Life drawing sessions haven’t changed in centuries. There are good sketches of them by many of the great artists. But in particular there is a wonderful painting in the Louvre by an eighteenth-century painter that will bring it all back to anyone who has ever drawn a nude model in a hall or classroom.
Life-drawing by Léon-Matthieu Cochereau 1793–died at sea 1817 Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)
All the familiar elements are there—the platform and the boxes for the model to lean on and sit on; the easels, canvases, and sketchbooks on shelves at the back of the room; the students, some standing, working rapidly and with great concentration, measuring the model with their chalk or charcoal, pulling back their heads to get a better perspective on their work. Even the student who finds his neighbor’s drawing more interesting than the model, and the dreaminess of the model, who resists scratching or any movement for long periods. And the quiet except for the distant traffic noises outside the window, with its drape to control the light.
Some students are so fast they finish several copies of the model in a forty-five minute session—to the despair of others, beginners maybe, who can’t even get one down in their drawing block. Most want a pretty drawing for their notebook; a few are there to learn about anatomy and they welcome the distortions of perspective that the pretty-drawing artists avoid. To some, the sessions are light and relaxing; to others, they are exhausting work.
Wikimedia public domain photo
This is a drawing of a session one hundred and fifty years earlier by a student of Rembrandt’s. The J. Paul Getty Museum has this to say about the drawing: “Rembrandt’s close working relationship with his pupils is most vividly depicted in this sheet, made by a talented amateur who came to Rembrandt’s studio for drawing lessons. The composition shows Rembrandt (at center) huddled with five students drawing a female nude. Compared to the confident Rembrandt, who draws with the aid of a board casually propped on his knee, the seated man wearing glasses strains to look and draw simultaneously. Meanwhile another eager pupil peeks over Rembrandt’s shoulder to follow his example.”
And here is one of Rembrandt’s models posing for him: Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (Wikimedia public domain photo)
She became the Susanna in his painting of Susanna and the Elders (1647) now in the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin:
Wikimedia public domain photo
And here is another rather twisted up woman posing for the master, holding her pose like a good model:
Wikimedia public domain photo
See Museworthy’s blog on present-day life-drawing classes by a professional model.
They certainly haven’t changed. The sparce dingy room is required at all art schools apparently. I wonder if there was ever a school with an appealing space?
I once had a teacher who made the remark (I don’t know if original to him) that you had better enjoy the process. If you only wanted to create a pretty picture to impress your friends you would never last to get the skills required.
That’s good what your teacher said.
Jacob Epstein, the American sculptor, wrote that he had a teacher in Paris who, in order to teach students to concentrate on the basic shapes of a model instead of her skin, used to make her put on a T-shirt and leotards. “Actually,” said the old master, “what I’d really like to do is put her in a dark closet and have my students go in there and FEEL her shapes, then return to their modelling table and work from memory.”
Looks mighty familiar Swallows, even though it’s been a quarter century I think since I’ve done any. I’ve never seen that Rembrandt drawing before, nor the one of him in the style of Watteau! I was shocked to see that it was by Rembrandt not Watteau. Not sure what makes me think Watteau.
I did do figure drawings 3 hours a night 4 nights a week in San Francisco for over a year with adult education. Though the surroundings weren’t great the teacher always brought her own record collection to play as we sketched. That enlivened it quite a bit without taking away from the serious drawing taking place. In fact I look back on it as a lot of fun, even though I had to skip supper in order to take part in it.
Ken: Thanks. I loved those drawing classes too. Mine were in the loft of the Círculo de Bellas Artes building in Madrid, nights after work over three years. Three models, the sessions were nearly free–sessions, not classes, there was no teacher. I learned from the other kids and the models. We’d have a drink afterwards in the bar on the fifth floor…
It gives me the nostalgia of the nude drawing classes at the Sherbrooke University, what you tell so well, 100swallows. An email will follow soon, I hope. I’m with my father now, probably for a long time…
Ivdanu: Thanks, Danu. Now maybe there will be some time for you to take out your colors and brushes like in the good old days.
Lovely post, Swallows. I never had the opportunity of drawing nudes from life, since I am just a self-thriving amateur. My nudes are statues…But I can imagine and I find your description just great.
Ken, I agree with your point about the Rembrandt’s charcoal. It does not look like a ‘usual’ Rembrandt. But I do not see a Watteau either. The three coloured chalks mix favored by him are not there. And the woman face does not look like the models used by Watteau, who were very typcal as for physionomy, and looked like belonging to the same family most of the time. Last but not least, Watteau drawings usuually looked more precise, with sharp and delicate lines.
Swallows, any clue about the origin of this drawing?
Ken and Will: Thanks. You were right, both of you. The drawing of the men sketching the nude model is not by Rembrandt but by a pupil of his. Rembrandt is the man who looks so sure of himself with the board propped on his knee, in contrast to that old guy with glasses who strains to see. Previously I posted here a drawing by Rembrandt but as I think it may not have been in the public domain, I substituted it with this one. It’s easy to say now, but I myself found it hard to believe this one was by Rembrandt.
As for the model of Susanna, I had my doubts about that one too until I saw the painting. Still, the sketch doesn’t look like a typical Rembrandt, does it? I would not have thought of Watteau, mainly because I don’t know his work very well. What would your guess have been, Will?
My guess is that what drew me to the Watteau reference is the thinness of the woman and somewhat elegant pose, The pose may not actually be elegant but that was my initial impression. Certainly far more elegant than in the painting, where of course elegance was not the intention. I did a quick visual search of Watteau’s work and ‘Seated Woman’ seems closest to what I was thinking of. My guess is that all the drapery too might have reminded me of him as well.
As usual Swallows you’ve sent me back to my dusty art books. Now I’ll need to go through and see if I can find any other thin models that Rembrandt used. Will, I hadn’t thought about the three colored chalks of Watteau but was more thinking of the pose in itself. Not that I’ve peaked online at Watteau’s work I guess I’ll need to take another look at his work as well.
True about them saying at art school you do not do pretty pictures , The nuded drawing or painting has many hang ups attached to it I guess (No smirking!)
I wonder if the eighteenth century and nineteenth used it as a form of pornography but the painting of the nude should be regarded in a artistic way and merit found
Chris: Thanks. And not just those two centuries! Of course, even nudes done in the “artistic way” turn many people on. But if the artist’s intention is to provoke erotic thoughts or feelings, that’s obvious.