Art Education in the 21st Century: Demystifying a Shattered Tradition

January 11, 2019

As the western art world slowly frees itself from the 70-year chokehold of the modernest avant-garde, classical art schools are popping up like hipsters at a flea market.  But are these academic art institutions, these ateliers, truly aligned with the teachings and philosophies of our greatest artist predecessors?  Are they teaching the essence of Raphael draftsmanship, the genius of Van Dyck portraiture, or are they acting in the spirit of the entrepreneur, self-proclaimed yet possibly diverging from the robust efficient techniques honed since the Italian Renaissance?


Answering these questions will require broad, sweeping statements that are both offensively simplified and tantalizing!  It will require a review of the primary student-teacher lineage that seeded the contemporary atelier, a description of competing art education philosophies, and finally a conclusion that will heal the wounds of offense I have smilingly inflicted on my readers.


The Purpose Academic Art


Before debating the validity of the modern atelier it is important to first address the foundational question, “what is the purpose of academic art education in the first place!?” Paraphrasing my close friend and living master Sergey Chubirko, the purpose is to shorten the distance between the artist’s hand and the artist’s brain, aligning her creative intention with her creative output through a standard set of tools, capabilities, and philosophies. The ideal system for training will be maximally efficient, proven, and pragmatic, working under any light condition, with or without a model, balancing the truths of nature with the creativity and compositional goals of the artist.  Academic art’s mission should be to equip the creator, the artist, with a set of baseline tools, denuded of style, that allow them to freely achieve their creative goals.  


If we can agree that this is a fair enough description, then we can also agree that this purpose should serve as our primary yardstick for measuring the wholeness of an educational technique.  As we progress through this discussion keep this question in mind “does our educational system free or limit the artist’s ability to create?”




It is true that there is no right way and no wrong way to teach art but it is also true that there are more and less efficient, pragmatic and dynamic options.  The good news is that we don’t have to re-invent these philosophies as they have already been discovered and optimized over the 500 years since the Italian Renaissance.  All we need is to carefully examine the remains of the post-classical wreckage; honestly, earnestly, and humbly gluing the shattered pieces back together. 


The Breakdown of Classicism in the West


Most contemporary classical art educators will agree that around the turn of the 20th century, in Europe and the Americas, the tradition of academic art was thrown in the dust bin.  Why did this happen?  Here, there is some debate, but the general consensus is that a string of culture shifting events (the enlightenment, freeing the surfs, the industrial revolution, the invention of the camera, and two world wars) stimulated artistic movements revolting against the status quo.  These movements varied but can be summarized by the term “avant-garde,” and by World War Two (WW-II) were formally facing-off with the classics, or what many called “classism.”  Quoting Dr. Dafydd Gwilym Wood,  entering the 20th century “progressive art aligned itself with progressive politics, and by doing so connected traditional styles to a reactionary political position. Neoclassicism, explicitly tied as a style to fascism, was dead [...]”(1)




So by the end of WW-II all remaining scraps of this tradition had been purged from the ubiquitous curriculum of the prominent academies, leaving only written accounts and word of mouth to carry it forward.  Independent artists attempting to teach these ideas did so and by the middle of the 20th century they were 3 generations, and in rare instances 2 generations, distant from someone who actually taught or attended the “pristine” mid/early 19th century atelier.   To complicate matters, the general consensus is that the recorded history (letters, books, etc) do not appear to be granular enough to provide sufficient insight to fully illuminate the nuances of these teaching philosophies. “Training obtained in their ateliers, most of which existed outside of the official studios of the École des Beaux-Arts, has not been systematically [formally] investigated, and [...] few scholars have even been able to find enough information to enable a reconstruction of the painting methods of a given master.” (GP Weisberg)(2)


As an aside, I need to clarify my opinion regarding this apparent idealization of a single 19th century approach.  Specifically that I am not saying there was ever one unified system of training.  In fact there were many formal academies and privately run ateliers each with its own spin on artistic training that evolved with teacher, culture, taste, and style.  With that said, for the most part these schools were the result of an uninterrupted tradition of masters passing information to their students in an intimate, serious, rigorous and most importantly competitively peer-reviewed environment.  And its probably not very controversial to surmise that this potpourri of educational systems shared a common foundation rooted in the Italian Renaissance whose standards of efficiency and utility should be the true measure of an art school’s didactic integrity.


