Wednesday, April 19, 2017

In the Atelier of Carolus-Duran

(from Will H. Low's book "A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900)

The Beginning
Carolus-Duran by his student, John Singer Sargent

From the enthusiasm of a youth from Boston, Robert C. Hinckley, now a successful portrait painter in Washington, the atelier Duran had its birth. Mr. Hinckley, arriving in Paris with the intention of studying art, had been greatly impressed by Duran's work and sought his instruction as a private pupil. M. Duran declined to admit a pupil into his private studio, but offered, if Hinckley would find a room nearby and work from life, to visit him and correct his work occasionally.

This he did, and before long a second applicant for the privilege of study was referred to Hinckley by the master, soon followed by others. When I joined the atelier there were eight or ten pupils, perhaps half being French, and in the years following the number rose to forty, the majority then being English or American.

The official language of the school remained French, however, a placard announcing a fine of ten centimes for each word of a foreign tongue.

A Radically Different Method of Instruction
Carolus-Duran in His Studio

The ordinary methods of instruction in art divide drawing from painting, and further subdivide drawing into drawing from the plaster cast and from life. The evident reason for thus attacking the problems of artistic production is not to confuse the student with form and colour at the same time.

The disadvantage of such a method lies in the danger in after work of continuing this subdivision and producing tinted drawings instead of the fully coloured, freely drawn products of the brush, which is the final instrument of the painter.

It is equally evident that by giving the neophyte the task of reproducing in colour and form the ever-changing living model his difficulties are multiplied manifold. But this is more or less unknown to the unpracticed beginner, and the charm of arriving at once at the point held in reserve during long years of study in other schools overbalances any feeling of timidity which he may have.

The struggles of one who cannot swim and who is thrown into deep water are nothing, however, compared with the floundering in colour and shapeless form which characterize the first studies according to this method.

Hence there were frequent departures from our ranks, and many a defeated painter found it expedient to become an humble darughtsman int he ahlls of anitque scupture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The grave M. Bouguereau was quoted as asking one of our comrades, "Does M. Duran ever make you draw?" and Ingres's axiom that drawing is the probity of art was repeated to us on all occasions by students of rival ateliers solicitous of our welfare.

However, this method of study has its advantages. It keeps ever present in the student's mind the final end to be attained, and the incessant use of the brush, with its implied rendition of form and colour by masses and planes which exist before his eyes, rather than by the point and masses of black and white tones which are the necessary conventions of the usual method, gives him a mastery of his tools which is superior, and is absolutely logical.

Joined to a sincere and stimulating enthusiasm as a teacher, our master showed great perception and consideration for the individual temperament of his pupils; and I have known him to recommend diametrically opposite courses to different men, as he judged might be useful to one or the other.

Few of the ateliers of the time have turned out men of more renown today in the various branches of art.

Organization of the Atelier

The atelier was organized on a democratic basis, all students paying a certain amount each month, which went for the expenses of rent, heating, and the hire of models; our master giving gratuitously, in the service of art and in gratitude for similar gratuitous instruction received in his youth, his services two mornings of every week.

This was no light sacrifice of the time of a busy portrait painter, and later the service given was increased by visits to our own studios when we were preparing pictures for the Salon, when he was ever willing to counsel and help us.

The internal government of the studio was vested in our massier, one of our now well-known painters in New York occupying that monitory position, and ruling us with an energy on a par with our openly expressed disregard for all rule.

Our Models
The models were chosen by vote, and I can remember a long succession of these faithful servitors of art coming week after week, taking their positions on the platform for our judgment in the intervals of repose of the model from whom we were working.

We had a model of long experience who had posed for this or that picture or statue in the Louvre, who criticised our inexperience in posing a model or deplored our modern distaste for the conventional pose, "which was given me, Messieurs, by no less a person than Monsieur Ingres in 1856!"

