Tradition and the Training of Painters in the Second Half of the 20th Century
By Stephen Gjertson
“Art students are terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. . . . They wish to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed. They must therefore be told again and again that labour is the only price of solid fame, and that whatever their force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good painter.” ~ Sir Joshua Reynolds
“It is austere and profound studies that make great painters and sculptors. One lives all one’s life on this foundation, and if it is lacking, one will only be mediocre.”
~ Jean-Léon Gérôme
Foundations are important. Everything that is made or thought is only as sound or as valid as its foundation. If a foundation is weak or wrong, whatever is built upon it will ultimately collapse. This is as true of the visual arts as it is of architecture. The foundation of the visual artist is his training and, throughout Western history, the foundation of the artist’s training has been the representation of the visible world. Generally speaking, an artist is as good or as poor as his training. It is a rare artist who rises above poor training to create work of true distinction.
An Artist’s Education
Artists of the past were trained in one of three basic ways. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance a student was apprenticed at a young age (usually about 10 years old) to a recognized master. The rudiments of the craft were learned by working in the bottega, or workshop, under the direct guidance of the master. Since there was little distinction between “artists” and “artisans,” these workshops were often engaged in many different activities of an aesthetic nature, from fashioning jewelry and picture frames to painting frescoes and altar pieces. In time, a gifted apprentice would acquire the knowledge and skill needed to become a journeyman and would assist the master. The ultimate goal was to create work independently. When the work displayed a thorough mastery of the craft according to the standards of the profession, the journeyman was recognized as a master and was qualified to open a studio and accept commissions.
During the 15th Century, in addition to the workshops, another way of training painters began to develop — the Academy. The aim of the first academies was to free artists from the control of powerful trade guilds, to supplement their training with a broader curriculum and to increase their social prestige. By the 16th Century, the conception of an artist began to shift from that of a mere craftsman to that of a learned and profound intellectual, capable of contributing to the thought of the time. In keeping with this conception, the education of an artist was expanded to include intellectual learning as well as the skills of the trade.
The first true art academy was formed in Florence, Italy, under the influence of Giorgio Vasari, by Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. It functioned alongside of the workshops and was meant to enhance the power and prestige of the artists. The most famous early private academy devoted to training artists was the Accademia degli Incamminati, founded in Bologna, Italy, in 1585 by Lodovico Carracci and his cousins Agostino and Annibale. This served as the prototype for subsequent academies. The training was based on the study of the masters (primarily Michelangelo and Raphael), perspective, light and shade, anatomy, proportion, and the living model.
Although established with the highest of aims, the academies initiated a practice that eventually proved to be detrimental. The training of painters was segmented into categories that were taught by different teachers. Drawing, painting, perspective, and anatomy were studied separately. In addition to their artistic training, students also attended lectures in history, literature, and artistic theory. The homogeneity of studying in a workshop under one master was lost.
Fortunately, the workshop — on-the-job-training under a single master — continued concurrently with the academies. These studios (in French, ateliers; in Italian, bottegas) represented a modification of the older apprenticeship system. The master opened his studio to a qualified group of young students who paid a modest fee. The students were taught the elements of the painter’s craft under the guidance of the master. The characteristics of each studio varied according to the judgment of the master, the nature of his work, the desires of his patrons, and the aptitude and ability of individual students. Rubens’ studio was a large, complex workshop where students learned the skills of their profession and assisted him with his vast array of commissions. Rembrandt rented a warehouse where his students could work quietly from a model in small spaces of their own.
The most famous French atelier was run by Jacques-Louis David. David rejected some of the artificial drawing and painting conventions of the 18th Century and tried to reinvigorate French art by studying nature more seriously. We are told by Delécluze that David encouraged his students to study the masters most congenial to their particular talent along with the study of nature. The study of nature and the masters has at all times been the essence of good teaching. David’s studio provided a healthy model for subsequent 19th-century ateliers.
In 19th-century Paris, the ateliers of individual artists worked together with the École des Beaux-Arts. In the ateliers, students drew and painted the human figure and studied composition. These exercises were often supplemented by copying or by additional life drawing at other studios. Emphasis was placed on studies that would prepare students to enter the École and compete for the coveted Prix-de-Rome. French students who were awarded this prize traveled to the French Academy in Rome for another four or five years of study. The École taught only figure drawing, from antique casts and live models.
Painting instruction was taught in the individual ateliers. In 1863, the École greatly expanded its curriculum, essentially offering a complete course of higher education in the arts. It contained individual ateliers devoted to drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Courses were offered in anatomy and perspective. Later, lectures in related subjects were added: history, archaeology, aesthetics and art history, general history, ornamental design, decorative art, and literature. During the latter half of the 19th Century, the École des Beaux-Arts was the art academy par excellence. It was the culmination of nearly four centuries of gradually shifting academic art education.
During this time, art had been in the service of three interrelated patrons: religion, government, and the wealthy. Artists were employed by these patrons. It was the patrons who, to a great degree, determined the subject matter of an artist’s work. The artists then designed and executed it to the best of their ability according to the established standards of the time and their personal artistic gifts. The iconography of the arts developed in response to the dictates and desires of the patrons within the existing cultural milieu. Thus, the arts portray the teaching and traditions of religion; the allegories, history, exploits, and great personages of government; and the pursuits, passions, pleasures, and portraits of the wealthy. These traditional and universal themes required an heroic depiction of the human form. Learning to represent the human figure was, therefore, the primary goal within the workshops, academies, and ateliers. Depending upon the artist and the age, this representation was done from nature, convention, or a combination of the two.
