Plates from what is known as the Bargue-Gérôme Drawing Course are routinely copied by students in dozens of ateliers around the world. Some schools even base their entire curriculum on them. Thousands of self-taught students use them as well. In fact, the Free Guide I offer on this site is dependent on Bargue plates. But did you ever wonder, is Bargue bad?
Because the use of Bargue plates is nearly ubiquitous today, I’m guessing that to question their instructional value is akin to a traitorous act. Nevertheless, their widespread use is reason enough to seek an answer. Furthermore, a good teacher ought to reevaluate their own curriculum now and then.
First, a Little History
The history of Bargue’s course is to be found in Gerald Ackerman and Graydon Parrish’s book from 2003, the Charles Bargue Drawing Course. It is well-researched and I highly recommend it. A shortened history follows, abridged for the purposes of this article.
In 1865 an exhibition was held in Paris showcasing drawings done by industrial and decorative design students. Most of the drawings were copies of prints, which were common sources used in applied arts training at the time. Overall the entries were of such poor quality in both skill and taste that those in charge decided the problem was the sources the students were using.
Three years later the Bargue-Gérôme Drawing Course was released in an attempt to solve the problem. Bargue’s was one of many, but having Gérôme involved gave it some serious cachet and it quickly overshadowed all others of the kind.
Bargue’s course was initially printed in two separate parts: Models after Casts and Models after Masters. A final part containing figure drawing starts was to arrive in 1870. It is the first part of Bargue’s course, Models after Casts, with which contemporary ateliers and students are concerned.
Like most of his competitors Bargue did not offer written instruction to accompany the drawings. Instead, for the Models after Casts part, he provided a beginning and ending drawing for each subject. Astute students were thus able to quickly understand his method.
The technology at the time was such that the only means of mass printing images was through lithography. The size of the lithography block determined the size of the plate, and therefore the size of the drawings in the course. In Bargue’s case that was 18 x 24 inches (47cm x 70cm). Both the medium and its size are important facts to which we will return later on.
Although Bargue’s course was primarily meant to be used by applied arts students within schools, they were also used by students learning on their own engaged in what we now call distance learning. I am aware of no source which shows that either Bargue or Gérôme used the plates when instructing their own students. Perhaps they did. But if not, one has to wonder why.
Both Picasso and van Gogh copied the plates. In Picasso’s case, some sources say he did so while at the Barcelona Academy. Other sources consider the drawing (below, right) to be a study from an actual cast of the Hercules sculpture. I think the combined image below aptly refutes that assertion.
On the left, Bargue’s Hercules plate. On the right, Picasso’s copy (done at age 13).
Van Gogh wrote the following comment to his brother Theo in regards to the plates. Hat tip to Damian for pointing me to the original source of the quote. It is here.
Careful study and the constant & repeated copying of Bargue’s exercises have given me an insight into figure drawing. I have learned to measure and to see and to look for the broad outlines, so that, thank God, what seemed utterly impossible to me before is gradually becoming possible now. I no longer stand as helpless before nature as I used to do.
Attributed to Vincent van Gogh
On the left, a drawing from the third part of Bargue’s course. On the right, van Gogh’s copy.
One’s opinion of both Picasso and van Gogh will determine whether their copies are a recommendation or not. To be blunt, van Gogh’s attempt above is not well done nor does the skill evident in it match what he claims he learned from copying the plates.
As mentioned, Bargue plate use is now commonplace. But this was not always the case. That we know of them at all is primarily due to Mark Walker (a deceased, former Lack student) and Daniel Graves (The Florence Academy of Art founder). They photographed the plates, independently of each other, and the prints from their negatives slowly made their way into the atelier culture.
The use of Bargue plates really took hold after the publication of Ackerman’s book.
And yet their use is not entirely universal. It should be noted that Bargue plates were not used by Gammell nor his student Richard Lack. Neither are they used by his living student’s Charles Cecil and Thomas Dunlay in their respective ateliers.
To my knowledge, those who do use them either have no connection to Mr. Gammell or are two generations removed from him.
Copying from the Flat
In the apprenticeship model of training used during the Renaissance, the master’s main intent was to train skilled assistants rather than to create competitors. To that end, apprentices were often assigned the task of copying their master’s drawings – a practice called copying from the flat.
To be clear, it is called copying because that’s exactly what they were doing. They were copying someone else’s work. The original artist of the work being copied made all the artistic decisions, not the copyist.
In addition to apprentices in the Renaissance, applied arts students up to the early twentieth-century were taught to copy from the flat. In their case the goals were both to acquire a skill as well as to absorb a sense of taste. The hope was then that a designer who had developed good taste would produce beautiful designs.
Like most endeavors, copying from the flat has its benefits and its detriments. On the positive side, one has a free model that is perpetually static. Those are very practical benefits indeed.