Apparent Revival of Atelier-Style Schools and Their Family Tree


In this next section I admit that I am about to oversimplify the story by focusing on only one lineage of artists who bridged the 19th century atelier to the 21st century atelier.  I also admit that my version of the specific lineage is an oversimplification as each artist gleans his or her approach from innumerable sources.  With that said the following assessment is an accurate generalization as it captures a common shift seen across most other subgroups who tried to revive the 19th century teaching approach in the west.  Also, the particular group that I am about to describe represents by far and away the most influential, loud spoken, and popular atelier figureheads whose ideas have proliferated at a much higher rate than their competitors.


By the 1960s and 70s a number of young bold American and British pioneer art students (yes I am referring to a small group of real people) valiantly swooped into Europe in search of the golden challis, the original teachings of the early 19th century art academy.  Armed with their own North American lineage, itself 3 generations distant from a connection to the Paris school École des Beaux-Arts (specifically, in chronological order, Jean Leon Gerome, William Paxton, Ives Gammell, Richard Lack), they found an Italian connection to the classics in Florence Italy, Pietro Annigoni. (Annigoni was born out of a slightly different academic lineage via Academia Albertina and Academia di Belle Arte Firenze).


Fast-forward 30 years to the 1990s and these pimply faced British and American students are now white-haired, wrinkled, wise-looking entrepreneurs running world-famous art ateliers whose names are well worn in the minds of contemporary representational artists.  Today they speckle the western world from Seattle, to New York, from Paris to Florence.  


Pretty cool story huh?  The lost tradition of the old masters is rediscovered, safe, and flourishing.


The Western Atelier’s Departure From Tradition


Now the fun part: dismantling this widely accepted narrative .  The truth is that although the good-intentioned, entrepreneurial, 60’s-era art students were probably able to capture pieces of the true blue 19th century teachings, too much time had passed between the tradition’s demise and its attempted revival. Contrary to popular belief the enchilada was not whole!  


Three generations of telephone between artist torch bearers resulted in a devolution from a rich nuanced system of education to scattered fragments divorced from a larger whole and possibly including a sprinkling new methods not present or predominant in the original.




As a starter, there is little evidence that Annigoni’s 15th century, form-based thinking had a substantial impact on these students.  In fact the opposite seems to be true, the stark differences between Annigoni’s work and that of the North American School underlines this philosophical deviation.  Compare a “drawing” from a contemporary atelier and ask yourself what it has in common, in terms of fundamental principles, with that of a Pontormo, Bernini, Tiepolo, or Michelangelo, drawing.  Now do the same for Annigoni.  Using such old masters as a compass one should notice that in most-cases the modern atelier has gone off-course.




One can also catch this dilution of information by examining the works of the greatest 19th century educators and comparing them with the chronological lineage of teachers that founded the contemporary atelier.  For example, 19th century staples include Bonnat, Hollósy, Ažbe, Gleyre, Gérôme, while chronologically the contemporary lineage can be simplified to Paxton, Gammell, and finally Richard Lack.  Upon examination it is clear that there is a progressive separation from tradition as one moves from Paxton to Lack. 


Other evidence of this can be seen by comparing this “North American” (Bostonian) didactic philosophy to other American artists also with connections to the 19th century European atelier systems.  One would think that if two people attended the same school they would teach, more or less, according to a common tradition.  No name would highlight this problem more than George Brant Bridgman, the American profit of constructive drawing and incredibly, also a student of Jean Leon Gerome at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  To put it simply G Bridgman’s teachings couldn’t be more different from those of the Bostonian School, one teaching an optical (copying) approach and the other teaching a knowledge-based constructive approach.  The stark differences between the G Bridgeman and R Lack philosophy indicates that one or both parties have broken ties with the past.  


(Bridgman went on to teach artists like Frank Reilly and Norman Rockwell.  Though this second lineage of American artists was not as energetic in advertising their European heritage, they were far more influential, not in academia, but in the commercial world.  Not only did they produce some of America’s most impressive compositionalists they were, and still are, very active in the American animation industry.  This line of thinking has resulted in a number of western ateliers, though they are not a numerous or popular as ones founded via the Bostonian School). 


How do I know this?  What is the fragment and what is the whole?  Who are you to make such claims???  And how can you say that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to teach art?