The Disintegration of the Western Tradition
By the end of the 19th Century, complex philosophic systems emerged that would bring about the demise of these traditions. The philosophic foundation upon which Western civilization had been built was being slowly challenged and undermined, and traditional Western civilization began to disintegrate. Art, the mirror of civilization, began to disintegrate with it. Modern philosophy was essentially anti-Western and anti-traditional. By the end of the 19th Century this ideology had begun to take over the intellectual world. In the visual arts, the inevitable consequence was the rejection of artistic tradition, particularly the traditions embodied by the academies, since they represented tradition in an official and codified form. The subject matter supported by the academy, its artists and its patrons, was rejected. The arduous artistic training and methods that had enabled artists to convincingly portray such subjects was also rejected. The training of an artist, therefore, began to deteriorate. The knowledge and skills that had been necessary to the production of academic works of art were transmitted with decreasing conviction and expertise. This degeneration took place slowly during the early part of this century. It quickly accelerated after Europe was decimated by the First World War. By the end of the Second World War the process had nearly destroyed the efficacy of artistic training. Over five centuries of accumulated studio tradition and practice were almost entirely lost.
R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981)
Perpetuating the Western Tradition
In the opening decades of this century the art world was only beginning to manifest the symptoms of decay. Members of the older generation were still painting and those who had rejected their aesthetic were not, as yet, at center stage. The young Robert Hale Ives Gammell entered the art world during this state of transition in the second decade of this century. Gammell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on January 7, 1893. He was a precocious young boy who resolved to be a painter before the age of 10. While a young student, he searched for someone to teach him to paint. He encountered several painters whose gifts lay within the new, but limited, scope of impressionism. Though they were serious artists, and created works of some distinction, Gammell learned little that had lasting practical value. He later realized that they, and many others of their generation, had a conception of painting and an understanding of art history that was exceptionally narrow. They acknowledged no higher goal in art than “making it like,” that is, representing on canvas the look of the subject they had before them. Thus, their teaching emphasized little more than painting something the way it looked. Their art was necessarily limited to portrait, still life, genre, or landscape. They did not appreciate the imaginary worlds created by the older painters on walls and ceilings throughout Europe. Gammell’s interest lay with the Olympian fantasies of the older masters. “I soon discovered,” notes Gammell in his autobiography, “that most of the prominent American painters considered it a wrong direction entirely, something a young man should be steered away from. . . . By 1911 I had already realized that there was no painter in America who had the knowledge and artistry needed to project an imagined scene representing figures in action with appropriate costumes, accessories and setting, and make a fine picture out of it.”
From Boston to Paris
The Decline of the Academic Tradition
In 1913 Gammell left Boston to study in France. Here, he thought, was the place to find the training to equip him for the kind of work he wanted to do. Though the academic system was crumbling, many artists who had been trained in it were still painting and teaching in Paris. Unfortunately, Gammell’s search proved to be disappointing. He had intended to spend five or six years in France, but stayed only one. His trip, however, was not without value, for “it left vivid impressions of a way of life which very soon became almost as remote as that of the Ancien Régime itself. And, superficial though it was, my observation of the final phase of 19th century French painting gave me a perspective which few of the American painters of my generation ever acquired.”
What Gammell had observed was the waning of the great academic tradition. The finest of the academic painters had died; only a few lived into the 1920s. Those whom Gammell met had been their pupils. He recalled in his autobiography that, “all these French painters, then in their forties, represented a stage in a world-wide decline in the art of painting, a phase whose counterpart I observed in Boston a decade or two later. The severe training implicit in the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Léon Bonnat, Jean-Paul Laurens, William Bouguereau, and their contemporaries had not been given to their pupils, who were turning out greatly weakened versions of what their seniors had done far better. . . . As teachers they merely dispensed minor corrections to large classes of students who naturally benefited little from that sort of instruction.”
The Influence of French Art in America
Nevertheless, the teaching of the older academic painters, in diluted form, continued to exert an influence in this country through their American pupils, who had been trained in the schools of Paris during the 1880s and 90s. When they returned, many of them began to teach. Unfortunately, the majority of them failed to view Western art education from a broad historical perspective. They did not recognize the superiority of the atelier/workshop system as a way of teaching painters. Trained in Paris after the reforms of 1863, these painters began teaching in or forming schools that were patterned after their own training at the École des Beaux-Arts or the Académie Julian. Other painters, who had been trained in similar institutions in Munich, returned to do the same thing. Classes were large and students were, for the most part, modestly gifted. Subjects were taught by different instructors whose teaching and methods were often contradictory. Gifted students could not be given the attention they deserved.
The Degeneration of American Art Education
It was to this situation that Gammell returned from France. For a short time he resumed his studies at the Boston Museum School. He relates the frustration he felt, recalling that “the standards established by the great 19th Century painters were still very generally understood and accepted. The impressionist concept of painting, which tended to reduce the art to a matter of rendering bits from nature, predominated but had not, as yet, acquired undisputed sway over the minds of art students. Many of us were eager to learn the principles of mural decoration, hoped to paint large figure compositions and wanted to find how imagined scenes could be convincingly projected to canvas. Our teachers, at any rate the best of them, had studied under excellent painters who had mastered these skills and we heard them refer to the older men with reverence and admiration. They made us understand that a picture would sooner or later be junked unless its execution was of a high order. Yet in their schools and art classes these teachers of ours told us very little about procedures and nothing at all about picture-making. . . . a number of us felt we were not being taught what we wanted to learn. My own dissatisfaction led me to Paxton’s door.”
