Life Drawing: A Short History
From the very earliest of times, people have drawn people and whilst artists from the Stone Age are not generally associated with life drawing, they are known to have depicted the human figure with great sophistication of style and, in some cases, naturalism. Two low relief carvings found in 1952 in a cave at Magdilaine in southwest France, for example, can be regarded as the forerunner of all reclining nudes in the history of western art. It is a sad fact, however, that a whole tradition of work from this period has been almost entirely lost to us, as the majority of drawings, paintings and wood carvings have long since eroded or rotted away. As Michael Gill puts it, ‘for a period of over 20,000 years less than 200 representations of men and women survive and none of children’.
It is to ancient Greek civilisation that we must look for a more fully recorded history of early life drawing. Its religion was based on humanistic principles and the human body, with its various senses, was considered to be the fountain of all delight. Artists were required to study the naked human form as well as its underlying anatomy. The classic Greek style, as seen in sculptures such as the Cnidian Venus, c.350 BC, by Praxiteles, is thus firmly rooted in scrupulous analytical observation. Sculptors and draughtsmen combined ‘correct’ anatomical construction of the figure with simplicity and beauty of rhythm and gesture to produce the perfect human form. In the words of Mervyn Levy, ‘Greek artists sought to distil from existing and quite objective sources, the shape of an ideal image. This was hewn from reality, not from imagination’. Without question, they drew from the life model. Interestingly, Borzello suggests that initial drawings would have been of fine athletes or beautiful female models whilst slaves are likely to have been called in for the more tedious and time consuming business of standing for hours in front of the sculptor.
With the advent of Christianity, classical sculptures of the Greek and Roman gods were regarded as pagan idols to be destroyed and the very notion of life drawing became sinful.
As a result, naked bodies almost completely disappeared from western art for the duration of the so called Dark Ages and their occasional appearance was due only to ‘the imperative demands of Christian iconography’. Art served the Church and the artist only felt comfortable with the nude if it was depicted as shamed or damaged, as with Adam and Eve being driven from Paradise. Medieval art, then, dwelt not on the beauty of the body but on its corruptibility. Mastery of direct observation of the body came to be seen as a distraction from the clarity of a religious message, resulting in rigid looking figures seen from a frontal view with no foreshortening.
Incredibly, many hundreds of years elapsed before artists such as Giotto di Bondone (1216?–1337) and Simon Martini (1285?–1344) started to breathe new life and realism into western art. It is Giotto who is credited with the rediscovery of how to use tonal modelling and foreshortening to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. This was only made possible by daring once more to work from direct observation of the human form. The Italian artists of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries who returned to the rigorous observation of nature and the study of Greek sculptures to inform their work, can be credited with the start of the Renaissance or the rebirth of Classical art.
Masaccio (1401–1428), often regarded as the first Renaissance master, devoted the whole of his short working life to the quest for realism in art. He studied human anatomy to inform his life drawing and in ‘The Holy Trinity’, 1427, he used the laws of linear perspective to place his figures in a convincing space. First discovered by his friend, Filippo Brunelleshi (1377–1446) this was the momentous discovery that had eluded the ancient Greeks.
Masaccio, Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Piero della Francesca (1416–1492) and many others, used the new realism of the Renaissance to bring the message of the Bible to life with striking effect. With a revival of interest in classical antiquity and Greek mythology, it was not long before Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and Venus, her Roman counterpart, made their return to art after 1000 years of exile. In an age of humanist principles and scientific study, the artist was finally freed from the moralising vigilance of the Church and able to make the naked human body an essential concern. ‘The desire to establish a measurable standard of beauty was an overriding preoccupation of the age’.
