New Castle, IN
The Atelier Experience
by Kerry Holsapple
An atelier is a place where the transmission of professional knowledge and studio practices in an art can take place. Historically, the atelier has been (and continues to be) one of the major educational systems for training aspiring painters in the fine art of picturemaking. The other main vehicles for art training in the past were the apprentice system and the academy. For the purposes of this article an atelier is defined as a studio school or workshop where a competent painter trained in the fine art of drawing. painting, and picturemaking directs the studies of a small group of serious students who aspire to learn the art. As I refer to contemporary ateliers, I am referring to the handful of ateliers who have direct lineage to the great western painting tradition through the Boston School of Painting. There may be other ateliers around the world with lineage to the tradition, but I have little information about them.
Ateliers were especially prevalent in 19th century France and this lineage continues unbroken to this day. As the dominant art center of that century, Paris drew students from around the world to take advantage of its ateliers and academies. Some of the more famous ateliers included those of Ingres, Couture, Pils, and Gleyre (before 1850) and those of Gerome, Bonnat, Cabanel, Carolus-Duran, and Laurens (after 1850). Americans who studied in Parisian ateliers comprise a "Who's Who of American Art" for the 19th & early 20th centuries. Alumni included: Hunt, Sargent, Eakins, Whistler, LaFarge, Thayer, Bunker, Dewing, Tarbell, Benson, Robinson, Blashfield, Paxton, Metcalf, Cox, Weir, Brush, Enneking, Hassam, Beckwith, Harrison, Bridgsman, Pearce, Beaux, Davis, Wiles, Melchers, Vonnah, Henri and more. In fact, 2,200 Americans born by 1880 studied formally in Paris. Parisian ateliers exerted a world wide influence as its students returned to their native countries to practice and teach the art they had acquired. I refer the reader to The Lure of Paris by H. Barbara Weinberg for an excellent introduction to French painters, their ateliers, and their American students.
Many American painters trained in Parisian ateliers returned home and continued the time honored tradition of passing on professional knowledge and studio practices to new generations. However, ateliers based on the French model never fully took root in the United States. As the country moved into the 20th century the most prevalent systems for art training became museum, university, and independent art schools. As the vehicle for the transmission of a then 600 year old tradition shifted to less appropriate institutions with less competent instructors, the quality of art training declined. The breakdown in the transmission of professional knowledge and studio practices from competent practitioners to talented students is the major reason for the decline in the fine art of drawing, painting, and picturemaking in the 20th century. (Note: In speaking of the fme art of painting I am not referring to the diverse manifestations referred to as "modern art" whose aesthetics and practices developed on a different line). 1 refer the reader to Twilight of Painting by R. H. Ives Gammell for a superb discussion of the decline of the traditional art of painting that had taken place by 1946.
It is interesting to note that Howard Pyle, often called the "father of American illustration," gave up his post at Drexel Institute with its large classes to form his own atelier. The talented students invited to study in Pyle's atelier became some of America's greatest illustrators of the period, including: N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs, and Frank Schoonover. They in turn taught the next generation of picturemakers such as Dean Cornwiell, Mead Schaeffer, and Harold Von Schmidt who in turn taught the next generation, and so on. As a result, the work of this line of illustrators graced American books and magazines for more than seven decades.
Growing up in the midwest in the 1950's-60's, the first artists I knew of were the American illustrators and cartoonists of the period. Like many young aspiring artists, 1 dreamed of becoming a famous illustrator like Norman Rockwell and working for the Saturday Evening Post. There was little awareness of the old masters or the tradition from which they emerged. By the time I graduated from high school in the early 70's the once thriving illustration and cartooning field had almost died. As I studied the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velasquez, and others in my teens the only glimmer of hope that the "secrets of the old masters" still existed was an article in an old 1958 American Artist about Pietro Annigoni. While walking through the pre-20th century galleries of a major museum for the first time at the age of 18 one simple question filled my mind. That question was, "why' isn't anyone painting like this anymore."
With this one question burning deep I began my quest for an answer. From art school, to a trip to New York, I searched. While in New York teachers at the Art Students League told me 1 already knew how to draw. "Go back to the midwest and paint" was their advice. I knew better. Viewing Vermeer's Young Woman With A Water Pitcher in the Metropolitan I was captivated by its artistry. My response was the same for works by Holbein, Rembrandt, Hals, Bouguereau, Degas, Theodore Rousseau, and others. While in New York 1 received a letter from Annigoni who was in the area. I talked with him over the phone and almost met the Italian master. At the time, this was as close as I got to the "tradition." In 1973 I finally located a school with lineage to the art I longed to study. When I entered the Atelier Lack a door opened to a world that would have remained inaccessible. I relate this story only because it is so common to generations of aspiring young artists growing up between 1950-80 who seriously desired to learn the art of drawing and painting as practiced by the masters. Unfortunately for many in their quest, they never found the "grail." This situation is still all too common today. So, what is the atelier experience?
To begin with, the painter's experience is centered in seeing. By seeing I mean the sensitive awareness of visual impressions and their many faceted qualities. The deep, rich experience of eeing is the major inspiration for a painter's art. Learning the fine art of drawing and painting commences with learning to see. All drawing and painting begins with an artist's visual experience that then "triggers" an emotional and physical response. To "embody" this human experience truthfully and creatively in expressive visual forms comprises the art. This defines classicism as it was once understood - the union of representation and abstraction first achieved by the ancient Greeks then rediscovered during the Renaissance.