At that time, Gammell often cast longing glances in the direction of a group of mural painters in New York, who were creating work closer to what he had in mind than what the Boston artists were painting. However, he recognized the limitations imposed on their art by their sometimes grotesque stylizations and realized that they knew less about the total art of painting than the Boston artists Joseph DeCamp or William Paxton. He therefore decided to get “the most thorough training possible along impressionist lines, impressionism being the only type of painting flourishing at the moment, and then, using that as a basis, to construct a system of my own suitable to my particular purpose.” To that end, Gammell rented a studio and began to paint, receiving regular critiques from William Paxton.
William McGregor Paxton
Although Gammell was trained as an impressionist, he was interested in painting decorative imaginative subjects in the academic tradition. He began his career by painting impressionist pictures in the Boston tradition: portraits, nudes and interiors with primarily female figures. As he matured, this work became a stepping stone to painting subjects that were taken from ancient history, Greek mythology, ancient and modern literature and religion, contemporary history, and psychology, primarily that of C. G. Jung. Gammell was a man of intense conviction and total dedication to his art. Between the two World Wars, through study, labor and help from Paxton, he was able to create a highly original body of work that was finely designed and well executed.
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) was Boston’s quintessential impressionist. In general, the American impressionists were superior to those in France. They carried the skill of painting what they saw to a level seldom attained by the Frenchmen and rarely attained in the history of art. William Paxton was one of the finest American impressionists. “He received his early training at a time when drawing was still insisted upon and he was well taught,” stated Gammell. “His first teachers were Dennis Bunker and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Their training, superimposed on his remarkable natural gift for drawing, enabled Paxton to retain a sure grasp of form while pursuing the most subtle color effects. He thus escaped the major defect that too often mars the pictures of his contemporaries. By temperament an impressionist, and living in a period when the impressionist ideal was universally accepted, Paxton dedicated his powers to setting down on canvas the beauty he found so stirring in nature, which he looked at with eyes of very exceptional sensitivity and accuracy. It is not an exaggeration to say that he accomplished this object more completely and faultlessly than any other painter who worked in the color scale evolved in the late 19th Century. Paxton’s pictures may be taken as examples of the ultimate limit to which that kind of painting can be carried.”
Twilight of Painting
During this period Gammell also devoted much time to analyzing the reasons for what he saw as the collapse of Western art in this century. His investigation focused on what he called the two great “approaches to painting,” the academic and impressionist. His conclusions were brilliantly set forth in the book Twilight of Painting. Since art, as a profession, is transmitted from one generation to the next through the training of painters, he emphasized the artistic aims and teaching methods of the practitioners of both approaches.
His scholarly analysis is infused with the insight and practical understanding of a professional painter. This work has been an inspiration to several generations of artists since its publication in 1946.
On the Training of Painters
The following principles concerning the training of painters have proven to be sound and effective throughout history:
- A painter can only do what he knows. The work of a painter is as good or as poor as his assimilated practical knowledge and skill.
- A painter can effectively impart to others only those skills and principles which he knows and understands.
- The fundamental goal of teaching is to train the eye of the student to “see” relationships of line, tone, and color in nature. All visual art is built upon this foundation. Nature should be the students’ primary guide.
- Concurrent with training the eye to see must be the impartation of a technical method that enables the student to render the relationships they are struggling to see. The ability to see and the ability to render develop simultaneously. If students cannot “see” relationships in nature, they cannot draw or paint them. Skill in the craft of painting is gained as the ability to see is acquired. In conjunction with the development of these skills, students must be shown the methods necessary to produce the kinds of pictures in which they are interested.
- In conjunction with learning to see and render, students must receive training in the fundamentals of composition and design. Fine painting is a combination of skillful craftsmanship and balanced, harmonious design.
- To give adequate attention to each student, their number must necessarily remain small. Unless masters can rely on the assistance of fully trained former students, or at least senior students who have reached an advanced stage of their training, they should have no more than three or four students.
Gammell concluded that these interrelated goals can only be achieved “through prolonged and close association between the pupil and a thoroughly competent practitioner who day by day expounds his point-of-view, explains his working approach and directs each student in accordance with his individual needs. . .” The best environment for this to take place is a small atelier or studio/workshop. The ideal atelier would be run by a knowledgeable and skillful painter whose work embraces both the academic and impressionist approaches to painting. To ensure the quality of instruction the master maintains complete control of the means and method of education and the acceptance and dismissal of students. If possible, the instruction should be given at no cost. Students would pay only for supplies, model fees, and studio expenses. The master is thereby not indebted to retain inferior or insubordinate students.
Throughout the 1930s, students had accepted as a matter of course the incomplete teaching dispensed in art classes throughout the nation. According to Gammell, “Inadequately trained painters were everywhere imparting their fragmentary knowledge under conditions even more crippling than the ones responsible for the limitations of their own professional equipment. By 1946 the failure of art school instruction to equip competent painters had become apparent to perceptive observers and there was a growing demand for more personally directed teaching. . . . My own isolated attempts to remedy this situation had attracted very few pupils before the war and those few boys, although not devoid of talent, had all been seriously hampered in their development by inauspicious backgrounds. At that time better advantaged youths were inevitably attracted to well publicized art schools featuring reputed names on their rosters. My failure to reach any talented young men in this category was all the more striking in that my venture then had the backing of the outstanding artist which Paxton still was. For Paxton continued to be very active until his sudden death in 1941, and it manifests the artistic climate of the time that only one boy came to him for counsel during the last 14 years of his career.”
