Monday, February 7, 2011

Study at l'Académie Julian in Paris

Académie Julian . 1889

Cecilia traveled with a friend to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. At that time, women were not allowed to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, but at Académie Julian they were provided with the same classes as men [which were preparatory for l'Ecole] including the drawing and painting of nude models. There were separate classes for men and women. Since this academy is often mentioned in artists' biographies, I thought that it would be interesting to share some of her experiences there.

"I had worked alone, and fully believed that, in Paris, I should be among brilliant and advanced students, far ahead of a practically untaught American. I was to learn that the Academie Julian was a business enterprise, and could not be maintained for gifted students only.

I began, of course, with an 'Academy,' a full-length drawing. 'Tony' - that is Tony Robert Fleury - was to criticise that week, and at the hour entered a young-middle-aged and very handsome man, with a face in which there were deep marks of disappointment; his eyes, grey and deeply set, smouldered with burnt-out fires. How un-American they were! As I observed him from behind my easel, I felt that I had touched for the first time the confines of that which made France and Paris a place of pilgrimage. Into the room with him came something of what he had come from and lived in. The class, although accustomed to him, was in a flutter. I was still and icy with terror, fearing among other qualms that I might not understand him and blunder hideously.

My turn approached. He sat down. I knew only enough French to stammer out, as my defence, that it was my first attempt in Life-Class. He muttered something in a deep voice that sounded like an oath, and plunged me deeper in woe. The class, which understood better, looked around. I began to hear that he was quoting Corneille. He asked me where I had studied, and my story did not seem to account for my drawing. He rose, not having given me any advice, but bent his cavernous eyes on me with a penetrating but very reserved smile and turned to the next. The class had gathered round by this time...and when le Maitre had left, they rushed to me, and, if it had been the practice of the day, would have borne me on their shoulders. Of course, I listened to all the criticism I could get wind of, and was to learn that analytical methods were not used in the French cours.

M. Julien, the organizer and director of the cours, had been a prize-fighter by profession, and whatever the turn of fate or necessity that directed his ambitions toward the realm of the Fine Arts, he was certainly an example of the versatility of the French mind. He had never attempted to become an artist, but he had frequented the milieus and haunts of artists. The lobbies of the Salons and the Exhibitions were familiar to him.

He was a big, handsome man, who never for a moment forgot his position of manager only, and held the masters who came to criticise the class in high reverence. Nevertheless, he had an eye on every pupil, and would appear unexpectedly in the class, a serious and observant figure, decidedly on the watch.

We had no luxuries. The room was kept warm by a stove, on the models' account. But for that, I fancy we should often have drawn with numb fingers. The patience and fidelity of the models to their job was pitiful. There were so many others to take their place, if they failed. One poor thing, who had the face of a worn-out provider, and with her aging countenance and shabby clothes, would never have been noticed by anyone, had a slender and perfect form with exquisite articulations. She used to fetch a large basket of mending from behind the screen during the rests, and drawing a forlorn skirt about her shoulders, fall to with French zeal upon small ragged stockings and patched underwear. I heard that she was a favorite model for the 'Printemps,' 'Sources,' and 'Jeunesse' that we were to admire in the Salon before long.

Jeunesse by William Bouguereau

Every week subjects for composition were given out. The compositions were handed in on a Saturday, and the student who had produced the best in the opinion of le Maitre had the privilege of first choice of place on Monday morning for the new pose. This, in such a crowded room, was an immense advantage, but punctuality was also the price, for without it one's chance was given to the next. I had the good luck to win it pretty often. The compositions were shown on the wall and we all stood behind Fleury, or whoever the critic of the month might have been. He stood growling before them with folded arms. Pointing to mine, he said savagely, 'Qui est-ce qui a fait ca (Who did this)?" I stood quaking before him, for he was often bitterly ironical. 'Humph,' he said, 'c'est vous? Je n'ai pas vu les autres, mais je sais bien que c'est la meilleure (It is you? I haven't seen the others, but I know very well that it is the best).'

The next day Julian came to the class. He held up my composition, and looked at me smiling. It was to be accrochee sur le mur. This was the highest honor the work of a student could hope for, and the wall showed a meagre collection of examples, charcoal studies from the model, and a few paintings, and once there, it was forever. They were never to yield their place. Once worthy, always worthy - a record of the Cours.

What peace, what space for deliberation, there was in being a student! I did not have to think of exhibition, or any of the sordid growths that flourish about student life when permitted, and in fact are planted by their directors in many schools now. It was all between the fascinating object and myself. Not even the Master would come between. He would say little. If I felt that my work did not interest him, something was wrong, and I was goaded into greater effort. If I felt sympathy in his 'vous etes dans une tres bonne voie (you are on the right track),' I could go on with a happy sigh."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ms. Crank:
    Thank you, so much for sharing these great anecdotes. While reading, I could almost see Julian striding across the room.
    Best regards,
    Stan Watson