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 will reassess 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 Henri Fantin-Latour, James McNeill Whistler, and Marcel 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 Media@McGill fellowship will foster a unique opportunity to direct my efforts to writing the third chapter of my dissertation titled: “From Human to Mathematical Figures: Eugène Guillaume and Geometric Drawing Exercises.” I will use half of the award to pursue three weeks of archival research in Paris, France at the Archives nationales, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Archives Nationales. Following my trip to Paris, I will use the fellowship money to offset the costs of writing my dissertation in residence at McGill and will take advantage of Montreal’s large academic community interested in interdisciplinary research. Staying in residence will allow me to continue pursuing archival research at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. A Media@McGill fellowship, coupled with the Dr. Dimitrije Pivnicki Award in Neuro-History from the Osler Library, will allow me to continue analyzing primary resources on neurology, psychology and physiology next semester and over the summer. The collection houses materials unavailable online that are crucial to the development of original scholarly research. Resources, such as Paris Medical Theses Collection, will allow me to make connections between art pedagogues’ understanding of the mind and body, and scientists’ conceptions of subjectivity, the self, and human nature, as well as human locomotion and memory. 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).