Richard F. Lack (1928-2009)
Ives Gammell was eventually able to put his theory of training painters into practice. After the publication of Twilight of Painting, aspiring young artists began to knock on his door. “From these,” he states, “a small nucleus of promising students evolved under my direction.” One of those promising students was Richard Frederick Lack. Lack was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 26, 1928, the only child of a dentist living in South Minneapolis. He had decided to become an artist at an early age. After graduating from high school he enrolled in the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). Like Gammell, Lack’s heart was set on learning to paint in the tradition of the Old Masters. He soon learned that the instructors in Minneapolis were unable to help him. He read a recently-published book called Twilight of Painting. It perfectly explained his situation, but the young man never thought of the author as a potential teacher.
In 1950, Lack quit art school and moved to New York. He began copying paintings every morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He spent afternoons going to galleries and studios in search of a teacher. Lack visited the Art Student’s League looking for Frank Vincent DuMond, but DuMond was old and had retired from teaching. On every hand his search proved fruitless. Discouraged with the New York art scene, Lack decided to stay and copy at the Metropolitan until the first of the year. He would then return to Minneapolis, give up art, and study chemistry at the University of Minnesota. Fortunately for him and several generations of American painters, the direction of his life was in other hands.
A Propitious Encounter
On one particularly dreary morning, Lack awoke tired and sick. He felt like staying in bed rather than going to work at the museum. He had almost decided to forgo copying that morning when his practical Scandinavian conscience reminded him that hard work and perseverance were, at this point, all that he had going for him. Lack dragged himself out of bed and headed for the Metropolitan Museum. Later, while working, a young man named Robert Cumming, impressed by Lack’s copy, stopped to talk with him. He was in New York for one day to purchase supplies for a mural decoration that he was working on. He lived in Boston and was studying with an artist named R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell, he said, was running a small studio based on the European atelier system of training painters and was accepting students as apprentices. They went out for dinner and Cumming encouraged Lack to come down and see Gammell. Excited by the prospect of at last finding a teacher, Lack made plans to leave New York for Boston. In a few days he received a package from Cumming. It contained a copy of Twilight of Painting.
Gammell worked in a studio in Boston’s Fenway Studio Building. Robert Cumming, Gammell’s only student at the time, worked in a studio two doors down the hall. On December 31, 1949, Lack arrived in Boston. He met with Ives Gammell the following day. Gammell was very impressed with the drawings of horses that Lack had done at the police stables in New York. After viewing Lack’s work, he took him to the Museum of Fine Arts and asked him questions about certain paintings and artists. He liked to put potential students to the test. The answers he received told him a great deal about the aspiration and perception of the student. When Gammell had ascertained that Lack was perceptive as well as talented and serious, he accepted him into his atelier. Gammell’s atelier was rather loosely structured. Lack spent his mornings doing simple tasks on the cartoons for the mural that Gammell was doing for the Industrial National Bank in Providence. He began to draw casts in the afternoons. After his work on the cartoon was completed, mornings were spent drawing the figure in a large studio situated between that of Gammell and Cumming. Lack was quick to recognize that Gammell was the only living source able to teach him the practical knowledge and skills of picture making that came from the European academic and American impressionist traditions. He was determined to get as much of this information from Gammell as possible.
After studying for several months, Lack returned to Minneapolis with the intention of going back to Boston for a longer period. While home, he was drafted. The Korean War interrupted Lack’s studies for two years, but he kept up a vigorous correspondence with Gammell. In 1953 he returned to Boston. True to his convictions, Gammell kept his atelier small. Cumming was still there when Lack returned, as well as a new student, Robert Hunter, who drew with them. During his third year they were joined by Robert Cormier, who shared a studio with Lack. At any given time, Gammell never had more than three or four students.
Lack’s days studying in Gammell’s atelier were informally structured. He generally arrived at 8:30 a.m. and chatted with Gammell (who would often begin the conversation with challenging questions such as, “What do you think of Victor Hugo?”) until 9 a.m.. From 9 a.m. to noon the students drew the figure in pencil and charcoal. After the students had adequately modeled one charcoal drawing, they concentrated on smaller studies in pencil. In these drawings, of shorter duration (two or three days), they endeavored to render the gesture, shapes and anatomy of the model rather than spend time modeling the form. Modeling could be better learned in their studies during the afternoons. They worked in the afternoon from 1-4 p.m., first drawing and painting casts in black and white, then painting still lifes and portraits in color.
Although essentially an academic painter, the foundation of Gammell’s instruction was impressionist. He imparted the principles of visual impressionism that he had learned from Paxton. Lack therefore received a thorough grounding in visual impressionism. Like Gammell, however, Lack was also interested in the academic approach to picture making. He continually brought his own compositions to Gammell, whose insight about design, gesture, placement, scale, pattern, and color were penetrating and helpful.
Summers in Provincetown and Williamstown
During the summers, Gammell painted landscapes in Provincetown on Cape Cod. He worked in a studio that he rented from Henry Hensche. Lack and Cumming rented small second floor studios nearby. Lack painted head studies in the mornings and Gammell came by two days a week to offer instruction. As Gammell never learned to drive, Lack acted as his chauffeur in the afternoons, driving him to various locations to paint landscapes. Lack and Cumming set up easels and painted landscape sketches in Gammell’s vicinity. The object was to gain experience seeing and painting out-of-door color. Gammell would stop by and look at the student’s work, offering advice and painting corrections to the color on their sketches.