The negative side is manyfold, though precisely how detrimental they are is dependent upon one’s intended outcome. I’ll discuss those in context, below. For now, one potential detriment is the quality of the source drawing. In Paris during 1865 we are told that quality was quite low. And when your source’s quality stinks, odds are your copy will too.
Bargue, of course, solved that problem.
Copying Old Master Drawings
As an aside, be aware that copying Bargues and copying old master drawings are done in the pursuit of two different goals.
Bargues are used in the place of drawing from actual casts. In physical ateliers the practice is usually limited to beginning students. The goal is to introduce them to accurate seeing.
Through the process students cannot help but absorb some of the plates’ style or manner. That said, the plates are generally antiseptic and do not necessarily present us with a style to be copied. Rather, they are more of a clinical representation of Bargue’s sources. This was purposeful on Bargue’s part as the plates were meant to be used as stand-ins for nature.
Accurately seeing and then representing what is seen is one thing. Representing those observations in a beautiful way is another. One learns that by copying Leonardo, Raphael, Ingres, et al, and then making use of that knowledge along the way when in front of a live model.
Drawing from the Round
Unlike copying from the flat, drawing from the round is doing a freehand drawing from a three-dimensional source.
There are two important factors involved when drawing from the round that are not present when copying from the flat. First, you learn how to translate three-dimensional form and space onto a flat sheet of paper. You’re doing this yourself, rather than relying on another as is the case when copying from the flat.
The second factor is the ability to perceive nature directly, unfiltered through another’s eyes, and then to represent it in either a linear or mass medium. That skill is complex, taking years of concerted effort to fully develop. And, if we’re honest, a lifetime is not nearly long enough.
Drawing from the round, along with figure drawing from life, was were the principle means of drawing was taught to fine arts students in the écoles and ateliers of the nineteenth-century. How frequently copying model sheets like Bargue’s was used in that training is unclear.
Despite their flatness, Bargue plates offer many advantages to beginning art students in addition to their limited cost and static position. Chief among them are Bargue’s approach, clarity of massing, and his subjects.
Whether intended by him or not, Bargue’s plates are perceived to be in Sight-Size. If you do not know what that means, Sight-Size is an arrangement of the artist, their subject and their artwork that allows the artist to see the subject and artwork visually one-to-one.
For most of the plates, the drawing in its early stage is shown directly next to, and in the same size as, the finished drawing – just like a standard Sight-Size arrangement.
No, the finished drawing was not his source, hence my hedging above: are perceived to be. Nevertheless, absent his sources we perceive the plates in that way and most draw them as such, in Sight-Size. What’s more is the fact that the plates are plates. This forces a static vantage point on us and therefore eliminates the changes in dimension that are seen when the artist or subject moves.
Understand, however, that despite the obvious similarities Bargue did not invent Sight-Size. In fact, he may never have used it, even for the plates. The known history of Sight-Size is presented here.
Bargue also shows a block-in approach to drawing, a process used by many ateliers. Although I have placed this aspect in the ‘pro’ column, some would have me put it in the ‘con’ column instead. You can read of that debate in the article, Squaring the Circle.
Massing-In and Modeling
There is a clarity in Bargue’s plates that one misses in other drawings, even some of those by our betters. His darks are evenly massed-in, and the hierarchy within his range of value is well thought out. The same can be said about his approach to turning edges (modeling).
This takes us back to the problem in Paris during 1865. Bargue chose classic forms for use as his models. Many were in fact Classical or Neo-Classical though others were not. In any case, all of his choices presented the student with forms from which to draw that represented high ideals.
The main strikes against using Bargue plates are inherent in their presentation. They are flat. They are also another artist’s renderings; subjects filtered through another artist’s mind.
Two Steps Removed
The drawings in both the Models after Casts and Models after Masters sections of Bargue’s course were not done from raw nature. They were done from sculptures and paintings, which means that a prior artist made the decisions from which Bargue worked. To be sure, Bargue made choices as well, especially for the section of cast drawings. But those choices are still two steps removed from nature.
It is true that when working directly from a cast you are also using another artist’s choices. In this case, however, is not one step removed better than two?
In our age of the photograph (whether printed or on a screen), the skill of seeing three-dimensional space with an eye to drawing or painting from it is woefully neglected.
Although the originals were drawings, Bargue plates are essentially photographs with a very limited depth of field. For the most part they are uniformly focused throughout. Bargue himself seems to have been aware of this problem, as can be seen in some of the plates where he varies the width and value of the lines which define parts of the arabesque (contour). But this solution is not universal in his plates.
Unlike photographs and the plates, our eyes view nature with a depth of field centered on our focus point. From there we progressively lose focus in all directions, a full 360 degrees. In other words, when you’re focusing on an eye in a portrait bust, the ear on the other side will be slightly out of focus.
