by Stephen Gjertson
My artist friends and I do not like to label our art. Labels tend to restrict our art to boundaries that are artificially limited and often negative. As professional artists, we discuss a work’s conception, drawing, form, design, color and technical methods, with an ultimate evaluation as to whether the work is poor, good or great. Even though we may not always agree on fine points concerning conception, taste and selection, we can communicate rationally because we share a common and authoritative artistic standard we know and are in agreement on the elements that go into the making of fine paintings. It is this common standard, based on the great traditions of Western art, that is the essence of our artistic bond. It is this common standard that is the essence of Classical Realism.
The Origin of the Term
To understand the significance of the term “Classical Realism,” it is necessary to understand the richness and depth of the artistic standard and traditions to which it alludes. The origin of the term and its meaning are often unknown or misunderstood, causing many people to label as Classical Realism work that is far from the spirit of the term’s meaning. The expression Classical Realism originated with Richard Lack, who was a pupil of Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) during the early 1950s. In 1967 Lack established Atelier Lack, a studio-school of fine art patterned after the ateliers of 19th-century Paris and the teaching of the Boston impressionists. By 1980 he had trained a significant group of young painters. In 1982, they organized a traveling exhibition of their work and that of other artists within the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, Lack and their students. Lack was asked by Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum, Springville, Utah, (the exhibition’s originating venue), to coin a term that would differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. Although he was reluctant to label this work, Lack chose the expression “Classical Realism.” It was first used in the title of that exhibition: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century .
In the exhibition’s catalogue Lack stated one reason why such a term was needed: “Any 20th-century painting that suggests a recognizable object, however crudely or childishly rendered, qualifies as realistic. Obviously, the simple word realism, when applied to painting, has become so broad in its sweep and general in its application that it is no longer meaningful.” He was well aware of the difficulties involved in attempting to come up with a term that was recognizable, yet descriptive. He knew that within the context of art history, the phrase “Classical Realism” was an oxymoron.
Classicism and Realism
Throughout history the tenets of Classicism (and its derivations Neo-Classicism and Idealism) and Realism have been opposed to one another. Classicists believed that the art of ancient Greece and Rome set the standard by which art should be judged. They created work based on antique models with subject matter that was taken from history, myth and legend. Their work was characterized by an idealization of nature for the sake of beauty and proportion and a clear and logical expression of their subjects through refined drawing, form and technical methods. Realists, on the other hand, disdained beauty of both subject and methods. They seldom represented themes from history or myth and preferred the depiction of common themes, with little or no idealization. Even lofty themes were rarely idealized for the sake of beauty. Compare, for example, the work of Raphael to that of Caravaggio or, closer to our time, the work of Bouguereau to that of Courbet.
The Western European Artistic Tradition
With these historical distinctions in mind, what did Richard Lack mean by combining them into the term Classical Realism? Fundamental to Lack’s definition of Classical Realism is an understanding of artistic tradition. Lack’s definition embraces the traditions of European art, including Classicism and Realism, that were passed down from master to pupil since the Renaissance. In the 19th century these picture-making traditions and methods were fundamental to the teaching of the École des Beaux-Arts and the individual ateliers of Paris, as well as the academies and studios of Germany, England and Italy. The specific artistic tradition of which Lack and his pupils are a part is rooted in what is known as the Boston School, one of the longest continuing schools of painting in the history of American art.
“The Boston painters,” states Lack, “became famous throughout the United States
as practitioners of a style based on authoritative draftsmanship,
richly pigmented surfaces and, above all, a steadfast devotion to
color truth or, as they phrased it, the ‘note.’” These artists were
dedicated to the look of the visible world, the evanescent effects
of light and the immediacy of gesture found in their everyday surroundings,
and succeeded in creating an art whose truth to nature and beauty
of color was rarely surpassed by their European contemporaries. Their
work combined the academic and the impressionist traditions into a
truly American art. Among the major contributors to this effort were
Dennis Miller Bunker, Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp and William McGregor
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) had been trained in Paris by Jean-Léon Gérôme in the late 1880s and early 1890s. He provided the connecting link to the post World War II development of this tradition in America through his pupil, R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell was a man of independent means, a first-rate intellectual, and an exceptionally gifted artist. He endeavored to preserve and pass on some of the rapidly diminishing knowledge of traditional picture making by establishing an atelier in Boston. This school, the only one of its kind during the heyday of Modernism, continued to function until his death in 1981.
