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Charles Bargue: The Art of Drawing at The Dahesh Museum of Art

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2004

"The Chess Players" 1882 (Oil on Panel) by Charles Bargue

CONSIDERing their mission of "reinvigorating the classical ideals of beauty, humanism, and skill," it is altogether fitting that the exhibit, "Charles Bargue: The Art of Drawing"* be presented by The Dahesh Museum of Art. Long devoted to utilizing their space for "the collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting works by Europe’s academically trained artists of the 19th and 20th centuries," this latest show could find no better venue then that of their new location in the heart of midtown Manhattan on Madison Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. Charles Bargue, a relative unknown to connoisseurs and patrons of 19th century art, was in fact known well enough by his peers to be asked, along with Jean-Léon Gérôme, to produce a course of drawing for art students of the prestigious academic schools of Paris. Published by the equally prestigious company of Goupil & Cie, the course (Cours de dessin) consisted of three distinct sections: Drawing After Casts (Modèles d’Après la Bosse); Copying Master Drawings (Modèles d’Après les Maîtres); and Preparation for Drawing Académies (Exercices au Fusain pour Préparer a l’étude de l’Académie d’Après Nature). Whereas the first two sections were meant for the instruction of all art students – commercial as well as fine art – the last section was reserved exclusively for those fine art students who intended to go on to serious painting careers. Designed to proceed from the simplest objects – eyes, ears, noses – to more involved – hands, feet, limbs – and finally to the most complex full-bodied figure studies, the approach was absolutely realistic, the entire course based on the assumption that the serious artist (again, whether commercial or fine) tacitly subscribed to the academic canon that a strict imitation of the natural world was the principal aim of art and that, above all, the human figure represented the supreme creation of nature.

Angel Blowing a Trumpet, after Michelangelo Lithograph for Cours de dessin (ca. 1870)

Part Three, the section reserved for the fine art student, offered a series of exemplary examples of drawings from the live model. Since the Cours de dessin was published by Goupil and Cie in "loose-leaf" form, it was no great difficulty to translate the book into an exhibition, each page serving as an individually framed "work," presented in their proper order so that the visitor might view the course from beginning to end simply by walking around the gallery – and this The Dahesh Museum has accomplished. Though especially of interest to the art student, the exhibit is of universal interest in the it clearly sets forth what efforts went into the education of the 19th century would-be artist. In light of much that we are subjected to today as "art," this in-depth look back clearly demonstrates what we have lost by neglecting such instruction. One need only reflect on the by-gone age of great figure painting – work, say, of Boucher, Bouguereau, or Ingres – to get some idea of the loss. And when we further consider that such "moderns" as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso availed themselves of precisely this course – examples of which are part of the exhibition – we can see that we may well have thrown out the baby with the bath water when present-day institutions, succumbing to the pressure of trends, rashly dropped the art of draftsmanship from their art curricula. So much the worse for those patrons who must diligently seek the isolated studio or school for artwork that honors the craft in all its past glory and accomplishment. Almost as if to show (in addition to the examples of van Gogh and Picasso) just what might be accomplished by absorbing the lessons Cours de dessin offers, the exhibit closes with approximately 50 paintings and drawings of Charles Bargue – not only a surprise but perhaps the highlight of the show.

hand with wetstone"Hand with Whetstone" Lithograph for Cours de dessin (ca. 1868)

Though starting out as an obscure lithographer, both the paintings and drawings reveal the hand of a major artist who deserves far wider recognition than he has hitherto enjoyed. Masterworks such as "The Chess Players" or "The Flute Player" can favorably be compared with the works of many of the major 19th century painters, while several of his smaller studies of Oriental themes, in their crystal clarity, jewel-like color, and purity of line, are little gems of perfection. The Dahesh Museum has done not only a great service to present-day viewers, but has hopefully gone some way toward bringing Charles Bargue his proper due. I urge all to see this show — but "Charles Bargue: The Art of Drawing" ought to be a must for every artist or art student that fancies him/herself a professional.

*"Charles Bargue: The Art of Drawing" (thru Feb 8, ’04): The Dahesh Museum of Art, 580 Madison Ave., NYC (212) 759-0606. A complete and fully-illustrated catalogue is available: Charles Bargue with the Collaboration of Jean-Léon Gérôme: Drawing Course by Gerald M. Ackerman. 336 pp.; 97/8 x 10 7/8; B/W & Color Illus.; Appendices; Glossary; Notes. $45.00 Softcover, $60.00 Hardcover. (See listing under "New Art Books" Section).

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