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

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Shana Cooperstein


My dissertation, titled “Reading Between the Lines: Post-Academic Drawing Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century France” examines late-nineteenth-century French art pedagogy in relationship to various concepts of habit and habit formation (also known as procedural and muscle memory). I argue that opposition to habit is both 1) a retrospective art historical conceit that has prevented contemporary scholars from understanding its importance to nineteenth-century art pedagogy and that 2) habit was fundamental to the philosophical tensions at play in art education itself during the nineteenth century. 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 and industrial innovation. As a result, many art historical studies have argued that nineteenth-century artists eluded artistic training to undermine the well-worn habits or the routine advocated by the Academy. 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. This thesis is the first to explore why the major pedagogues placed such an importance on cultivating habits of seeing, thinking, and moving to improve art. As an example of this, I look to the systems conceived by leading thinkers, specifically philosopher Félix Ravaisson, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, academician Eugène Guillaume, artist-pedagogue Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, and draftsman Félix Régamey. This study also reassesses 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.

Scholarship on nineteenth-century French drawing pedagogy largely focuses on the political and economic interests of art education; for instance, historians including Patricia Mainardi and Stéphane Laurent situate drawing instruction as a tool to improve art and industrial design, thereby augmenting France’s status as a cultural and economic leader. I add to the literature by interrogating the conceptual stakes of particular drawing strategies on theories of the mind, and understandings of the body. I articulate the psychophysiological assumptions underlying artistic curricula by asking: what was the role of the teacher? How did he impart drawing skills to his students? How did one teach skills that became a matter of innate habit or second nature? What did it mean to pass on skills pertaining to second nature which one has no concrete or material knowledge of? Could art be taught? By answering these questions, 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.