In 1964, Gammell built a complex of summer studios in Williamstown. He had his own wing adjacent to three bedrooms and two large studios for the students. Students would spend summers there, working in a routine similar to that of the former students in Provincetown. They painted head studies in the mornings and landscapes in the afternoon. Gammell usually painted one small, two-hour landscape sketch as a demonstration. The students would then be free to work on their own. It was Gammell’s habit to take a walk in the afternoon, and students who wanted him to look at their landscapes were careful to choose a motif in close proximity to his usual route.
The Abilities of Ives Gammell as an Artist and Teacher
Artistically, Gammell was admirably qualified to teach. His study under Paxton gave him practical insight and experience with the principles of visual impressionism. His own interest and experience with the aims and procedures of academic art, including mural painting, gave him a broader base of knowledge than most of his contemporaries. He also painted landscapes. Gammell’s most extraordinary gifts were in the area of decorative color and design.
Gammell separated this area into composition: the balanced and harmonious disposition of values; and design: the decorative shapes made by these values. Gammell was highly cultured, a true intellectual, and had an extensive knowledge of history, literature, and music. His knowledge of art history was comprehensive.
Unfortunately, Gammell’s effectiveness as a teacher was sometimes hindered by what Lack characterized as “big psychological problems.” Gammell was unable to detach himself from his students and had an unhealthy desire to control and manipulate them. He often sought to make students feel dependent upon him and would sometimes, in front of their fellows, unjustly berate them for mistakes in their work. These unhealthy aberrations were not as manifest during the earlier years of his teaching. When they did surface, Lack learned to disregard the machinations of Gammell’s skewed thinking. However, Gammell had immense knowledge and insight about art, and Lack listened carefully to his mentor when he discussed painters and painting.
Beautiful Mysteries – Three Ways Artists View the World
Gammell opened Lack’s eyes to the practical elements of picture making. Before meeting Gammell, Lack had viewed paintings as “beautiful mysteries.” Gammell provided the key that unlocked the secrets of those mysteries: the knowledge of how paintings were made. The key was not in esoteric rituals designed to unleash the creative power within, but in the practical thinking and procedures that an artist actually uses to make pictures. Gammell separated visual artists into three distinct, but interrelated categories: the impressionist, the decorator and the imaginative painter. The impressionist, such as Velásquez, is inspired by the look of the visible world and wants to record it on canvas; the decorator, such as Tiepolo, sees spaces and desires to fill them with beautiful patterns; the imaginative painter, such as Raphael, is inspired by literature, history and poetry, and wishes to create work based on literary or symbolic themes. As individual students began to manifest their particular sensibilities, Gammell steered them in one of these three directions.
Lack Returns to Minnesota
While studying with Gammell, Lack began to teach classes at Vesper George School of Art in Boston. He found that he enjoyed teaching and did it well. In 1955 Lack traveled extensively in Europe. After his return, he married Katherine Vietorisz, a beautiful Hungarian girl whom he had met while she and a friend were visiting Provincetown. In 1957 he completed his studies with Gammell and returned with his wife to Minneapolis. During the ensuing years, Lack became one of the most accomplished and versatile painters in his tradition working in America. He did not specialize in one genre, but painted still lifes, landscapes, interiors (using his growing family and friends for models), portraits, and imaginative figure compositions. Lack was also an avid investigator, experimenting with various painting mediums, varnishes, and ways of achieving artistic effects, including the use of artificial light on his subjects. He also did watercolors and pastels and was an accomplished etcher as well. On early Minnesota winter evenings, when the light for painting failed, he created many fine prints. Because Modernism had taken almost complete control of the art world, the immense scope of his achievement received little of the attention it deserved.
Lack Begins to Teach
Shortly after he returned to Minnesota from Boston, Lack began teaching at Art Instruction Schools, a correspondence school that taught art through the mail. At first he worked there full time, rewriting and illustrating much of their curriculum. As his career developed, he was able to gradually reduce his teaching load to two days a week. Although Lack took his responsibilities at Art Instruction seriously, he knew that teaching art by mail was impossible. Nevertheless, at this time he had no plans to accept students for private study.
In 1967 Lack wrote On the Training of Painters, a brief essay on the teaching of art based on the material developed at greater length by Gammell in Twilight of Painting. His first opportunity to teach more formally and effectively presented itself when a young man whose portrait he had painted approached him for instruction. Thomas Mairs became his first true student. For two years Mairs came to Lack’s studio several times a week. Later, Lack rented a space which was shared by three women’s art groups. There, Mairs drew plaster casts in a corner and Lack came by to look at his work two times a week. Lack began to think about teaching in a more structured and systematic way.
Atelier Lack Inc.
In 1969 several of Lack’s colleagues asked him to teach life drawing. He rented space in a new location and began a weekly evening class. Several young men (including a former pupil of Gammell’s) had approached him for more comprehensive instruction and they, along with Thomas Mairs became Lack’s first full-time students. Basing his teaching methods on principles that he had learned from Gammell, Lack opened Atelier Lack. It was incorporated as a small, non-profit studio-school in 1971. During the first years it was supported by three grants from the Elizabeth T. Greenshields Memorial Foundation of Montreal, Canada. In addition to the full-time program, Atelier Lack offered evening classes in painting and drawing for both professionals and avocationalists, taught at first by Lack and later expanded with classes taught by advanced or former students.
