Media @ McGill

“Reading Between the Lines: Post-Academic Drawing Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century France”

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Shana Cooperstein


My doctoral research examines nineteenth-century French drawing pedagogy and practice in relationship to various concepts of habit and habit formation. Commonly considered a menace or obstruction to free thought and creativity, numerous philosophers, art critics, historians and artists over the past 300 years understood habit as anathema to artistic production. (1) As a result, many art historical studies have argued that the nineteenth-century avant-garde eluded artistic training to undermine the well-worn habits or the routine advocated by the Academy. (2) Such approaches disregard the influential ideas of many prominent art pedagogues who did not find habit and creativity incompatible. My research explores how the belief that habit generated skills necessary for artistic practice and industrial design became deeply ingrained in widespread discussions about the nature and goals of art education. Rather than view repetitive drawing techniques as stifling or exhaustive of individuality, several pedagogues believed it offered new possibilities for art, architecture and design. By analyzing the systems conceived by leading thinkers, specifically philosopher Félix Ravaisson, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, academician Eugène Guillaume, and artist-pedagogue Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, this thesis will be the first to explore how and why these men placed such an importance on cultivating habits of seeing and thinking. (3) This study reassesses many histories of nineteenth-century art by investigating the significant implications of these men’s thoughts on the diverse artists studying under their regimes, such as Fantin-Latour, Whistler, and Duchamp.

My project is divided into five chapters that examine how the impetus for rival pedagogical models in late nineteenth-century France became habit formation. To several pedagogues, philosophers, and physicians, human nature was flexible and governed by habit. (4) Habit was conceived of as each organ’s memory; as such, habit held a privileged status over mental and physical faculties. Because of this, art education was deployed to institute particular habits of seeing, thinking, and moving. By examining the way pedagogues understood habit as a force determining the way the mind and body interacted and functioned, my research analyzes the assumptions such programs made about the mind, hand-eye coordination, memory and muscle memory, and human volition. I argue that the emphasis on establishing modes of seeing and thinking had a significance that went beyond pedagogy: it suggested a particular way of conceiving the self and subjectivity in a rapidly modernizing France.

A 2017-2018 Media@McGill Arts Graduate Research Fellowship will ground my scholarship in original archival research, and thus will contribute new  knowledge to scholarship in the fields of art history, intellectual history, the history of modernity, and the history and philosophy of science. With Media@McGill’s generous support, I will complete the research necessary to write the final chapter of my dissertation titled “From Human to Mathematical Figures: Eugène Guillaume and Geometric Rationalism.” This chapter investigates the technical procedures used in geometric drawing exercises in art academies, technical institutes, and primary and secondary education between 1870-1900. I examine how Guillaume’s procedures inculcated in students “habits of precision” by rendering mathematical ways of perceiving and comprehending the world habitual. (5)

To write this chapter, I will conduct archival research in Paris for one month. I will consult resources at the following institutions: the Archives nationales, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Bibliothèque de l’institut de France, the Centre de Recherches des monuments historiques, the École des beaux-arts, and the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. These institutions hold unpublished resources crucial to understanding the standardization and implementation of drawing pedagogy in fine and applied arts academies, and in public education. At the Archives nationales, for instance, I will consult several unpublished documents (AJ/52/20; AJ/52/40-50) that recorded the debates at administrative meetings about pedagogical reforms. Following my trip to Paris, I will finish writing my dissertation in residence at McGill and will take advantage of Montreal’s large academic community interested in interdisciplinary research. This fellowship will allow me to move forward with my project in ways that are not possible without additional funding.


(1) Philosophers, such as Kant, perceived habit as a threat to self-determination and ethics. Kantian attitudes, which attached the habitual or routine to mindless, passive compulsions, came to dominate western conceptions of habit. Kant closely connected habit to the machinelike, fearing an industrialized society would manufacture dull, lifeless citizens governed by monotony.

(2) The negation of academic training as mere “routine” has been naturalized within nineteenth through twenty-first-century criticism and history. For instance, in the 1855 publication The Westminster
Review, a contributor remarked: “Some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago a number of young Art-students at Munich, of serious minds and enthusiastic temperament, shocked by the prosaic worldliness into which Art had sunk, and discontented with the routine of ‘academic’ painting and its results, resolved upon starting on a new course” See: “Art,” The Westminster Review 63 (January 1855), 152-3.

(3) These figures were all in dialogue and often at odds with each other. They set the stage for debates about the nature of art pedagogy in private art academies, design schools, and public education. Because of this, it becomes important to historicize their work in relationship to each other.

(4) Such ideas also were expressed in medical dissertations. See: Thomas Linn, De l’habitude et ses rapports avec l’hygiène et la thérapeutique (Paris: Imprimerie des écoles, 1888), and Auguste Pauly, De l’habitude dans ses rapports avec la physiologie et l’hygiène (Paris: A. Parent, 1872).

(5) Conseil supérieur des beaux-arts, Procès-verbaux des séances de la Commission de l’organisation de l’enseignement du dessin, 1876, F21 7540, Archives nationales; Jimena Canales cites this goal of drawing pedagogy in “Movement Before Cinematography: The High-Speed Qualities of Sentiment,” Journal of Visual Culture 5, no. 3 (2006), 282.