Media @ McGill

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

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Henry Jules Jean Geoffroy’s 1889 oil on canvas, Une leçon de dessin à l’école primaire illustrates the standardized methods of teaching drawing nationwide in Third Republic France (1870-1940). In the foreground, Geoffroy, commonly known as Géo, depicts male school children copying an architectural plaster cast while the teacher offers points of advice to centrally located pupils. While scholars typically interpret the institution of drawing lessons and images of this sort as a glorification of Republican ideology, France and Academicism, my project discusses the conceptual stakes of particular drawing strategies on theories of knowing, theories of the mind, and understandings of the body. Distinct from previous studies, which largely take the form of institutional critique and focus on the national interests of art education, such as Patricia Mainardi’s The End of the Salon: Art and the State in the Early Third Republic, I articulate the cognitive assumptions underlying artistic curricula. 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 of which one has no concrete or material knowledge? Could art be taught? Building from these questions, my project analyzes nineteenth-century conceptions of drawing programs and what it meant for the way society understood learning and the transmission of knowledge more broadly.

As an example of this, my doctoral project looks to the pedagogical programs designed by artist-pedagogue Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, philosopher Félix Ravaisson, and academician Eugène Guillaume. It also considers the artists studying under their regimes, such as Fantin-Latour, Whistler, and Duchamp. My work examines how the impetus for drawing education became the training of the human mind, eye and hand. I analyze how drawing exercises shaped the way society understood mental faculties and the relationship between mind and body. In doing so, I engage with the field of neuroarthistory and contemporary discourses surrounding the education of the senses. Above all, my research rethinks pedagogy in late nineteenth-century France. I reexamine valorized art historical narratives that largely characterize avant-garde artists as eluding training. I recast widespread perceptions that art does not require training by analyzing drawing education at a moment when skill was allegedly superfluous to art making.

To date, I have completed all course requirements and finished my comprehensive exam in December 2014. In May 2015, I completed the archival research necessary to write two chapters of my dissertation. I will complete the first chapter, “Drawing Lines, Contracting Habit: Félix Ravaisson and De l’habitude” by November 2015. A Media@McGill fellowship will foster a unique opportunity to direct my efforts to writing the second chapter of my dissertation titled: “Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran and Visual Memory Training.” It will allow me to spend the winter semester focusing primarily on examining and writing about the archival material I consulted. This fellowship also will allow me to continue pursuing archival research at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University. This semester, I generously have been awarded a fellowship from the Osler to study their collection. A Media@McGill fellowship 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 muscle memory.