The Secret History of Bargue Plates

Have you ever stumbled upon an old, dusty book in a forgotten corner of a library, its pages brimming with wisdom? Imagine, then, uncovering a whole system of learning art, untouched and largely forgotten for over a century, only to realize it was the very foundation for some of the most renowned artists in history. This is the story of the Bargue Plates.

Once upon a time, the way artists learned to draw was far different from the methods we're accustomed to today. In the mid-19th century, a pair of artists, Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme, undertook an ambitious project: to standardize the teaching of art with a set of instructional drawings. These became known as the 'Bargue Plates'.


Portrait of Charles Bargue

Charles Bargue

  Jean-Léon Gérôme


Born in the flames of the French academic art tradition, the Bargue Plates were created for the express purpose of training aspiring artists in the correct representation of the human figure. The plates were a collection of detailed lithographs, carefully etched by Bargue under Gérôme's supervision, capturing the beauty and intricacies of human anatomy, sculpture, and classical art. They served as an integral part of the French art curriculum, used in academies across Europe.

However, with the rise of Impressionism and the advent of photography, the Bargue Plates gradually faded into obscurity. The Impressionists, led by artists like Monet and Renoir, rebelled against the stringent techniques of the Académie, favoring instead the spontaneity and fluidity of capturing light, color, and mood. Photography, too, had a profound impact. With the ability to capture reality with scientific precision, it began to eclipse the painstakingly detailed sketches of the Bargue Plates.

So the focus shifted from painstaking precision to capturing light, color, and fleeting moments. Art evolved and branched out into different forms and styles. The rigorous, formal training of the Bargue Plates was considered too restrictive, too time-consuming, and was gradually forgotten.


Picasso's Study of a Torso

Picasso's Male Torso (Age 13)

 Standing and Sitting Male Nude (after Bargue)

Van Gogh's Standing and Sitting Male Nude (after Bargue)


Yet, the Bargue Plates were not entirely forgotten. Greats such as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso held them in high esteem, recognizing their value in mastering the essentials of drawing. In their hands, the plates were more than just a tool for learning; they were a source of inspiration, offering a foundation on which they built their unique styles.

And so we come to the present day. In the 21st century, the Bargue Plates have been rediscovered, their immense value recognized once more. Artists, teachers, and students are turning back to these extraordinary lithographs, acknowledging their importance in understanding and mastering the fundamentals of drawing.

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