Studies Of The Head Of The Apollo Belvedere And Head Of Laocoön, unidentified artist, 19th century.
A walk through just about any atelier or art academy will likely reveal numerous plaster casts hung on the walls and setting on the shelves. Why are they being used and why were the particular casts chosen over others? The answers often have little to no impact on today’s students, but that was not the case in the past.
An academy apart form the antique is unthinkable. But the history of Western art itself is unimaginable without the antique.1
The story of the use of plaster casts in arts instruction begins in Ancient Greece, in the mid-5th century BC. While technically true, this is also a little misleading. Many of the classical sculptures from which most drawing casts were made are actually Roman copies created roughly a half millennium later.
Even that history is cloudy. As the Roman Empire slowly broke apart, many of those marble copies were lost. It has been said that this was one of the reasons for the continent’s slide into the Dark Ages. Whether that was part of the cause or merely an effect, it is clear that the Western figurative tradition did not approach its former glory until the early Renaissance.
At that time, the city of Rome was growing and consequently old ground was being repurposed. During many of these excavations antiquities were being unearthed. Some of them were the originals. Others were the aforementioned, Roman copies. Due to that, we once again have many of the Classical world’s most famous sculptures, among them the Belvedere Torso, the Apollo Belvedere, and the Laocoön.
Part of PAFA’s cast room in 2015.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a well known adage, but up until the Realist movement of the mid-nineteenth century this was not a driving factor in art. Visual beauty was not often found in one person, but in a combination of the best aspects of many. The artists and thinkers of the Renaissance realized that their counterparts from Classical Greece understood this better than anyone. Therefore, beauty was in the antique.
This concept of the perfection of nature as seen through the antique was known in the late eighteenth century as le beau idéal.
Exactly how a student acquired the ability to select the beautiful from nature involved copying from Classical sculpture (or the plaster casts which had been taken from them).
Typifying this idea were Charles LeBrun’s directions to the students at the French Académie in the late 1660s. Charles de Tolnay explains:
The program of instruction under LeBrun consisted of the following steps: first, copying beautiful antiques or works of Raphael, then studying nature, reducing it to the proportions of the antique (or Raphael), and finally interpreting nature directly, following the principles of antique beauty as Raphael had formulated them. Nature is consequently corrected to the antique norm.2
Looking back on the history of the training of painters and sculptors one can find written references to cast drawing from just about any period since the beginning of the Renaissance. Over the centuries each academy has had to decide which sculpture was worthy to be used as a source. There was some consistency, however. The Farnese Hercules, the Venus de’ Milo, various versions of the Apollo, the Laocoön, the Borghese Warrior (also called the Borghese Gladiator), the Belvedere Torso, and the Farnese Hermes were among the generally agreed upon standards.
On the left, Ruben’s study of the Belvedere Torso (1601). On the right, Constantin Hansen’s study (mid-1800s).
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various casts taken from Renaissance era sculptures were also added to the canon. Casts of sections of Michelangelo’s sculptures like the David’s ear, eye, nose and, mouth seem to be the most popular with art schools today.
For me, the last word belongs to R. H. Ives Gammell:
For centuries drawing from statues, or from plaster casts of statues, was considered the ideal starting point for a number of excellent reasons. Casts do not move, their uniform whiteness simplifies the problem of modeling and prepares the student to cope with the greater complexity of values he will find in the human body, and the stylized forms of antique statues educate his eye. There is no substitute of comparable worth. But it is a mistake to treat cast drawing as a drudgery to get through with and then to put away with other childish things. There are many lessons to be learned from drawing and painting from casts which completely escape the beginner.3
This article is an abridged chapter from my book, The Sight-Size Cast.
1Carl Goldstein, Teaching Art: Academies and Schools from Vasari to Albers, Cambridge University Press, 1996, page 137.
2Charles de Tolnay, History and Technique of Old Master Drawings: A Handbook, H. Bittner and Company, New York, 1943, page 18.
3As quoted in R. H. Ives Gammell, An Autobiography of His Life and Work, (unpublished, written during the late 1960s and early 1970s).