The atelier experience is one of connecting with and absorbing
a tradition of knowledge and studio practices that link together artists
spanning nearly 700 years. This tradition has given
birth to some of the world's greatest artists. Most readers will be familiar with the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Even though every painter who has studied and practiced the tradition has not achieved the greatness of these artists, the tradition was kept alive through them. The majority were very competent practitioners who painted pictures with genuine artistry and transmitted their knowledge of the tradition to succeeding generations. Without a Verrocchio there wouldn't have been a Leonardo, without a Bellini there would not have been a Titian, etc. Closer to our time did you know that Barrias and Lamothe were Degas's early teachers? Who can say when another painter in the caliber of a Velasquez or a Vermeer will arise from the tradition to carry the art to new heights. As with all events in nature, certain conditions must be present for an event to occur. Great painters do not happen by accident!
While organization, curriculum, and teaching style may vary from atelier to atelier, basic areas of study include: composition, form, tone, color, and craftsmanship. Topics such as perspective, anatomy, modeling, design and color theorjr, memory work, aesthetics, and art history are encompassed in these studies. A variety of media are generally introduced as part of training a student in the appropriate use of materials and techniques. Upon entering an atelier, a student is assigned studies that match his/her level of development. This begins the process of leaming to see form, space, tone, values, color, etc.; to compose; to express seeing and feeling with truth and directness; and to construct drawings and paintings with time-honored craftsmanship.
The key relationship within an atelier is the one between the painter/teacher and each student. A competent teacher can save a talented student years of misguided effort. During the foundation years, time is one of a student's most precious commodities. Certain requirements are necessary for a successful transmission of the tradition from painter/teacher to student. The qualities a student needs to bring into an atelier include: a burning desire to learn, fluid learning skills, good health, a solid work ethic, self-motivation, the ability to follow instructions, persistence, and patience. Time is equally important to a teacher whose objective is to preserve the tradition by transmitting it successfully to new generations. Qualities of a competent painter/teacher include: an integrated knowledge and practice of the art, the wisdom to assign progressive studies appropriate to a student's level of development, the ability to match presentation of information with a students' learning style, and the insight to provide a student with the appropriate instruction as it is needed. In an atelier that has a group of full-time students, a positive camaraderie between the students will enhance learning and growth as well as help establish life-long friendships and professional associations.
The life of an atelier revolves around its daily schedule. Typically, the schedule consists of a daily morning and an afternoon session five days a week. Oftentimes the morning session is the time for students to work on their assigned studies. For beginning students these studies may include drawing from flat copy in pencil or drawing from plaster casts in charcoal. Intermediate students may be doing cast, drapery, still life, or head studies in charcoal, pastel. or oil and advanced students may be at work on creative projects. Afternoon sessions are usually reserved for figure drawing from the model. Normally, the painter/teacher will visit the atelier two days each week to critique the work in progress and provide instruction. Teaching methods vary from teacher to teacher and may include a combination of discussions/lectures, demonstrations, and individualized instruction. Emphasis from atelier to atelier may also vary. For example, Carolus-Duran emphasized values and drawing with the brush from the start while Gerome emphasized expressing form first through line drawing.
It is best if the facilities for an atelier include a clean, well equipped, and well lit studio space of sufficient size to provide each student with their own work area. Basic equipment includes easels, taborets, model stands, an assortment of antique casts, screens, draperies, and additional lighting. A reference library is useful as well as a display of "top-notch" studies that serve as models of excellence in drawing, painting, and craftsmanship. An atelier located near major museums and other cultural resources is also a plus. A stable, well-funded atelier with a solid program and good management is key to its long term success.
Ideally, a full-time atelier program provides a student with 4 years of intensive training. The first two years establish a solid foundation of basic skills which are then refined and applied during the final two years to a variety of creative projects. These projects may include impressionistic, to decorative, to imaginary picturemaking. If the transmission of knowledge and studio practices is successful, a solid foundation will be established preparing the student to approach any creative project with competence. With a solid foundation a student is prepared to launch a career as a professional painter and bring his/her vision to the world with truth, creativity, and artistry. Hopefully, trained students will then in time open their own ateliers to transmit the tradition to the next generations. And thus the circle is completed - to begin yet another cycle.
For the last 50 years we have been in a period of reconstruction. With sufficient resources, solid planning, and progressive construction the tradition can be restored. Ateliers today are generally underfunded and receive little support in relation to the great task they have to accomplish. There are four things serious patrons of the art can do to help restore the tradition: 1) help establish and support an atelier in their region if none exists. 2) directly support existing ateliers that provide an excellent program yet are underfunded. 3) directly sponsor a talented student from your area to attend an existing atelier program, and/or 4) contribute to established atelier student scholarship and atelier endowment funds. An ideal situation would be the establishment of well-funded and managed ateliers with excellent programs in all the major regions of the United States. This is feasible as well as possible.
Last year in support of present and future atelier students, I helped establish an Atelier Student Scholarship Fund through the American Society of Classical Realism. Because of this fund, a yearly scholarship will be awarded beginning in the Fall of 1999. For more information about the ASCR write to: ASCR, 1313 Fifth St. S.E, Minneapolis, MN 55414 or visit their website
My own atelier, Atelier Indiana, currently only offers an independent study program individually designed for serious students. Plans for expansion to include a facility for full-time students is in progress. Beginning in 1999, a two-week Atelier Workshop as well as a 3-day Rhythmic Drawing Seminar will be available to bring on location to sites within the continental United States.
Ed.: If you are interested in the egg tempera medium, we found a forum on the subject, including remarks by Mr. Holsapple, whicle researching the author. Also we have added hyperlinks within the text of the article for the reader's further study.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Editor's Note: No URL found in search as of 5/15
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 1998 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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