The New Masters of the Atelier

Traditionalists should cheer a return to formal art instruction.

Here is a good reason to be cheerful about art instruction in America. A new master’s degree program trains art teachers to instruct using the traditional techniques of 19th-century “atelier” studios. The Florence Academy of Art, a successful international art school based in the gorgeous city-state center of renaissance Italy, has partnered with the School of Atelier Arts to establish a new program. Classes take place every summer at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, just outside of New York, and third-year students travel to Florence to complete their training at the Florence Academy of Art campus.

Since the 1970s, the Florence Academy of Art has gained an enviable reputation as a flagship of the atelier movement, which has shown itself to be a formidable force for safeguarding the centuries-old secrets of the studio. The movement consists of a disorganized army of schools with leadership that insists on preserving the valuable traditions of skill-based art in the face of the destructive forces of institutionalized “modern” art. These schools share a focus on what they describe as “classical realism,” a term coined by artist Richard Lack in 1982 to describe the new movement of artists who were determined to continue the traditions which had been swept aside by enthusiasts for abstraction.

The schools share a focus on what they describe as “classical realism.”What differentiates the Florence Academy of Art from other schools of classical realism is that they, and three or four other institutions, have programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), giving them authority and status. Mastering conventional drawing, painting, and sculpture techniques is a process that results in skill sets that can satisfy accreditation committees with quantifiable and assessable learning outcomes. This is important, because the accreditation means that the quality of the degree is recognized by nearly every academic institution in the United States. The new M.A. program is unique because it is the singular NASAD-accredited course of study providing atelier-style teacher-training.

In the Academy’s studios, dedicated students are immersed in a traditional world, learning how to apply their observational skills to measure and compare the proportions of their subjects. Also honed are students’ abilities to appreciate the subtle magic of value and color, as well as their knowledge of human anatomy, as applied to the production of realist sculptures, oil paintings, and drawings in the tradition of the French salon. The rich history of art is not neglected, and students take full advantage of their proximity to the spectacularly rich collections of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio in Central Florence.

Tom Richards, the incoming director of the Academy, explained, The purpose of the course is to give teachers, mostly of children up to the age of 16, a series of exercises which relate to the type of training we are doing in Florence. […] It’s observational training.” The program provides teachers with a blueprint for implementing skill-based methods in their classrooms. Where better to begin reminding the American people of the importance of quality than by teaching our teachers?

Most of the Academy’s students already hold steady jobs as high-school teachers. To deal with the demands upon their time, they take 30 credits of studio-based, full-time study, completed during three six-week summer sessions. The program focuses on classical studio techniques and offers traditional training in drawing and painting to anybody who is interested in learning how to create realistic artwork. However, the degree is especially aimed at art educators wishing to employ these skill-based techniques in their classrooms. Such teachers know that there is a gaping void in the pedagogy of art, and they are enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by atelier training.

Most master’s programs in art tend to be dedicated to contemporary, abstract art.James Andrews is one of them. He is a high-school teacher in his 24th year of instruction and is enrolled as a second-year student in the program. He told me, “Most teacher-training programs, even those for art teachers, are not very in-depth at all on the art-making side of things, and most master’s programs in art tend to be [dedicated to] contemporary, abstract art.  Very few to no degree programs are geared toward atelier programming.” The Florence Academy program hopes to fill that void in post-graduate studies.

But surely schoolchildren are too young to gain the skill of academic artists. Andrews wholeheartedly disagrees, stating that people have taught the program’s traditional techniques to children as young as fourth grade, with great success. Andrews explained how:

It demystifies art. It’s a set of skills, and anyone can learn it, just like algebra. If you’re so inclined and want to do the work—which is not easy—then you can do it. It just takes time and commitment to the training. It’s challenging. That’s why this program is so great: It makes art more accessible for kids. […] They can see success and be inspired by that and encouraged by that and want to do more. […] You’re not boxing kids in, you’re freeing them.

Equally undeterred, director Richards said, “In many cases, high-school education underestimates what children are capable of.” Richards compared teenagers learning to draw with those studying music, saying, “A 13-year-old who wants to be a violinist is already playing to a pretty high level [and] is being asked to do demanding things. Children respond to the clear sense of progress that they get under this type of training.” Like classical music instruction, atelier training is a method of transferring expertise from one generation of artists to the next. It is a method that has been unpopular for the past 100 years, but it has now emerged as a countercultural art movement.

Atelier training’s reactionary enemies claim that the art world has progressed far beyond the arcane and alchemical mysteries of linseed oil and rabbit-skin glue—that the needs of art have changed so much since the arrival of modernism in the 20th century that we have no need for the old methods. Richards is unimpressed. “Reinventing the wheel’s great, as long as you don’t make it square,” he joked. Progress has not reduced the need for skill-based art. If anything, it has made it more important.

A progressive hegemony still dominates American art education.The grey acolytes of the progressive hegemony that still dominates American art education prioritize individual creativity above everything, following Dewey’s canard that each person’s individual experience is of equal value. Surely formal training stifles such creativity.

Richards disagrees:

[Formal training] gives people the means to critically assess their own work and see whether they’re saying what they want to say. […] Matisse, Degas, Sargent, and Picasso were all trained in the same way. It’s very hard to tell some of their student drawings apart, but [that] didn’t impede them at all from becoming the artists they became later. In fact, in every single one of their cases, [formal training] was the foundation for their later experiments.

Conservatives who wish to see the traditions of the West preserved should take note. It is easy to complain about the malignity of forces which shape the culture and easy to be led astray by reactionaries who advocate radical interventions. Often, these would harm the very things we wish to maintain.

It is a harder task to take action to conserve and care for the good things we admire about the past. Institutions like the Florence Academy of Art are true guardians of the flame. They are beacons of light in the grey fog that hangs over American education.

Michael J. Pearce is a professor of art at California Lutheran University, the founder and chair of The Representational Art Conference (TRAC), and the author of Art in the Age of Emergence.