We had Pere Gelon, the Pere Lambert (who, dying, left all his little fortune for the benefit of young painters entered in the competition for the Prix du Rome, in order that they might employ models as much as necessary), the brawny Schlumberger, and the Herculean Thullier, and others, whose names were familiar to all students at that time in Paris.

Many were the tales these veterans told of the great men they had served, and eager listeners were we, who strove to follow in their footsteps. But to them all, the precariously paid servants of a precarious trade, a figure painter would be ill inspired if he did not feel a sincere good fellowship and hearty gratitude.

Some of the older models, as I have said, were filled with the traditions of their glorious past, and I call to mind one of our comrades who, having made a study for an ambitious composition representing Alexander ordaining the burning of his palace at the termination of a feast, called upon Pere Gelon as the model for his principal figure.

But after a long and careful inspection of the composition sketch, Gelon nobly refused to take the pose therein indicated. "Not thus," quoth the Pere Gelon, "does a king ordain the burning of his palace, but in this manner," giving a pose inspired by the "Oath of the Horatii" by David.

"The Oath of Horatii" by David
And in no other way would he pose, and the submissive artist was forced to accept the hackneyed attitude; not at all to the advantage of his picture.

Paul Foinet, Supplier of Materials
Paul Foinet
Paul Foinet's Art Store on 94 Rue de Notre Dame, Paris
Another figure which rises from the memory of the old atelier is Paul Foinet, known as "Van Eyck," from his fancied physical resemblance to the early painter of that name. Paul was the colourman who every Monday morning appeared in the ante-room of the atelier with a supply of colours, brushes, and canvas of the required sizes, for our academic studies.

A Norman of the most indefatigable good nature, Paul, in the highest favour of us all, was then in the employ of another, but many of us have lived to see and rejoice in his establishment as a dealer on his own account. He would shoulder his heavy box of colours and trudge to the different studios of his clients, where, with a cheery word, not disdaining a bit of gossip, he was always welcome. Extending credit virtually unlimited, he and his wife  amassed a little fortune with few bad debts, though in many cases they have had to wait long for the settlement of an account.

I have known Madame Foinet to hire a studio, supply materials and pay for models for a young artist of talent, and many our our young girl compatriots have reason for gratitude to this kind woman, who has seen to getting fitting lodgings, and has counselled them wisely in their ignorance of custom, to say nothing of selling them honest colours on long credits. They number, not as clients merely, but as friends, many of the most eminent Fresh artists, and the writer feels justified in this digression to describe two of a class of Old World tradespeople for whose character and position we have no counterpart here.

Studio Shenanigans

Our revolutionary atelier was one of the quietest places of study in Paris. It is certain that work was unrelenting and no one was sufficiently proficient in his task to spare time for play.  But if a little riotous conduct found favour, one of my old comrades must remember that on one occasion after an attempt at modeling in clay in the Atelier Duran, there had remained a large sponge immersed in a bucket of clay-stained water.

One morning, as one of the men had gone into the ante-room for some purpose, my friend took this sponges and, seated on a high stool before the door, announced loudly his intention of "letting him have it" when he entered.

The door opened, and he flung the sponge. But it was not the comrade; it was our master, brave in the blue velvet coat and yellow silk shirt which he then affected. The aim was true, and for a horrid moment no one knew what was about to happen. Then the master withdrew, closing the door after him, and another time of suspense followed, no one speaking, and the unwilling culprit seeking his easel in sheer despair.

Then the door reopened, and the master, his disorder repaired by the aid of our friend who had remained in the anteroom appeared, and by a few sensible words brought the guilty to a stammering apology and an assurance that the unlucky sponge was intended for a fellow student.

Our master, upon occasion the very embodiment of high-strung pride, won our hearts that day by proceeding quietly with the lesson, and left us with an added measure of respect for him.

I remember keenly the helpful and frank criticism we gave each other, and I realize that in the common emulation and effort at the attainment of the same object lies the chief value of atelier work.

