's nothing new in the area of marketing strategies where art instruction is concerned. Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts was, strong in virtually all areas while Amsterdam tended to specialize in landscapes and still-lifes. Rome is where you went to learn to paint history. London' Royal Academy was strong in portraiture.
Cupid and Psyche, 1867, Alphonse Legros, one of his few mythological works.
Alphonse Legros Self-portrait, 1898.
It was behind the classroom doors where the greatest difference between now and then have developed. Two hundred years ago, the emphasis was on teaching the technical aspects of drawing and painting--highly disciplined, highly supervised instruction, instructors bent on turning out carbon copies of themselves as if art were a static world where change was to be looked upon skeptically, indeed, often with fear. Today, in art schools around the world, there is little of that. Newness, novelty, and negativity prevail. Weird is wonderful. Art is seen as ineffectual if it doesn't make the viewer uncomfortable. Two hundred years ago, there was little taught in the way of art philosophy. Today, even in a painting class, the emphasis is on teaching about art much more than the rules and regulations as to creating it. One of the major forces in moving art instruction from "then" on the road to "now" was the French painter and etcher, Alphonse Legros.
Canal with Fisherman, 1865, Alphonse Legos--pretty, but not much happening.
A bronze medal designed by Legros
bearing the profile of Charles Darwin
If you simply start looking at Legros' modest number of paintings, you will not be impressed. His painted portraits are few and far between, his landscapes tend to have an "empty" feeling, and his religious works are about as exciting as a geriatric Sunday School class. His best work came almost by accident as Legros learned the art and craft of etching and engraving by simply watching a friend and fellow artist practice his trade. Though we tend not to think much about etchings today, they were a strong, lucrative enterprise two-hundred years ago as an inexpensive means of providing outstanding art to the growing middle classes of the day. Legros did hundreds, of them, mostly portraits or "head studies" that were what we'd call "top of the line" for his time. Today, of course, this entire line of work has been replaced by photography and various forms of print media, both of which are in line to be replaced by digital reproduction.
Rehearsing the Service, 1870, Alphones Legrose
Ex Voto, 1861, Alphonse Legros
Alphonse Legros was born in 1837 near Dijon (eastern France southeast of Paris). His father was an accountant. He grew up in rural, agricultural environment, which later came to be reflected in many of his early paintings. His The Tinker (top), from 1874, is typical of his limited number of genre paintings. Most of his other paintings are what we might call "religious genre" centering upon devout Catholics and church officials solemnly doing their duty to God and church (above). His Ex Voto (right) from 1861 exemplifies this content compartment of his work.

The Triumph of Death, Alphonse Legros
Bust of Rodin, 1850s, Alphonse Legros
In 1851, Legros left home for Paris to study art. On the way, he apprenticed himself to various second-rate artists he met, absorbing scene painting, church wall painting, and etching. In Paris he first studied at the Lecoq de Boisbaudran (the "Petite ├ęcole") before starting night classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. During the 1850s Legros had some success with portraits entered in the Salon, but like so many "starving" artists in Paris at the time, he was very much a "small fish in a BIG pond." Though his Realist friends liked them, his church scenes were not much noticed by the academic establishment of the time. Although he met there Auguste Rodin and fell in with the Courbet-loving Realist rocking the Paris art scene at the time, in 1863 he moved to London where he found a wife, took a position teaching at the South Kensington School of Art, and later at the University College in London. It was in England, that Legros began to have an impact in the staid old art of teaching art.

The Blessing of the Sea, Alphonse Legros
The Honorable Penitent, Alphonse Legros
It was during his seventeen years at University College (until his retirement in 1892) that Legros began to exerted his influence as he worked to encourage a certain distinctions, severity, and truth of character in the work of his pupils. Experimentation was highly valued, even when it failed. New techniques were mastered by students and teacher alike. He devoted part of his salary to help support deserving students in their studied abroad. While not jettisoning respect for the traditions of the old masters, he began teaching a simple technique which was then somewhat foreign to English art. He would draw or paint a torso or a head before his class in an hour or even less, keeping in mind the attention span of his students. Until that time, students had been known to take weeks or months laboring over a single drawing. To combat this, Legros changed the positions of the plaster casts in the Antique School once a week. In the painting school he insisted upon a good outline, preserved by a thin rub in of umber. That done, the work was to be finished in a single painting session. As I've often noted in teaching art, some students give perfection a bad name. Legros was one of the first to proclaim that student emphasis should not be so much upon producing art, but on learning to produce art.
The Dead Christ, Alphonse Legros

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