[Beaux-Arts’ Master imitates young American Student. Stop.
Harris vindicated. Full stop]
Generation after generation, artists continue to refine their technique in the presence of known masters. With hopes of one day surpassing the abilities and achievements of their predecessors, novice artists emulate known works through study and imitation.
In the 15th Century, Rogier van der Weyden apprenticed in the studio of Robert Campin until his teacher abruptly left town. Given the opportunity to establish his own workshop, he won the appointment of official city painter of Brussels by the Duke of Burgundy. Anthony van Dyke, Dutch painter celebrated for his portraits of English and Spanish royals, took in an ambitious young student named Peter Paul Rubens, who was revered throughout Europe and then copied for centuries. In the mid 18th Century, François Boucher reluctantly took in Jean-Honoré as his own aspiring pupil; Fragonard adapted the Rococo style to defy trends with a timeless appeal. In America, this tradition of artistic legacy was upheld, when our first landscape artist, Thomas Cole welcomed into his studio the gifted Connecticut artist, Frederic E. Church.
For the all of the renowned artists whose names shall forever be intertwined, there are droves of lesser-known artists who contribute works to the massive lexicon progressing art through history. Years removed, those of us collectors, connoisseurs and dealers, joyfully burden ourselves with the task of reconstructing fragments from the past in order to complete our understanding of these visual relics that remain for us to solve and treasure.
In 1875, Charles X. Harris, a talented young artist from Maine, gained admission to the esteemed L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied under the acclaimed painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérôme. To announce his return home, the American submitted “The Moulders” (in the extravagant yet colossal frame still with the painting) as his first entry to New York’s National Academy. With exacting detail and self-deprecating humor, the artist portrays himself as the fumbling assistant to his teachers: Alexandre Cabanel, slouched with a cigarette, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, the irreverent sculptor. Harris plays with the characters in his vignette, confusing reality: the elder stone chaperon scolds from a shelf; an innocent model of clay grasps at her undergarments. The scene speaks to a series made famous by the master present, Jean Leon Gerome’s “Pygmalion and Galatea” from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story realizes a sculptor’s dream of his creation coming to life.
Master and Student: Gérôme and Harris. “The Moulders” was first exhibited at the National Academy of Art, New York in 1885. Jean-Léon Gérôme paints the first of his series in 1890. Student as master: master as student. Our choice: your privilege.