Eastern School Philosophy and Critique


Since the founding of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in the mid-18th century, the Russians have for the most part preserved their own version of the classical art tradition with documented connects to Germany, France, and Italy.  Though there have been a number of philosophical shifts along the way there have never been any grand interruptions equaling that of the west (described above).  I will avoid an unnecessarily detailed description of this approach and will instead highlight its primary tenants, benefits, and finally some critique of its modern incarnation.  


A crucial but overlooked quality that separates the philosophies of west from east has to do with what I will call formality and rigor.  The Russian art student is in the game for the long-haul taking the academy’s entrance exam with 4 to 8 years of prior formal training under her belt.  If accepted students spend 6 additional years grinding through the base program and 9 total years if they are selected for post-graduate work.  According to the Russian tradition the customer, the student, is not always right and students who fall behind, have puffy egos, are/or complain too much are swiftly ejected from the program.  This is no paint-by-numbers adult daycare but something more akin to the rigor of an American medical school.


What should be said about the technical approach is that it aims at developing in the student a profound understanding of the mechanics of human visual illusion.  This means that the system is not concerned with copying the absolutes of nature (tone, color, gesture, etc), as a camera is designed to do, but instead understanding how relative relationships of tone, line, edge, color, etc can be used to develop an image that is both convincing to the human eye and creative.  If understood correctly this allows the artist to take any number of unique, yet academically “correct” paths, all leading to the same point of being “convincing.”  




Strangely  this philosophy has remained fairly isolated from the west even 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  My personal belief is that this is motivated by both economics and culture. With large institutionalized western schools still barricaded behind the aging Avant-Garde status-quo, it is left to weak private ateliers to pick up the baton.  For one reason or another these private schools are unable to convince students to commit to 6 years of rigor and discipline.  Additionally, the western “customer is always right” mentality creates an atmosphere were the whinny student prevails over the teacher.  Sadly there is no viable “10 steps to becoming an art master in 3 year years” path.  There is a reason why these schools have historically been 6 years in length.


Now, because I’ve offered a fairly heavy critique of the west, it is only fair that I highlight the shortcomings of the east. Since the rise of the Soviet Union in Russia, the Repin Academy has adopted a number of practices that seem to be diluting my puritan dream of classicist art training. Though the foundational tenants seem to run through most departments, the academy has become unnecessarily infatuated with two particular styles, socialist realism and soviet impressionism.  This overindulgence in stylization interferes with the student’s ability to master foundational tenants of the system which should take priority over style.  


Worse yet, for many critiques, these stylized works acts as “proof” that the Russians have strayed from their academic roots. To quote a grand wizard of the North American school Daniel Graves, “The Russian academy for example, amazing drawings, drawings for drawings sake, over modeled, [but] amazing ability to render things [...] [but] their paintings get lost in translation”3  (“Over modeling” is a term that the North American school has invented.  It indicates lack of tonal unity in the light portion of a drawing.  North Americans have remedied this by reducing the amount of information/modeling in the light portion of their objects.  The Russians, like their renaissance predecessors, put information everywhere but aim to subordinate it accord ing to the laws as of unity).



The North American School Philosophy and Critique


This path is in reference to the British and American art student ambassadors described in detail above.  A simplified description of this lineage can be tied through that of Richard Lack and his contemporaries on the one hand and some level of contact with the school of Annigoni on the other.  Their descendants make up the current status-quo in the western atelier movement and can be found both in both Europe and the Americas. 


Though its followers believe this path sufficient to achieve full artistic mastery, in truth the North American school hammers on only two fundamental principles, though important, inadequate if not connected to other overarching principles.  These principles are what I call “accuracy” and “unity.” 


In my definition accuracy means the ability to record shapes, proportions, gestures, etc. in a manner that captures what the artist literally “sees.”  It means capturing the character of the object or person in terms of its silhouette and subordinate components of light and shadow.  Here the artist is taught that nature should be elegantly simplified into abstract shapes and silhouettes.  Whereas the Russians urge their students to rely heavily on prior knowledge of nature, “draw what you see, but know what you draw”, the American approach relies more heavily on "exact" reference to nature, and the absolute values of tone, color, etc.