Richard Lack’s Exceptional Artistic Capabilities
Richard Lack was a uniquely qualified teacher. The training that he had received from Ives Gammell was undoubtedly the most professional and thorough that he could have received at that time. He was immensely talented and had an interest in a wide variety of artistic genres. Unlike many artists, Lack did not become a specialist. He painted large and small figure compositions, both indoors and en-plein-air. He executed landscapes of every effect, during all seasons of the year, in both oil and watercolor. He designed still lifes with a wide variety of light effects, both natural and artificial — some painted outdoors. He became well known for his portraits, painting many of Minnesota’s influential people, including two governors. Lack was an admirable pastellist and a fine etcher. He also constructed and gilt his own picture frames and often ground his own pigment. Like Gammell, he was interested in imaginative figure compositions, which he painted using both the bistre and Venetian methods. However, the remarkable character of Lack’s art lay not in its diversity but in its mastery. He not only practiced these genres; he had mastered them. The finest of his work in each genre compared favorably with the great work of the past. This mastery demonstrated a breadth of knowledge and skill that was equaled by few artists of his time.
Although Gammell was an exceptionally original and gifted artist, and a conscientious craftsman, his work exhibited few of the painterly qualities that characterize the work of artists who have a real feeling for the expressive qualities of oil paint. Lack, on the other hand, was a consummate painter. His use of paint was luscious and varied. He relished the act of painting — the many ways paint could be applied and manipulated — and he used sumptuous and sophisticated methods.
Atelier Lack was first located above an adult bookstore on the corner of Nicollet and Lake Street in Minneapolis. It later relocated to a large upper floor studio on Hennepin Avenue. After a fire destroyed that building, Lack rented and renovated a large second floor studio across the street. The school slowly gained a reputation as a small island of traditional art training surrounded by a sea of hostile opinion. Despite opposition, it attracted many students from the United States, Canada, and Europe and eventually became a model for other schools throughout the United States and in Italy.
The Curriculum at Atelier Lack.
The curriculum at Atelier Lack was similar to that of Ives Gammell, but more structured. It consisted of cast drawing and painting, figure drawing and painting, still life, and head painting. These disciplines were calculated to train the student’s eye to accurately observe and render shapes, values, proportion, and color from nature. Mornings were spent working individually on casts, still lifes, and head studies. Students had their own space, or cubicle, where they could work undisturbed. They drew cast drawings under artificial light. Advanced students progressed to studios with natural light, where they did most of their studies in color. Afternoons were devoted to collectively drawing or painting the nude figure. Lack visited the studio two days a week to critique the students’ work, gauge their progress, and demonstrate working methods. He regularly painted finished head studies as demonstrations for the students. Lack encouraged his students to study anatomy and to make skeletal and muscular overlays on every figure drawing. After completing each life drawing and painting, he advised students to draw them again from memory.
Landscape painting, for those students who were interested, was handled in much the same way as it had been by Gammell. During the spring and summer, students were welcome to accompany Lack when he painted his own landscapes. If the students were not too far away he would come by after he was finished and offer suggestions. Another tremendous resource for those interested in landscape painting was Lack’s longtime friend, Don Koestner.
In 1973, while still a student, I began teaching evening still life classes at Atelier Lack. I later taught evening portrait painting and life drawing classes. In the fall of 1978, Lack asked me if I would be willing to assist him by teaching the first two years of the full-time program for a day and a half each week. This would free him to concentrate on the advanced students and allow the school to increase its enrollment. I agreed, and the students were divided into two groups of approximately seven people, one group drawing the figure in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I taught the students for roughly their first two years and Lack took over from there. Of course, since we both knew each student, there was a great deal of flexibility, and instruction often overlapped according to individual preference or need. For two years during the middle 1980s, Atelier Lack rented a beautiful studio on the third floor of the Griggs House, an historic home on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul. For the first year I painted in the studio and taught four students. The next year four other students took over the space and both Lack and I critiqued their work. I continued to teach for another year, until the spring of 1988.
During my tenure, I observed how the instruction of the full-time students slowly developed. The general curriculum remained the same, but it became more systematic and there was an increased emphasis on the fundamentals, including copying and memory drawing.
The time students spent on cast drawing and painting was extended from a few months to a year or more, depending upon individual perception and progress. We added an artistic anatomy class and I taught students composition.
The Core of the Curriculum – Life Drawing and Painting
Like artistic training of the past, the core of Atelier Lack’s curriculum was the life class. Students drew or painted the figure for one-half of the school day, five days a week, for the duration of their training. They did small figure studies in pencil and larger ones in charcoal. Three or four days was the average time spent on each pencil drawing, and two or three months was the average for charcoal studies. Unlike Gammell’s atelier, there was a generous mix of the two. When Gammell’s students had progressed to painting studies of the figure, they began doing so in full impressionist color. Lack recognized the necessity of a transition between drawing in black and white and painting in color. He introduced students to figure painting through studies in black and white oil. Once this was mastered they progressed to studies in full color. Painted studies took several months to complete. Advanced students who were interested in imaginative painting were encouraged to extend their stay at the school and paint compositions in the bistre and Venetian methods. In 1988, Lack began teaching a small group of advanced students imaginative painting procedures and methods at Atelier LeSueur, a school in Excelsior, Minnesota that was operated by former student, Annette LeSueur.
The Culmination of the Student Year
At the end of May, Atelier Lack held a yearly student exhibition. This was a festive, well-attended affair that taught the students to prepare for, organize, advertise, design and hang a successful exhibition. Seeing their year’s work on the wall gave the students an opportunity to gauge and evaluate their progress in relation to one another. Everyone was usually overwhelmed by the copious body of respectable student work. This yearly exhibition has become a continuing tradition in the schools spawned by Atelier Lack.