The criticisms of a master are of great value, but are necessarily general in character. The example of he, who by your side is doing perhaps a little better than you in rendering the task before you, constitutes the little step of progress which you can hope to make. Velasquez shines on a height far above you, unattainable, yet the first round of the ladder has been cleared by Sargent at your side - surely I may use my old comrade's name, even in his present eminence, in this connection - and you may follow.
John Singer Sargent (1880), Fellow Student with Will Low **

Many of our men, before a year after the atelier opened, had made such progress that our master's principles were vindicated, and though, in the four or five years where I was a more or less diligent student, I never made a study that seemed to me worth keeping. I have since realized how much I owe to my studies in the Atelier Duran.

The Annual Dinner
Soon after the first of the year the annual dinner which the atelier tendered our master took place. This year a number of the students of Duran had united to express their enthusiasm for the master by a poem which was sung in his presence at dinner.

Their general theme was the exaggerated comparison of our master to the great painters of the past. Italy had her Titian, Spain her Velasquez, while each verse ended with the antistrope "but France has Carolus-Duran!" The conviction with which three of our comrades lined up at the piano, where a fourth played the accompaniment, sang these laudatory couplets might have touched a heart of stone, but with some of us they merely stirred our sense of humour.

We, too had a song. Of this I can remember but one verse, though I think it had more.

Esquivant les lois de la construction;
Nous mettons dans nos fonds,
des couleurs tres frappantes;
Ne dessinant jamais, jamais nous ne finissons;
Pour nous la nature n'est qu'une tache,
Et Carolus-Duran!

Les eleves de Carolus-lus-lus-lus,
Les eleves de Carolus-lus-lus-lus,
Les eleves de Carolus-lus-lus-lus,
De Carolus-Duran, avec un D!

Avoiding with intent the laws of construction;
In our backgrounds we use the most violent colour.
We never draw - much less do we finish;
For us nature is only a spot - and Carolus-Duran!

The pupils of Carolus-lus-lus-lus
The pupils of Carolus-lus-lus-lus
The pupils of Carolus-lus-lus-lus
Of Carolus-Duran, spelt with a D!

(Just a note about the last line of the song, "Of Carolus-Duran, spelt with a D". On the door which opened to the atelier was inscribed "L'Atelier des Eleves de Monsieur Carolus-Duran." Their was some mysterious student who found pleasure in adding a "d" to "Duran" which transformed it into a name which is as common as "Smith" is to us. This was done so regularly, and was something that Carolus-Duran would not have liked, that one of the massier's tasks was to erase it before the master's visit.)

After Years
There were men in Duran's who drew well and have since continued to do so, and despite the heresies of our youthful career in the estimation of academical Paris, few of the ateliers of the time have turned out men of more renown today in the various branches of art.

It was our privilege a few years ago, on the occasion of a visit to this country by M. Duran, to assemble in New York, without going farther afield than Boston, a round dozen of his former pupils at dinner at one of the clubs. Most of us were sufficiently mature, and more or less known, but we were all heartily glad to join in rendering honour to one whom whom we owed so much.

His pupils included John Singer Sargent, Ralph Wormeley Curtis, Kenyon Cox Theodore Robinson, Mariquita Jenny Moberly. Mariette Leslie Cotton, Maximilien Luce, James Carroll Beckwith, Will Hicok Low, Paul Helleu, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson and Ernest Ange Duez. Of his twenty-five most notable students, the majority were English or American.

*In the Studio of Carolus-Duran - an account of Duran's instruction in pdf form
** Thanks to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art for the use of this photo.


  1. Hi Linda

    A fasinating article which I really enjoyed reading - thank you very much for posting it.

    I am currently the life of Carolus Duran during his time in Brussels in 1871 and wondered if you know of any documentation covering this period?



  2. Hi, Paul. I have only read general information on this period of his life just after the Franco-Prussian War when he and his family lived in Brussels during the reign of the Commune, but not anything extensive. I'm sorry, but if I find anything, I'll let you know.