Charles Bargue Drawing Course (Cours De Dessin) Review

Charles Bargue Drawing Course

Before I get into the review proper, I just want to say a few words about what transpired when one of the authors of the Charles Bargue Drawing Course found this review on the site here. He wasn’t pleased.

If you don’t really want to hear about that and would rather get straight to the review, just scroll down the page to the review.

This review was originally written when I was on the first plate of the course. At the time I was having some trouble getting decent reproductions of the plates done, a problem I’ve thankfully sorted out now, if at some financial cost.

The review below is quite critical of some aspects of the book, partly as a result of the frustrationI was experiencing at the time. Graydon Parrish, one of the editors of the book, sent me a very nice email having read this review, and considering how critical I was, he was very polite.

Whilst I won’t quote Graydon, since I don’t have his permission, I think that I was a little harsh in my review.

The book appears to have been a labour of love on the part of Graydon and his co-editor,Gerald Ackerman. Graydon says that neither of them have gained financially from the book, and I see no reason not to believe him. Having read his email, I do believe that the book was published with altruistic motives, and that getting it into print was no small task.

Although I now feel that I’ve been perhaps a little churlish in some of my comments below, I’m letting the review stand. This is partly because I don’t like to go back and edit stuff on this site, because it’s an ongoing record, and retrospective editing would be against the spirit of what I’m trying to do here.

But I’m also letting the review stand because I still stand by the criticisms I made. I could have worded them somewhat better though, with hindsight. I owe (and everyone else who gets a copy of the Bargue book owes) Graydon and Gerald Ackerman a debt of thanks for getting this invaluable material published at all. A phrase involving gift horses and mouths comes to mind.

In order to redress the balance somewhat, I would like to point out, as I have in various other pages on this site, that this book has been an absolute godsend in my ongoing efforts to train myself to draw. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book has completely changed the way I approach all my drawings now, and for the better. I learned the technique of sight size from this book, which I now apply to great benefit in much of my other work. I also learned an invaluable of approach, that of working from the general to the specific. That idea now informs everything I do.

A couple of other points from the original review bear addressing here too:

  • Firstly, the quality of the binding. Whilst you certainly don’t expect a book you paid £60 for to start falling apart, in this case it’s a blessing in disguise. Although it feels like sacrilege to pull such a beautiful book apart, it’s the only way to get really good, distortion free copies of the plates. I’ve got the best results from having them reproduced to their original size on a dye sublimation printer. Cheap, it’s not. Each reproduction costs as much as your average art book by itself. It is worth it, however, because the level of detail is much higher than laser copies.
  • Secondly, Graydon has told me since writing this that they did want to have at least some of the plates included loose-leaf in the original size, but it was a no go with the publisher. It’s a pity it couldn’t be done, but it just means a bit more effort must be expended to get the most from the book.

If, like me, you’re teaching yourself to draw without the benefit of a drawing master or a carefully designed course,this book should be near the top of your shopping list.

On with the review.

The Review

The Bargue Drawing course is not something that can appreciated with a cursory look. This is a longish post, but read it, it’ll be fun, I promise. And you might even end up with a better idea of what this drawing course is about if I manage to stay on the point for more than five minutes at a time.

The Bargue Drawing Course has an interesting history. To understand it properly, some understanding of how academic art was taught in the late 19th century, when it was published, will help.

A typical art education in the 19th century would begin with drawing from casts of Greek and Roman statues. This was supposed to teach students not only to draw well, but to appreciate the noble beauty of classical sculpture, and to be educated by copying from example in what was then considered to be ‘good taste’. Following a period of drawing from casts, students would move on to copying old masters. This education was common to all the visual arts, including commercial variants like industrial design. Once this thorough grounding in good taste had been achieved, only ‘fine art’ students would then go on to draw and paint from the nude.

Cast drawing

One of the final cast drawings from part one. I’ll be very happy if I can do even a reasonable copy of this.

The Bargue Drawing Course is split into three parts, roughly following this pattern. The first part is a series of drawings from casts, the second part a series of copies of old master drawings. The third part would only have been undertaken by fine art students and is a series of what we now call ‘life drawings’ – drawings of the male nude in various poses. Students were expected to copy these drawings with great accuracy, producing work which was to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the originals, assuming they were up to the job.

In France in the 1860s there was a general official hoo-ha about the low standard of the work being produced by the students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.The consensus was that this was due to the low standard of the work the students were copying. Goupil and Cie, the prominent Parisian art dealers at the time (and Theo Van Gogh’s employers and for a while Vincent’s too before he became a painter himself,) saw a commercial opportunity, and organised the production of the Bargue Drawing Course to answer the need for better models for the students to work from. It did pretty well for them apparently, for thirty years or so, but fell out of favour when those pesky post impressionists stopped worrying about how accurate their drawing was and started worrying about the expression of their personal vision instead.