Gammell recognized the necessity of carrying forward both the academic and impressionist
traditions, not wanting to continue the disastrous split between the
two that shattered the art of painting at the beginning of this century.
Classical Realism is firmly rooted in the basic artistic principles
embodied within the European academic and American impressionist traditions
bequeathed to Lack by R. H. Ives Gammell. These principles are the
criteria by which works are created and judged by those whose art
comes legitimately under the banner of Classical Realism, for this
expression connotes much more than simply the work of a small group
of artists with roots in the Boston School; it connotes the rich artistic
traditions out of which the Boston School grew. Let us briefly examine
these basic principles.
Truth to Nature
“In looking at the great tradition of Western painting,” states
Lack, “we discover that the representational element was considered
by both painters and art lovers to be paramount in judging the merit
of a picture. Critical evaluation centered around such matters as
good or bad drawing, color plausibility, truthfulness of light and
shadow, and highly developed skills of execution. In the comments
made by painters of the past, we read again and again of their devotion
to depicting nature truthfully. The intensity of this devotion is
unarguable. The evidence of this dedication is found in their work.
The use of representation becomes a focal point for the viewer’s
interest and gives the painter access to nature’s rich storehouse
of forms and colors, more varied and multitudinous than any human
imagination can provide.
Depicting nature truthfully, however, is dependent upon how an
individual perceives, or is taught to perceive, the visible world.
There are three basic approaches to such perception: that of the
classicist, the realist and the impressionist. The general characteristics
of the two former approaches have been stated and may be put under
the heading Academic. When seeing and rendering nature, the academic
artist emphasizes the drawing and tends to use light and shadow
to explain the form. The impressionist sees nature broadly as an
integrated and harmonious whole and emphasizes the effect of light
on the objects represented. Tone and color are used to suggest the
effect of light rather than the form, though the best impessionists
never neglect the form. Impressionists primarily render only what
they see before their eyes, so their subject matter is necessarily
limited to that which can be seen or set up in nature. Imaginary
worlds are of little interest to the true impressionist. Whatever
the approach, the subtle representation of nature is the foundation
upon which the art of classicism, realism and impressionism is built.
Thorough Artistic Training
As an artist and teacher, Lack emphasizes the fact that “a high level of competence in depicting nature must be attained before a painting can qualify as professional and that such excellence of representation is within the grasp of very few painters. These painters must have a natural talent for draftsmanship (usually in evidence by the time budding painters are in their early teens), an uncommon visual memory, a fine eye for subtle shifts of light and dark and a sensitivity to color. All of these affinities are necessary for one to become a first-rate painter and are latent in what we call talent. However, as in other fields, this basic talent must be subjected to proper training if it is to reach its potential. Many years of hard work under the guidance of a master are required to develop and fulfill the talent’s promise. Thereafter, dedicated painters must continually work to sharpen their skills of representation and not allow weakness of will, laziness, or compromise of their artistic integrity to seep into their work if they wish to maintain those skills. Unquestionably, the coordination of hand and eye necessary to create distinguished representation is a rare commodity.” Whether the approach is academic or impressionist, such distinguished representation is noticeably correct in proportion and convincing in shape, form, value, gesture and expression. Plausibility or truth of color varies with the perception of the individual artist and the type of work being done, but color should, in all cases, be fitting to the subject and harmonious to the eye.