My second reductionist category of this system, “unity” is the driving force for how the North American school thinks about using tone to create the illusion of form.  Unlike the Russians who first think about form as a primary precursor for showing light, this philosophy thinks about tone as the wellspring that leads to the illusion of light and form.  A Russian practitioner would say “the form shows the light” whereas an American “the light shows the form.”  Although on the surface the second option sounds more rational, the first is more artistically pragmatic, flexible, and efficient, as it allows the artist to create without pure dependence on nature.  “[...] the great Italian painters were none the less masters of tone because they devoted themselves to the study of form, and to the higher points of construction and ideal beauty.”(4)


In fact this difference in thinking has consequences not only on the final result of the painting or drawing, but acutely on the artist’s ability to freely create.  If one understands form, one understands light and can therefore paint/draw with little to no visual reference.  If one requires light to show form, the person is wholly dependent on a precisely lighted natural feature.  This is not to say that it is better to paint or draw without a natural reference, but it is better to do so without such a heavy dependence on nature. 




This misunderstanding, this departure from the past, is hugely important. it is the leash holding the current generation of representational artists back from realizing their full creative potential.  It’s like trying to make lasagna from only salt and cheese, both are important, but without tomatoes, pasta, basil etc. it ain’t lasagna!  Today there are no living rivals to the great artists of the past because we think we’re making lasagna when we’re actually making  salty cheese!



Students often forget that one day their training must land them in a position to be artists, to be creators.  Creators in the same way that a film director is a creator, not in the way that a camera is a creator.  We too often think that because we can paint and draw convincing portrayals of, say the nude human figure in art school, we will also be able to do so to support our own compositional endeavors.  We as students forget that the art school exercise of painting the figure is a means to a creative end, not an end itself. 


Any academic system that relies entirely, or heavily, on copying to both capture the character (accuracy) and render their subject (unity), will limit its practitioners. What if one wants to change the gesture, the color, the lighting, or the focus? What if one wants to paint a multi-figure composition that is too complex to construct a corollary visual reference?  What if one wants to alter the tonal relationships and/or color contrast in a way that supports the idea but ignores nature?  In other words what if the artist wants to create something in their mind’s eye that cannot be easily achieved in nature? Is this not one of the major factors that made “the old masters” masters? 


Although the North American atelier system is missing the mark in terms of technical philosophy, I believe they are aiming their vector at a virtuous goal: formal academic mastery without the frills of style.  At the present the Russians seem to be obscuring this goal with often boxy Art Deco drawings or an overindulgence in virtuoso Serov-style portraiture.


Regardless of my length critique of the North American School, it is important to give credit where credit is due.  In all honesty the western contemporary classical art world owes its bacon to this group of pioneers who, with good-intentions have been attempting to re-light the fire of the academic tradition.  It is their hard work that seeded wider interest, and today seems to be blossoming into true momentum.  The real contribution of this group is that they opened our eyes to the possibility of representational art.  Now we need to thank them and look elsewhere for the missing building blocks of this tradition.


In the following quotes S. Melhnikova and L. Petrenko not only summarize the primary philosophical tenants of 19th century instructor Simon Hollósy, they summarize something I think both contemporary Russian and North American school practitioners would smilingly agree with, “[...] in his art school the priority was given not only to the constructive and analytical drawing, but also to the requirements of wholeness and form analysis [unity of tone].” This was accomplished via  “[...] deep understanding of the form, careful study and depiction of nature, its true reality, connection with the surrounding space and denied the transmission of illusiveness and copying of objects.”  Finally Hollósy emphasized these merits as serving a “transmission of three-dimensional expressiveness and man’s inner world. [As well,] a special role was given to composition.“(5)


“When we learn to read and to write we start with A, B, C, after that we put letters into syllables; later we learn how to compose simple sentences, then finally – complex sentences. And, as soon as we have learnt to express ourselves freely in complex sentences, we do not need to go back to the alphabet again. We do not think about letters any longer because they are just tools for a very creative process of reading and writing; for expressing our thoughts and feelings... Drawing is the same.”(6)  




1:  Wood, D. G. (2010).  Modernism and the Classical Tradition, Graduate Disertation, University of Texas Austin

2: Weisberg, G. P. (2018) Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Volume 17, Issue 2.  Retrieved from

3:  Graves D. (2015).  Suggested Donation Podcast, Episode:18, Minute 48, Retrieved from  

4:  Poynter E. J. (1879).  Ten Lectures on Art. Page 150

5:  Melnikova S. & Petrenko L. (2017).“Experience of Teaching Drawing in German Schools by A. Ažbe and S. Hollósy”. Current Business and Economics Driven Discourse and Education: Perspectives from Around the World. BCES Conference Books, Volume 15, pp. 241-242

6: Chubirko S. (2011) “Academic Methods Part: Russian Art Academy”. Gurney Journey Blog. Retrieved from

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