In simple terms, academic art institutions and ateliers at that time were mainly concerned with reproducing nature. In fact, this idea that the goal of art was to copy nature, either realistically or in an idealised version, had held sway pretty much since the time of Aristotle.

To be fair, Medieval art got a bit wayward and tended to subjugate the faithful reproduction of nature to the communication of the message (Christianity), but the artist was then even less a creative individual in the sense that we’re used to thinking about them now, he was a workman. The Renaissance marked a return to the natural and idealised forms of classical Greek and Roman art, but now often in the service of the Church.

Those poor Renaissance artists had to spend lots of time and energy re-learning what their Medieval brothers and sisters had forgotten, how to represent nature faithfully. On the plus side though, they were beginning to be seen less as low class artisans and were gradually becoming invested with a higher social status. Michelangelo in particular was instrumental in this change of the perception of the artist. All the same, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the expression of the personal vision of the artist became more important than the faithful reproduction of nature.

This book is a reproduction of the entire Bargue drawing course, together with some extra information about Bargue himself and a few other tidbits, including excellent coverage of the technique of sight size drawing. According to the introduction of this publication, there were a few competitors on the market at the time, but the Bargue course had something extra going for it. It managed to straddle the two main camps in academic art at the time, one of idealisation of nature along the lines of Raphael, what you might call classicism, the other a part of the growing realist movement which held that art should be honest, including being truthfully ugly if the subject was ugly.

Bargue’s drawing style represents a synthesis of these two camps, showing his models as they really are, but with nothing so ugly that it would outrage the idealists. Bargue also had the knack of simplifying his forms in order to make them clearer and easier to copy for the aspiring student.

So why is this anachronistic pedagogic aid being republished now? Well, what follows is entirely my personal opinion, so take it with a pinch of salt if you like.

We’ve been living with the cult of personal expression in art for some time now, which is all well and good and hasproduced some fascinating and even beautiful work, but along the way something has been lost.

In order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve come from, and that’s what some artists, and art education establishments, seem to have forgotten. Compare art with music. The theoretical excesses of modern art have been matched (and even out-done) by modern composers. Think of Stockhausen, or Parmegianni (some of who’s work I like very much by the way). Or “4.33” by John Cage, the performance of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. You can even buy recordings of that piece (you can also get blank CDs from PC World which will have much the same effect for a lot less money though.)

But there’s a difference here between the visual art world and music. Generally speaking, a musician or composer who indulges in this kind of thing will know what a scale is, they’ll even be able to play you a few. They’ll be able to play an instrument or two, usually to an extremely high standard. They’ll have a good understanding of the history of the western tonal system, and will understand western harmony sideways and backwards. This stuff is hard, and takes years to learn.

I’m less than convinced that the same is true of many visual artists today. Of course there are exceptions. Picasso, the hero of modern art, was a consummate realist when he wanted to be. Throughout his life, after Guernica, after cubism and the Demoiselles d’Avignon, he would still return to realism when it suited him, and he could do it very well.

I’m of the opinion that modern degree level art courses turn out students full of ‘personal vision’ but without the technical means to express it and with little or no appreciation of the history and traditions of their subject. It’s only in the visual ‘fine arts’ that this is considered acceptable. I think that Picasso’s skill shows in his most ‘primitive’ work, and cubism could never have been practiced by someone who couldn’t control a brush.

I’m getting off the point. I do believe that this wilful abandonment of the traditions of the past has given rise to a growing representational movement which has a strong tendency to hark back to the late 19th century. Old style academic ateliers are springing up all over the place, and the pendulum is swinging back the other way, at least in some quarters. It’s swinging abit too far for my liking sometimes, but it’s swinging nonetheless. There’s also been a resurgence of interest in the 19th century academic approach to drawing and painting. Thus this book.

Although it’s a very good thing that this course has been republished, the book does have a couple of shortcomings in it’s present form. Firstly, the plates are much smaller than the originals, which means that they have to be blown up if you want to do a proper job of copying them. Now that’s all right for the bigger plates which are A4 size, but some of them are only a couple of inches high so that the publishers can squeeze a few on a page. It seems pretty obvious tome that if you reproduce something that small you’ll lose a lot of the detail because the resolution (in dpi) of these reproductions is the same as for the large ones, so these plates may as well have not been included at all in my opinion. To be fair I haven’t tried it yet, but it does seem to go against common sense. I wonder if they were included to justify the “in it’s entirety” selling point.

