The Burgeoning Body: Charles Bargue

As artists we tend to learn to compose the human figure one part at a time, working that same component repeatedly until perfection (or, at least, satisfaction) is achieved. From an outsider's perspective it might seem myopic, and yet it was this method that was the mainstay of Europe's most prominent art academies. The technique was made popular by French artist Charles Bargue (1826-1883), who developed a course in collaboration with academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Bargue's cours de dessin, published as The Art of Drawing between the years of 1868 and 1871, still today is used as a revolutionary training tool for the artist's understanding of the figure through tailored charcoal, pencil, or ink drawings.

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Pablo Picasso, Study of a Torso, After Bargue Plaster Cast, 1893-1894 Musée Picasso, Paris

Though Charles Bargue's training is relatively little understood, he is nevertheless recognized in his own right as a 19th-century artistic talent. His true contribution to art history, though, was his innovative course, which conveniently compiled the principle techniques of academic art training into a series of almost 200 lithographs. These lithographs, the majority of which were set to stone by Bargue after drawings by Gérôme and his colleagues, could then be studied and copied by students as they learned the intricacies of the human form. Bargue's manual encouraged study broken in three main phases. The first, "Drawing after Casts," included study from renditions of plaster casts, such as the famed Belvedere Torso or the dominant shoulder of Michelangelo's Moses, housed in Rome's San Pietro in Vincoli. The second phase, "Copying After Master Drawings," reinforced the importance of study after such drawings. While the third phase, "Charcoal Exercise in Preparation for Academic Study After Nature," emphasized study from live nude models, it was the first two phases that proved remarkably universal. Bargue's early course components were suited to artists of all trades, from professional to commercial, and also artists from all artistic approaches.

Charles Bargue

 Thomas Anschutz, Untitled (Study of a Plaster Cast), c. 1900 Anschutz, a student of American painter Thomas Eakins, here studies from plaster casts in this charcoal composition, a reflection of the fact that Bargue's methods were of international popularity already in the late 19th century.

As a testament to this universality, Bargue's series were particularly influential during the early careers of both Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh and early 20th-century modernist Pablo Picasso. Though seemingly so distinct from the abstraction seen later in his career, in iconic works such as Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) or Guernica (1937), Picasso nevertheless put particular stock in his study of Bargue in his refinement of the human form. So too did van Gogh, who even wrote to his brother in 1877 to tell of his affection for his Bargue drawing after the tomb sculpture of Anne of Brittany from the Cathedral of Saint-Denis. So intense was his appreciation that he hung his drawing after this artifact in his bedroom (click here for the entirety of this letter).

Bargue's legacy lives on today as it continues to inspire artists both young and old. For students, the drawings are a go-to guide to understanding some of the principles of the figure. For the trained artist, Bargue's images serve as an ongoing reminder of the importance of fundamental artistic principles, which serve as the underpinning for all great artists.

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