Famously, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) did not satisfy himself with drawing the surface of the human body but delved deep into human anatomy through the dissection of 30 corpses of men and women of all ages, including an unborn foetus of about seven months. Most of his life drawings and anatomy studies went unpublished at the time possibly because of a genuine concern that he would be misunderstood. His work in Rome (1514–1515) had to be abandoned ‘due to an accusation of witchcraft resulting from the denouncement of his German assistant’. Today, it seems somewhat extreme that Leonardo considered it necessary for all artists to study anatomy from both life and dissection but this was entirely in keeping with the spirit of enquiry that permeated Renaissance society. Life drawing had become the complete study of the human body; a synthesis of anatomy, proportion and perspective which verged on becoming an obsessive search for the elusive ideal form.
Michelangelo also took up the challenge and it is he who represents Renaissance enthusiasm for the naked male body at its most extreme, portraying every muscle and sinew in different action poses. Indeed, it could be argued that his employment of anatomy and his exaggeration of masculine muscular form limit the magnificence of his figure painting. In his Sistine Chapel nudes, he made no attempt to deny his sexual preference for men. Levy criticises his ‘lack of feeling for the difference between the male and female figure’ and the fact that his sibyls were based on male models. There is no doubt, though, that his Sistine nudes are amongst the most original creations in the history of western art. To quote Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘he was making every effort to pack all the energy of the cosmos into the likeness of man, to make perfection of body the mirror of perfection of spirit’.
In the north, Albrecht Durer (1471–1528) was determined to be part of the creative crescendo of the High Renaissance. He twice visited Italy, copied the anatomical drawings of Leonardo, worked relentlessly from the life model and even corresponded with the young Raphael who sent him drawings to show what he could do. Unlike Raphael, however, Durer had no firm tradition of the study of ancient Greek sculpture to guide him and, after numerous frustrations, came to believe that a too faithful imitation of nature might never lead to the elusive ideal beauty of the Florentine and Venetian masters. He grew sure that the perfect proportions of the classical nude depended on a formula guarded by the Italian artists, and in his determination to discover the secret he set about an elaborate geometrical analysis of the human figure. This was a study that engaged him throughout his life and resulted in the production of his Four Books on Human Proportion. Ultimately though he had to accept what he saw as the impossibility of perfecting the human form. His natural inclination to draw the facts as he saw them, in every detail, was simply too strong to let him idealise the body. It is this truth to the life model which sets Durer apart from the School of Florence and, arguably, makes him the most fascinating and modern of all the Renaissance masters.
It was in Florence that the artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) established the very first academy of art in 1562. Its president was none other than Michelangelo, himself. Vasari very much believed in working from the nude model as an aid to learning the skills of good draughtsmanship but was also wary of what Durer found so hard to avoid: the copying of the model’s flaws. He states that, ‘If an artist has not drawn a great deal and studied carefully selected ancient and modern works he cannot by himself work well from memory or enhance what he copies from life, and so give his work the grace and perfection of art which are beyond the reach of nature’. Nature had to be improved upon. The perfect human form had to be sought, either by drawing idealised sculpture of antiquity, modifying the life drawing or working from several models, selecting the parts which most resembled the ‘ideal’. The most prized models were those whose bodies looked most like a classical athlete, Venus or Aphrodite. Vasari’s Academy was the first institution of art education in the world, for in antiquity and throughout the Middle-Ages students were apprenticed to a master artist. By 1600 there were still only sixteen academies in Europe but by the start of the eighteenth century this had risen to at least 100.
There had been a number of drawing schools in the Covent Garden area of London during the first half of the eighteenth century but it was the opening of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 that formalised life drawing, and life modelling as a profession, in this country. The aim of the Academy was very much to develop mastery of the human form and its teaching programme was directly informed by Renaissance theories. The emphasis was on drawing. The student would begin by copying the drawings and etchings of past masters (a lower order skill) and would progress to drawing from plaster casts ‘from the Antique’ when a certain proficiency was achieved. This would develop draughtsmanship and impart knowledge of classical art. ‘Entry into the life drawing class was therefore the pinnacle of training, mastery of life drawing the proof of professional skill’.