Plate 1, on the easel

An A3 laser copy of the first plate on the easel.

Secondly, it’s in book form, with a hard spine. These plates are supposed to be taped up onto a drawing board with the copies done beside them, the same size, the better to judge the accuracy of the copies. Of course you can get them blown up, as I’ve done, but they’re also difficult copy cleanly with no distortion on a flat bed scanner because of the book format. The printer I took them to had to try a couple of times for some of them, it’s not a thin book.

I guess you could argue that doing both of the above keeps the cost down, but if that’s the case then it can only be to promote sales, not for the benefit of the aspiring student. My copies cost me almost £3 each, so to reproduce all the plates at the size and in the format I need them to be is going to cost me a small fortune.

One more point. I’ve only had this book for two weeks the pages are coming away from the spine already. Now I know I’ve had it on a scanner, but only twice, and after all it’s intended to be used that way. The quality of the binding is, in my opinion, very poor. I expect this book to be falling apart before too long and considering the high price that’s just unacceptable.

Charles Bargue Drawing Course, plate 5

The fifth plate in the cast drawings section, showing how Bargue breaks down and simplifies the forms.

Given that these drawings are supposed to give one an appreciation of what good taste was over a hundred years ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that the book is hopelessly out of date. I can’t disagree on that score, but what saves this book for me and makes it worthwhile is the quality of the drawings. Bargue was a superb draughtsman, it fairly drips off the pages, with plate after plate of beautifully realised drawings. For many of the plates, a one or two stage simplification of the final finished drawing is included, breaking the drawing down into simplified forms. I haven’t got that far yet (I’m still on the first plate,) but I do believe that this will be very useful when it comes to seeing the building blocks of shapes in the real world.

It must be said also that the publishers do make the point that the book is only partly intended as a course for students. It’s also intended to be used by historians and also simply to be enjoyed by lovers of fine drawing, and on that last score it certainly delivers.

Apart from the reservations I’ve cited above, I’m happy I’ve got hold of a copy of this book. Of course, as with all teaching materials, you can’t absorb the knowledge and skills through osmosis by sitting in the same room as the book or just flicking through the pages. You have to get your charcoal out and draw. A lot.

That the beautiful drawings in this book are being brought to a wider audience is a very good thing. The manner in which it has been done is considerably less impressive. I hope another publisher with a better idea of how to go about their business produces a more usable, better constructed one.

Should you buy a copy of this book?

If you’re really serious about improving your drawing skills, and you’re willing to put in some hard hours of practice, then yes, you should definitely buy it.

If you just love drawing and have money to burn, you should buy it.

If you’re in the habit of buying art instruction books and leaving them on the shelf most of the time, and you don’t really draw that much, this book isn’t going to magically help you draw better just by being in your room.

But then, neither is any art book.

My Bargue drawing copies

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  1. 1

    Doreen Daubermann says

    Am doing this Course with The Academy of Classical Drawing South Africa. Just finished my first drawing. Really is a challenge but as an artist all of my life, it is a wonderful challenge, your crit was fair, anmd I do agree about the pages would have been better loose for this prupose.

  2. 2

    Paul says

    Hi Doreen,

    Thanks, I’m glad you agree. I think you’ll enjoy the Bargue course. I’ve only done five plates, but my ability to concentrate came on a lot during those 5 plates. That might seem like a side-effect and not the main point, but it’s not to be sniffed at I don’t think.

    I’d love to hear how you get on with it and what you feel you’re learning when you have the time.

  3. 3

    Linda McGuire says

    I’m a very senior citizen 66 taking Drawing 11 at a Junior College. Part of the class required a research paper on the master artist of our choice. I choice Charles Bargue.
    I have added to the research as added information the printing of your post. Just so the Prof. could view what your post has to say about the course. Thank you.

  4. 5

    Jane Newble says

    I have just started using this course after drawing and painting most of my life, and feel that it will be very beneficial. I shall probably take the book apart so that I can copy and pin up the pages(after all, it is a course, which I paid for, so it doesn’t have to stay intact as a book).
    it would have been nice to have the original sizes, but I might not have been able to afford the book… least copying a few pages at the time will spread the cost. Thank you for your review!

  5. 7

    Anwar says

    Yep, I just got the book too. I figure I will be doing this a few hours a week so the cost of an 18 x 24 laser print won’t be unmanageable. It seems to me so far that section 1 is the essential course and the next 2 are sort of add ons. For instance Holbien’s drawing looks quite primitive compared to Bargue’s “Modern” classical style.

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