Seeing and representing that is something one can only learn directly in front of nature.
Does that matter? To many, yes!
And to others, no. But this is a very deep subject that artists have argued about since the Renaissance. If you’re interested and have the time, read through the series on modeling, and the series on How and Impressionist Sees.
The physical plates themselves are larger than what are presented in Ackerman’s book and those found on the Internet. If you copy them using pencil, you’ll have trouble matching the widths of Bargue’s lines. Enlarging the plates on a photocopy machine does help. But in that case you’re better off using charcoal, a medium that more closely approximates the qualities of the lithographer’s crayon with which the original plates where created.
Perhaps a more important issue is the value of the plate’s paper. The original plates are well over 100 years old and the paper has darkened considerably.
Unrestored (as seen on the left below), some of the halftones are lost in the paper’s discoloration. A copyist using the plate would have an artificially restricted gamut and likely fail to perceive what Gammell called the smash of light. He or she would also likely over-model the halftones (make them too dark).
On the left, Bargue’s Dante as the plate looks today. On the right, a digitally restored version.
It is true that the ability to differentiate value from local color is necessary when working from life, since few things are colored in a flat white. However, part of learning to see, draw, and paint is doing so in defined, progressive stages. Forcing the student to discern accurate value from a flawed source is akin to throwing them into the deep end of the pool before they know how to swim.
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to the question.
So What’s the Answer?
Clearly the question is hyperbole. Bargue’s are neither bad nor good. A better question would be, is using Bargue’s for beginning students better than using actual casts? An honest read through this article reveals that there is no definitive answer to the question. It’s situational.
But if we’re discussing the training of adults in an in-person atelier setting, I lean to the negative.
Learning directly from physical plaster casts eliminates all of the problems inherent in the plates. Other than the fact that Bargue’s can be done anywhere, their advantages are also present when using actual plaster casts.
Those are reasons enough for me to suggest that having a late teen or adult student begin with Bargue plates may be a mistake. Within an atelier setting, if a cast, suitable space, and controlled lighting is available, why put a flat rendering between the student and the actual object?
You’ll have noticed that I’ve specifically parsed out children and early teens. This is because some children have difficulty with manual dexterity, especially ages 12 and under. Some also cannot seem to comprehend the process of mentally flattening nature in the attempt to make a drawing of it. The problems usually resolve themselves as the children age, but Bargue plates will work in the meantime so there’s no need to wait.
Now and then I’ll come across an adult who has the same problem with seeing nature. In their case, simply making certain they’re closing one eye solves the problem after a short time. Either way, Bargue will not teach them that skill, and therefore those students will still encounter the difficulty when they are eventually presented with an actual cast.
A growing group of students are those learning remotely, either on their own or online (with or without a teacher). Bargue’s are often the perfect fit for them because the starts are clear diagrams to follow. As such, the plates teach as a well as provide a subject.
Having said that, a useful compromise would be to purchase some of the cast’s used in Bargue’s course. You could then setup the cast as shown in Bargue’s arrangement and follow his plan. Andrea Felice, who wrote an article for the site a few years ago about Making Plaster Casts offers a few of these here. The Caproni Collection offers similar casts in America.
What about Me?
Back in the early ’80s I was the recipient of a number of prints from Mark Walker’s negatives, given to me by Annette LeSueur (a former Lack student). By the time she provided them, I had already been exposed to Sight-Size while figure drawing. As a teenager with no plaster casts of my own, she felt the plates would be a good substitute until she or I could orchestrate a space and some casts. And they were.
I recall doing two Bargue plates with Annette, and then I went onto casts with Mr. Lack.
In my own teaching, I use them for two types of student:
- Distance Learners
Why I use them with children has already been explained. My reasons for using Bargue plates with online distance learners are:
- Since the plates are static, we share the same source. That way I can be absolutely certain we share the same observations. There is no possibility that I am not seeing what the student sees. Note that I teach my online cast drawing students how we can mitigate that problem by properly photographing their setups.
- I’ve digitally restored the plates that I might give my students. That way they can avoid the issues associated with the age of the originals.
- The plates I provide are equally sized to the originals and I ask that my students print them at that size.
- I suggest that my students use charcoal when copying the plates.
What about You?
If you’re a student working on Bargue plates at a physical atelier, this will not be your last exposure to disagreement in the world of representational art. Despite my Bargue reservations, I’m sure you’ll do fine and that your teacher knows what they’re doing.
Be mindful of over-modeling, and although your source is flat, practice closing one eye anyway. Pay attention to your teacher’s critiques, for whether the source is compromised or not, it’s their eye that you’re after.
Many good artists have been weened on Bargue. But if it is under your control, ween off Bargue and onto actual casts as soon as you’re allowed to.