Unusually, the Royal Academy was the only national art school to allow women life models but they worked far less frequently than their male counterparts. Throughout the nineteenth century, study from the female nude was not endorsed wholeheartedly for a number of reasons. There was no mention of the use of female models by Renaissance commentators, men were thought more suitable for a wider range of poses, and the all important underlying anatomy was more visible on male models. Perhaps most significantly, in Victorian times, it was considered shameful and un-Christian for a woman to expose her nakedness before unmarried men (female students were not admitted to the Royal Academy Schools until 1860 and were only allowed to draw from plaster casts). That the painting of the female nude, so associated with history, divinity, purity and beauty, was much respected and yet the female model who posed for the artist was often rejected by much of society, typifies the sexual hypocrisy of the age. The role of the artist was to transform the naked woman into an artistic nude.
William Etty (1787–1849) was one of the first British artists to paint the nude almost exclusively. The subject had not so much been avoided out of sheer prudery but because Britain lacked the tradition of history painting, where the nude could be depicted in an allegorical context that was common to many other European countries. Etty secured a place at the Royal Academy Schools in 1807 and studied life drawing under the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. His dedication to drawing and painting from the life model was second to none and, over the years, he built up an enviable reputation for his work. Finally, in 1825, with a suggestion that he should stop attending the life class every night, he was elected a Royal Academician, beating Constable for the honour. He became William Etty RA but steadfastly refused to stop attending the life class!
Nineteenth century depictions of the human form gradually moved away from idealism and perfection towards naturalism, with Victorian artists striving to achieve a photographic reproduction of the model, in paint. The so called aesthetic of realism made drawing and painting from the life model an enormously popular activity and, by the second half of the century, life models could hardly meet the demand from an ever growing number of art schools. By the end of the century, however, academic nudes by greatly respected artists such as Ingres (1780–1867) and Cabanal (1823–89) were being exposed as a pseudo-classical sham by the avant-garde. Manet (1832–83), Courbet (1819–77), Degas (1834–1917), Renoir (1841–1919), Seurat (1859–91), Gauguin (1848–1903), Klimt (1862–1918) and many more, were ready to redefine the boundaries of representing the nude and through their ground breaking works, idealism and realism gave way to individualism and, later, the aesthetic of abstraction and expressionism. Although life drawing continued to be taught in the traditional manner in art schools well into the twentieth century, it declined rapidly after World War II. A few of the major schools, like The Slade, continued to believe in the importance of drawing from the life model, but the practice generally became discredited as the basis for learning to become an artist.
These days, art colleges offer life drawing as an option and it is true to say that many students never draw from a nude model. That life drawing has, though, survived into the twenty-first century is a testament to its value as an exercise in draughtsmanship and the supreme status of the human form as a subject in art. Artists no longer place their figures in grand historical or mythological settings and they waver between the objective exploration of form and an exploration of their own psyches but they continue to draw other people and, I suspect, they always will.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
 Gill, Michael, Image of the Body, Doubleday, 1989, p69.
 Praxiteles’ model for this particular sculpture was an exceptionally beautiful woman called Phryne who was nearly as renowned in contemporary Athenian society as the artist himself. Her beauty was seen as a god-given gift.
 Levy, Mervyn, The Human Form in Art, Odham Books, 1961, p28.
 Borzello, Frances, The Artist’s Model, Junction Books, 1982, p118.
 Lucie-Smith, Edward, The Body – Images of the Nude, Thames & Hudson, p10.
 Levy, Mervyn, The Human Form in Art, Odham Books, 1961, p35.
 Pedratti, Carlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Taj Books, 2004, p112.
 Levy, Mervyn, The Human Form in Art, Odham Books, 1961, p35.
 Lucie-Smith, Edward, The Body – Images of the Nude, Thames & Hudson, p13.
 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Penguin, 1979, p449.
 Borzello, Frances, The Artist’s Model, Junction Books, 1982, p18.