The Tradition Continues to Grow
In the mid 1980s, one of Lack’s students suggested starting a small periodical written by professional artists to educate and inform the public about traditional realism. Lack had long recognized the need for such a publication. In the spring of 1985, Atelier Lack began publishing the Classical Realism Quarterly. Lack had chosen the term “Classical Realism” for a traveling exhibition in 1982, to differentiate artwork within his tradition from the many kinds of realism in vogue at the time. He contributed numerous essays to the Quarterly including “The Venetian Method” and “The Bistre Method”, both drawn from his studies of these techniques. At the urging of Don Koestner, he began using a landscape palette based on that of the French and American impressionists. After further research and experimentation he modified this palette and summed up his experience in an article entitled “The Outdoor Palette”. In 1988, Lack was one of the founders of The American Society of Classical Realism, a professional organization devoted to the preservation and promotion of traditional realism. The Classical Realism Quarterly was put under the banner of the ASCR and, through the effort and good will of many individuals, developed into the widely read, semi-annual Classical Realism Journal.
Lack continued to administer and teach at Atelier Lack until health concerns forced him to retire in 1992. At that time, two former students assumed teaching responsibilities. They changed the name of the school to The Atelier, but continued its teaching tradition. Other students have opened ateliers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Italy. Ives Gammell died in Boston on March 27, 1981. Several of his former students teach in ateliers on the East Coast.
The Strength of an Artistic Tradition
The strength of an artistic tradition lies in its ability to impart the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to produce fine work without becoming dogmatic and dictating exactly what that work should be. A vital tradition provides and upholds a healthy standard of artistic and technical excellence while allowing and encouraging individual creativity and experimentation. Good training is impossible to achieve adequately through written instruction. It is a hands-on process, communicated to the pupil by the master through exercise and example. The training of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack did this. Most would agree, however, that Lack was better able to impart this knowledge and skill in a healthy manner. The teaching of Gammell and Lack was an amalgamation of the principles of visual impressionism, as taught by the Boston impressionists, with academic cast and figure drawing and painting, as taught by the French academic painters. Their pupils continue to teach this dual tradition.
The Extent of the Gammell/Lack Influence
During his career, Ives Gammell had approximately 22-25 serious students and many others who stayed for short periods. Most of the serious students have continued to work and pursue careers as professional painters. From the time that Richard Lack incorporated Atelier Lack in 1971 until his retirement in 1992, he had 96 full-time students. Of that number, about 26 stayed for only a year or two. The diversity of styles and methods in the work of artists trained by Gammell and Lack is ample testimony that such training enhances, rather than hinders, artistic creativity. It is too early to assess the lasting importance of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack in the history of American representational art in the second half of the 20th Century. However, many familiar with their lives and work believe that, as artists and educators, Gammell and Lack will hold a significant and crucial place in the history of American art. Their writing, influence, and teaching has made them the fathers of the “Atelier Movement” that has grown exponentially during the last several decades.
During the tyrannical reign of Modernism, when undistorted representational fine art was considered anathema, the art and teaching of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack provided a living link to the great traditions of Western art that had almost disappeared. Through them the fundamental principles and skills of the language of representational painting were imparted — a language that has passed from master to pupil since the Renaissance. During a time when beauty and technical skill were considered passé, Gammell and Lack firmly believed that these elements were the foundation upon which all great art is built. Their teaching has enabled many younger artists to paint pictures with a refinement and skill that would have otherwise been impossible.
The lasting legacy of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack will ultimately be seen in their own art, the art of their pupils, and the art of future generations of artists trained in their tradition. The culture of the last half of our century has been greatly enriched by the imagination, beauty, and skill of works created by these artists and their pupils. In this respect, the contribution of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack has already been considerable. In the visual arts, as elsewhere, many thinking people are recognizing the disastrous effects of the nihilism of our age and are searching for more fundamental and sensible sets of standards. Should this continue, I believe that the importance of Ives Gammell and Richard Lack in the history of American art in the last century will become increasingly apparent, and their contribution within the great tradition of representational painting will be greatly appreciated and highly esteemed.
Stephen Gjertson wrote this article in 1998 for the magazine Art Ideas, but it was never published. He later used much of this information in Richard F. Lack: An American Master, which was published in 2001.
Nikolaus Pevsner, Academies of Art, Past and Present, Cambridge University Press, 1940.
R. H. Ives Gammell, Twilight of Painting, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1946.
Richard Lack, On the Training of Painters and Notes on the Atelier Program with Book List, Atelier Lack, Inc., 1969; expanded and reprinted by The American Society of Classical Realism, 2000.
Ellen W. Lee, R. H. Ives Gammell, Martin F. Krause, Jr., William McGregor Paxton, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1979.
William A. Coles, The Boston School Continued: Six Artists From the R. H. Ives Gammell Studio, Hammer Galleries, New York, 1986.
R. H. Ives Gammell: An Autobiography of His Life and Work, The American Society of Classical Realism, 1995.
Stephen Gjertson, “Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition,” the Classical Realism Journal, Volume V, Issue 2, 2000.
Interviews with Richard Lack and Richard Whitney (pupil of R. H. Ives Gammell, 1965-1970).