“In our age,” notes Lack, “we must clarify the use of photography in the process
of painting representational pictures. We know that many 19th-century
masters including Degas, Eakins, Gérôme and Bouguereau were fascinated
by the possibilities of the newly developed science of photography.
They made limited use of it in their own work without, however, corrupting
the essential dignity and artistry of their style. In contrast, the
use of black and white photographs or colored slides in the work of
so many contemporary realists results either in a slick style (which
in some quarters has been taken up as an artistic virtue) or a flashy
style arrived at through the use of false dexterity to disguise the
fact that the artist relied on photography for both inspiration and
rendering. Even the best photographs can distort shapes, perspective,
color and values, imparting a false note to painting done entirely
from photos. For the most part, however, this is discernible to only
the trained eye.”
“A painting within this tradition must be beautiful in line and color to qualify as art,” states Lack. “I emphasize the word beauty, for mere use of garish color and strong line is not sufficient to create good design. The lines and colors used by the painter must elicit in the eye of a cultivated viewer a harmonious and agreeable sensation. This is true regardless of the subject. The painter, as the old phrase would have it, must regale the eye.” The Classical Realist views the arts as The Beautiful Arts: Les Beaux-Arts, Le Belle Arti . Although the aspects of visual beauty are diverse, it is achieved primarily through design and drawing. Its essence is in the harmonious patterning of a work’s lines, tones and colors. These patterns maintain a dominant focus and provide an orderly movement for the viewer’s eyes to follow. The result is the viewer’s positive emotional response. Beauty is fitting to specific works of art in varying degrees, according to the particular artistic intention of the individual artist and the nature of the particular work. Beauty may be sought in a work’s conception, design, drawing, color and execution.
Technical skill is the broadest criterion that separates the work of the professional artist from the amateur. It is acquired by diligent training and practice. Skill is necessary throughout the process by which artists develop and execute their work. “Prior to the last third of the 19th century,” explains Lack, “it was commonly assumed that painters would finish their pictures to the best of their ability. This process of finish conveyed to the viewer a completeness of conception and execution, embodying all that the painter wished to say in an understandable way. Finishing forced painters to solve all of their picture-making problemsdrawing, massing of darks and lights, and colorin as intensely creative a manner as possible. As every trained painter knows, the contemporary passion for sketchlike paint handling and bright color often hides a host of incompetencies such as bad drawing and unresolved design. To maintain unity and, at the same time, create a sense of life is more difficult in a highly finished picture than in a sketch. As Degas said: ‘It is not difficult to get life into a six-hour study. The difficulty is to retain it there in 60.’”
Classical Realism is an artistic point-of-view characterized by a love and
respect for the great traditions of Western art. It is grounded
in the subtle representation of nature, a representation that is
only possible by a person with a trained and sensitive eye. Some
Classical Realists may make judicious use of photographs, but their
work is lifelike, not photographic. Classical Realists often idealize
or stylize their work for the sake of beauty and harmony. Care is
given tothe elements of composition and design. Every effort is
made to master the technical skills necessary to create work that
compares favorably to that of the masters of the past, either academic
or impressionist. Their work is classical because it exhibits a
preference for order, beauty, harmony and completeness; it is realist
because its basic vocabulary comes from the representation of nature.
Contemporary works of art that exhibit these general characteristics
come under the broad heading of Classical Realism. The excellence
of individual works depends upon the degree to which these characteristics
have been mastered and utilized. Classical Realism is a more inclusive term than Classicism, Realism and Impressionism.
It encompasses these traditions and may be used to describe works
that are quite diverse. Works categorized as Classical Realist may
exhibit characteristics of Classicism and Realism, both part of the
European Academic tradition, and—though not implied by the name—Impressionism,
as exemplified by the artists of the Boston School. The work of Classical
Realists is not limited to so-called classical or realist themes and
includes most of the genres common to Western art: imaginative painting,?
portraiture, indoor and outdoor figure painting, landscape, seascape
and still life.
