The Daily Heller: Stephen Alcorn’s Great Masters Lesson
Stephen Alcorn recently initiated a new course at Virginia Commonwealth University titled Mastering the Masters: Copying as a Tool for Self-Discovery, in which his drawing students are introduced to the once-mandatory tradition of learning to draw by copying masterworks. Alcorn, a passionate advocate of drawing and the power of coordinated eye, hand and mental activity, became enamored of this practice while in middle school at Florence’s fabled Istituto Statale d’Arte. Here he takes us through an abridged version of his extensive course.
Can you trace for the reader the genesis of this means of studying drawing?
I first learned of this tradition when I read Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vasari described how the young Michelangelo Buonarroti had copied details of Masaccio’s cycle of frescoes in the Cappella Brancacci in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Carmine, just blocks from where my family and I resided in Florence. This was an epiphany for me. Since then, I have regularly turned to seminal masterworks for inspiration as the standards of excellence by which I measure and develop my proficiency in a variety of media.
This revelation clearly played a seminal role in your artistic development. What did you discover as a result?
I learned that great classical painters emphasized the practice of copying as a means of training and self-discovery. “Old Masters” such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Diego Velazquez served long apprenticeships built on this time-proven practice.
Mastering the Masters demonstrates that copying was once integral to art education. Can you elaborate?
Copying was an important component of the collaborative studio system, bottega, or workshop, the most prevalent structure for the production of paintings in Europe before the 20th century. The Baroque master, Peter Paul Rubens, dedicated his formative years to making copies of paintings by Titian and is known to have worked on master copies until his death. When the Louvre was first opened to the public in 1793, it set aside five of every 10 days exclusively for artists to study and copy its collection. When the first American museums were formed nearly a century later, they adopted the Louvre's policy and gave artists and students permission to paint or sculpt from the works in their galleries.
Even Pablo Picasso, the most innovative artist of the 20th century, was a product of this tradition—and boasted about it, too.
The practice had played a defining role in the development of such revolutionary artists as Francisco Goya, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, who was 10 years older than Picasso. From the age of 7, Picasso received formal artistic training from his father, José Ruiz, in figure drawing and oil painting. Ruiz, a traditional academic artist and instructor, believed that proper training required disciplined copying of the masters and drawing from plaster casts and live models. Picasso decreed that all artists should have an École de dessin sign on their studio door. This assertion is less contradictory than it might seem. Picasso believed that only graphic mastery could enable an artist to break every rule to draw unconventionally and instinctively.
The same process influenced the careers of more conservative artists such as John Singer Sargent and, later, Edward Hopper. Until the First World War, the practice was considered [an] indispensable tool [for] aspiring artists around the world. As the tenets of Modernism began to be incorporated into professional art education in the 1930s, copying fell out of favor, and its abandonment accompanied a decrease in technical proficiency and craftsmanship.
Does copying masterworks constitute a form of copyright infringement?
The art of copying should not be confused with literary or journalistic plagiarism or forgery. Master copies are not so exact as to be confused with the originals. The purpose of copying is to analyze the technical and stylistic attributes of a masterwork for a better understanding of the work. By comparing and contrasting the copy with the masterwork, students train their eyes in a way that permits them to apply similar standards of excellence to their own work. Paradoxically, a series of attempts to emulate the work of another artist allows aspiring artists to discover their particular mark-making sensibilities. Although they may try, it is impossible to replicate exactly the work of another.
You value tradition and its role in the development of aspiring artists. Philosophically, you see time as a continuum that links the past, the present and the future. To what do you attribute this worldview? As a young artist in Florence, Italy, I experienced a culture that fostered a holistic, humanistic approach to art education. My exposure to previous periods taught me to value tradition, not as nostalgia, but as knowledge passed from one generation to another. I am grateful for an experience that encouraged me to see my artistic development within the larger history of thought. The example of the Tuscan poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), who adopted antiquity as a homeland of the mind, further informed my worldview, along with Einstein, who believed that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Time and events don’t sail past us and vanish. I encourage my students to think that they exist simultaneously in space-time. In this sense, my course, Mastering the Masters, like my Florence Revealed: Drawing From the Wellspring of Renaissance Thought and Vision Global Education program, presents knowledge as a conversation among different ages.
Respect for tradition is not conservatism but the belief that a true work of art [is] from not one but several seminal, influential forces.
How do you integrate the standards of excellence you value in the history of art into your daily instruction?
I am responsible for providing an understanding of the mechanics of traditional observational drawing. I begin each course with a two-week refresher of those fundamentals. I relish it as a restorative right of passage, especially since I extol the virtues of the life drawings of Ingres and Degas. Furthermore, if I am to lead by example, I, too, must participate in the exercises I assign. This approach has expanded my visual vocabulary and accounts for the degrees of realism and stylization in my work from observation and from the imagination. It contributes to the confluence of naturalism and abstraction that informs my drawing, working and teaching life.
Your project is very extensive and this is just one portion of a longer manuscript. So, one final question for now: In what way do your projects transcend transcription and breathe new life into masterworks?
In an effort to further foster expressions of empathy in my students, I have the models adopt the pose of a given masterpiece of figure drawing. This allows my students to draw directly from life while copying the salient attributes of the masterwork. The result is the creation of two images, each echoing the other while remaining distinct.