Appendix: A Chronological List of the Pupils of R. H. Ives Gammell
A Chronological List of the Pupils of R. H. Ives Gammell
‡ Artists who studied with both R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack
* Artists who are currently teaching or who have taught in the past
† Artists who are deceased
R. H. Ives Gammell Studio
George Melnick (32-40)
Robert Cumming (47-53)†
Robert Cormier (49; 53-62)†*
Richard F. Lack (50; 54-57)†*
Robert Douglas Hunter (50-55)†*
Richard Byron (55-57)
Samuel Rose (62-72)†
Richard W. Whitney (65-70)*
Paul DeLorenzo (April 67-Dec. 67)‡†
Chris Kendell (67-68)
Robert Scott Jackson (68)
David Curtis (68-70; 74-75)
Charles Cecil (69-71)‡*
James Childs (summers 71-73)†‡*
Thomas R. Dunlay (73-79)*
David Lowrey (73-79)*
Stapleton Kearns (74- )
Gary D. Hoffmann (75-77)‡
Paul Ingbretson 75-78)*
Jan Posvar (76-78)
Allan R. Banks (summer 76)‡*
Hilary H. Holmes (76)
Robert Moore (77-81)†*
Susan Murray Stokes (late 70s)
Carl Samson (79-81)‡
Any person with further information about the pupils of R. H. Ives Gammell and their years of study, please contact Stephen Gjertson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Appendix: A Chronological List of the Pupils of Richard Lack
A Chronological List of the Pupils of Richard Lack
‡ Artists who studied with both Ives Gammell and Richard Lack
* Artists who are currently teaching or who have taught in the past
† Artists who are deceased
Richard Lack, Atelier Lack, Inc.
(1969-1992, students taught by Richard Lack, complete) Stephen Gjertson teaches from 1978-1988.
1. Thomas S. Mairs (69-75)†*
2. Virgil Bolton (short time)
3. Steve Nussdorf, Timothy Van Ness, and Stapleton Kearns (short time)
4. Paul DeLorenzo (70-74)‡†*
5. Charles H. Cecil (71-74)‡*
6. Allan R. Banks (71-74)‡*
7. James Childs (71-75)‡†*
8. Stephen A. Gjertson (71-75)*
9. Gary D. Hoffmann (72-74)‡
10. Steven Hay (75-76)†
11. Mark S. Walker (75-76, 78-79)†
12. David Ahrnsbrak (75-76)
13. Annette LeSueur (75-79)*
14. Carl Johnson (75-79)
15. Mark Balma (75-76)
16. Kerry Holsapple (75-76)*
17. Steve Becklund (75-77)
18. John Hallman (75-77)
19. Mary Pettis (75-77)
20. Thomas Sova (75-78)†
21. Jeff Osborne (76-77)
22. Lucinda Hallett (76-79)
23. Kirk Richards (76-80) *
24. James Prohl (76-80)†*
25. James Coston (77-81)
26. Dale Redpath (77-82)*
27. Jeffrey Legg (78-79)
28. Kurt Anderson (78-81)*
29. Anna Quinn (78-81)
30. Ronald Dickens (78-81)
31. Cynthia Wicker (78-83)*
32. Christopher Fitzgerald (78-83)†
33. Wayne Howell (78-83)*
34. Allen Nybroten (78-83)
35. Brian Lewis (78-85)*
36. Gwen Eatman (79-81)
37. Lisa Bormann (79-83)*
38. Jack Russell (79-83)
39. Michael Wodnick (79-83)
40. Jean Grapp (79-84)*
41. Jeffrey T. Larson (80-84)*
42. David Erickson (80-84)*
43. Michael Coyle (80-84)*
44. Jennifer Hagerman (80-85)*
45. Dean Kalomas (80-86)
46. Colleen Kull (81-82)
47. Kathleen Lowry (81-84)
48. Debra Aske (81-84)
49. Michael Lahey (81-86)
50. Marcia Haggerty (81-86)
51. Timothy Chambers (82-85)
52. Reid Knutson (83-86)
53. Carl Samson (83-86)‡
54. Timothy Diers (83-86)
55. Gary Jensen (83-86)†
56. Margaret (Peggy) Rathman (83-86)
57. Peter Bougie (83-87)*
58. Louise Lavine (83-87)
59. David Larson (83-87)
60. Mark Hiltner (84-85)
61. Bruno Surdo (84-86)*
62. Daan Hoekstra (84-88)
63. Robert Bonawitz (84-88)
64. David Doss (84-88)
65. Christopher Cismesia (84-88)*
66. Michael Chelich (84-88)*
67. James Nykaza (85-86)
68. Amy Squires (85-87)
69. Robert Olson (85-88)
70. Robert Nicpon (85-90) Imaginative Atelier
71. Paul Abdella (85-90) Imaginative Atelier
72. Kenneth Spirduso (86-87)
73. Linda Glewwe (86-88)*†
Transfer students from Atelier Wicker-Howell:
74. Susan Arthaud (87-88)
75. Alison Heath (87-88)
76. Patrick Hayes (87-88)
77. Mary Klein (87-88)
78. Dana Meneghel (87-88)
79. David Pelzer (87-88)
80. Karl Schill (87-88)
81. Joseph Sheehan (87-88)
82. John Seibels Walker (87-91)
83. Krista Johnson (87-91)
84. Robin Anderson (87-91) Imaginative Atelier
85. Lois Rhomberg (87-90; 91-92)
86. Rosalind Langford (87-93)
87. Chris Kohli (88-89)† Imaginative Atelier
88. Steven J. Levin (88-89) Imaginative Atelier*
89. Lorraine Boerboom (Sack) (88-92)
90. Michele Ostlund (88-92)*
91. James Ostlund (88-92)*
92. Randy Orsak (89-92)
93. Claudia Rush (89-93)
94. Virginia Reilly (89-93)
95. Eric Anderson (90-91)
96. RexAnne Coad (90-94)
97. James Robinson (90-94)*