On the Ecole des Beaux-Arts by George Peter Alexander Healy (G. P. A. Healy) Written in 1890
The Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts or School of Fine Arts is a large and imposing building, which in olden times was a convent. The big gate in the rue Bonaparte is adorned by two busts, these of Poussin and Pugel, the famous painter, and the equally famous sculptor of the seventeenth century. The immense court beyond is, as it were, divided in two by a fragment from an old castle, a very fine specimen of architecture. To the right in the museum, once the convent chapel, a beautiful inner court called “la couer du Murier” or Mulberry court, various studios, and finally the large exhibition rooms with a separate entrance on the Qual Malaquais. Facing the rue Bonaparte are other studios, the handsome library, the gallery of antiques, etc. These are divided by a narrow court from the dissecting amphitheater and the cells in which the aspirants for the Pris de Rome, or Roman prize are shut up each year during several weeks.
When the examinations I described in my last letter have been successfully passed, the “new boy,” whether he be French or not, has a right to enjoy all the advantages the school can offer. He may choose the masters he prefers. There are three studios for painters directed by the distinguished artists Gerome, Delaunay, and Bonnat. These artists are not only celebrated, and justly so, but they are excellent teachers. M. Gerome is particularly careful with regard to the drawing from the antique. The other two professors have lately entered upon their duties, their predecessors, Cabanel and Boulanger, having died quite recently.
The student having chosen his master has but to present himself at 8 o’clock in the morning and take his place among the forty or fifty students of the studio. This is an ordeal from which many young men shrink with nervous dread. Stories of practical jokes have been handed down from one generation of students to another, and some forty or fifty years ago these practical jokes were indeed often cruel. On one occasion an unfortunate youth died in consequence of exposure to cold and shock to the nerves. To our modern ideas this hazing is simply odious, and I am happy to say, it has about disappeared. The new pupil must expect, however, to be made fun of in one way or another, but he need fear nothing more than to be told to sing a comic song, to submit to a mock examination from some fellow student disguised for the occasion, or to be forced to get up on the stand and serve as a model. If he enters into the spirit of the fun, accepts the jokes, laughs with the others, and shows that he is a “good fellow” he will be tormented no more. He soon becomes one of the many and slips quietly into the routine of a student’s life.
The school, which is supported by government, is free. There are, however, some and inevitable expenses for every newcomer. Each studio is governed by one of the pupils chosen by vote, usually among the most brilliant young artists, who is called the “Massier.” He is invested with considerable authority. He it is who engages the models, who has the honor of receiving the master, the “patron,” or “boss,” as the young men call their professor, when twice a week this august personage comes to correct their work. But the most important office of the “Massier” is to collect the money of the new students. There are certain small expenses, such as soap for the washing of the brushes, towels, an easel, a stool, etc., which fall upon the students. Besides, each newcomer is expected to “treat” his comrades. If he is rich – an unusual case – he invites them to a restaurant to lunch or dinner but this is by no means the rule. As a usual thing a glass of wine at the nearest wine shop and some cakes suffice for what is called the “Bienvenu,” or welcome. A young man must expect the first day to spend somewhere about $12 (60 francs). After this he may attend every sort of lesson or lecture, read in the library, study in the gallery of antiques, dissect in the amphitheater, all without again opening his purse. He is also perfectly free to absent himself should he not be a good worker and not desirous of making the most of his advantages. There is no sort of control. The only result will be that a lazy student will be most likely found wanting when he presents himself at the periodical public examinations. In that case he ceases to belong to the school and must begin anew at the following session.
A young man sometimes absents himself from other motives than idleness. I said in a former letter that millionaires are now among these would-be artists. Many of the students receive some help from the authorities of their native town. A boy shows artistic talent, his drawings attract the attention of his masters, he belongs to a poor family, and can hope for no pecuniary aid from his parents. He, then, not infrequently obtains from the municipal council of his native town a small pension which enables him to live, or at least not to starve, during the first few years spent in Paris. In order to eke out this pittance – often not over $150 or $200 a year – many of those poor students try to earn a little money. Nothing comes to amiss to them – sign painting, sentimental composition for candy boxes, portraits at $2 or $3 apiece, etc. And these hard workers are often among the best students; they make up for lost time when they return to school after one of these periodical absences and often carry off medals and prizes, which their richer comrades fail to obtain.
Among the hardest students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, those who get to work first and leave off the last are, I am glad to say, my young countrymen. This at least is the testimony borne by their French companions. American energy and spirit assert themselves everywhere.
The instruction given at the Beaux Arts is not confined to drawing, painting or modeling. Professors, chosen among the best Paris can afford, lecture before the students, who are thus enabled to complete their general education. And this is more necessary than many artists imagine. High culture and refined intelligence help almost as much as natural talent in the formation of a real artist.
Twice a week at 1 o’clock there is an interesting course of lectures on history. Few studies are more useful to a young artist. The choice of subjects for large historical pictures is often too lightly treated by our modern students. It has been somewhat the fashion of late years to make fun of the “old fellows” who pay great attention to the “subject” of a picture. That is but a secondary consideration, say these critics, unworthy of a true painter or sculptor. Show us men and women in fine attitude, harmonious as to color, and call them by the first name that comes into your head, or by no name at all. I think this is a great mistake. Artistic merit is quite compatible with thought and intelligence, and a man’s intelligence shows itself in his perception of a well-known name, as well as in the arrangement of drapery or the color of a background.
What I have said of the lectures on history can now be applied to those on literature. This is a very popular course of lectures. The professor not only explains the classical authors, but quotes largely from them, and he recites celebrated and thrilling passages the student see, in imagination, the spirited pictures which they hope some day to execute. Not only the old Greek tragedies are explained to them and Reeise and Cornelle among the French, but Shakespeare is not forgotten, nor is he the least appreciated among the peers of the poet. The time has long since bone by when the Bard of Avon was looked upon in France as a sort of barbarous and uncouth genius. However, weakened his works may be in the smooth, French translation, Shakespeare still has power enough to rouse enthusiasm among Frenchmen.
In June, some lectures on the history costumes, with draped figures by way of examples, are given. Of course, there are also professors of anatomy, of dissection, of perspective and mathematics. It will thus be seen that a hard-working young man, who has made use of all the Ecole des Beaux Arts, has when he leaves the school, a thorough artistic training.
G. P. A. Healy, “The School of Fine Arts,” Sunday Inter Ocean, 12/7/1890, Part 3, p.28.