Classical Realism is a living tradition. It is not a pastiche of styles and methods pieced together from the past. Classical realists can usually trace their artistic lineage from pupil to teacher back to 19th century France, Germany, England or Italy. Although its roots are in the past, its practitioners are living in the present and creating work that has meaning for them today. It is connected, not reactionary. The principles upon which their art is based transcend the transience of popular trends and link their work as a whole to the timeless qualities inherent in the best work of the past.
The American Society of Classical Realism was founded in 1989 by
Richard Lack and several other artists, educators and connoisseurs
who were devoted to the promotion of accomplished artists working
within the traditions of Western European academic and American
impressionist art. It was established as a volunteer, artist-run
organization and has published both the Classical Realism Quarterly
and the Classical Realism Journal . The professional heart of the
ASCR is its Artists Guild. Guild members are practitioners of the
varied art forms within these traditions. There are many excellent
artists and illustrators throughout America whose art is grounded
and nourished by the traditions of Western European art, whether
or not they adopt or know of the designation “Classical Realist.”
Within our limited means and resources, it is the desire of the
ASCR to acknowledge and encourage artists whose work exhibits a
mastery of the basic elements considered essential to these artistic
traditions: fine drawing, balanced and harmonious design, beauty,
and skillful craftsmanship. We also support artists who seriously
teach the principles within these traditions and art historians
who conscientiously research and write about artists who have worked,
or are working, within them.
It is sometimes forgotten that the Boston painters were impressionists—some of
the best in American art. Impressionism, however, is often misunderstood.
It is painting what you see, not what you know, remember or imagine,
and it has formed the basis for much of the great art of the Western
world. What is often called impressionism or “impressionistic” today
is nothing more than mannered, artificial painting with sketch-like
brushwork, fuzzy edges and color that is either bright or pastel.
Impressionism is sometimes little more than a synonym for vague or
blurry. Such work has little to do with the look of nature and therefore
little to do with visual impressionism. True impressionism is a way
of seeing, not a method of applying paint in juxtaposed dabs or strokes
of color. The method of applying paint is simply a means developed
and utilized by some impressionists to render the effect of light
and color that they observe. The artist must place each observed color
value in its proper relationship to the others on the canvas as they
appear when viewing the subject in its entirety with a squinted and
slightly unfocused eye. Such correct placement requires intense concentration
in front of nature (in the studio or en plein air) and an eye that
is extremely sensitive and thoroughly trained to perceive these subtle
relationships. Fine impressionist painters must be not only superb
colorists, but exemplary draftsmen. It is their superb draftsmanship
that gives them the remarkable ability to record their visual impressions
so forcefully. The best of the Boston impressionists, Benson, Bunker,
DeCamp, Paxton and Tarbell, enriched their art with the notation of
carefully observed color values. This was the raison d’être of their
art, and in this they excelled far above their contemporaries, creating
many paintings that are unique in American art. While successfully
rendering the subtle effects of light and color they also had a fine
decorative sense and achieved a convincing expression of form. They
never lost the feeling of reality in their best work. In fact, their
most successful work (such as Sally, by Joseph DeCamp, in the Worcester
Art Museum or Reverie, by Edmund Tarbell, in the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston) conveys a sense of visual reality rarely achieved in the history
of art. It is difficult for those used to photographic images to discern
the sophistication of their expertise as visual impressionists.
Imaginative painting is an updated and broader term that was used by Ives Gammell and Richard Lack to describe work that had formerly been designated historical painting. It includes all work that cannot be completely set up in the studio and painted directly from life: historical, religious, mythological, allegorical, fantasy, mystical and symbolic art. This is in contrast to impressionism, where artists have the subject in its entirety before their eyes and attempt to render the proper relationships that they see in front of them.
The quotations from Richard Lack and much of the material in this article were taken from personal interviews or freely adapted from an essay written by him in 1982 and edited by the present author for publication in the catalogue which accompanied the 1997 exhibition, East Coast Ideals/West Coast Concepts: The Art of the Boston School and the California Impressionists .