The atelier approach to art education has its roots in the guilds of the early Renaissance. For more than five hundred years, master artists transmitted a system of knowledge to their students. This tradition reached its zenith in the second half of the nineteenth century, when ateliers prepared thousands of accomplished artists to paint in dozens of different styles on countless subjects. Skill-based teaching in the nineteenth century was centered on observation of nature, sound artistic principles, and universal themes. Aspiring artists obtained the technical ability, personal commitment, and philosophical views needed to create great art. The impact of Enlightenment thinking, with its respect for human rights and equality before the law, allowed art to expose the evils of slavery and child labor as well as to promote women’s rights and other social issues. This new democratic way of thinking, in conjunction with unparalleled classical training, ignited the greatest period of creativity that the fine arts had ever seen.
With a shift in the aesthetics of art-world politics, affected in part by the horrors of World War I and World War II, cynicism, novelty, shock, and rebellion became the fashionable staples of art in the early twentieth century. Art that could be produced rapidly and yet be considered valuable became a dream come true. Modern art, although it may have had claim to a few artists with a sincere desire to experiment and rebel, soon became lost, for without standards or any need to communicate through universal themes, it was easily controlled by those who stood to make vast fortunes from this “new” quickly made art. Art became “art about art” not art about life.
Against all odds and facing ridicule, a handful of artists who were still academically trained managed to preserve the core technical knowledge of Western art and to continue the process of teaching another generation. There is now a growing movement of artists demanding to be taught the classical methods. They are part of a new Renaissance that has brought the atelier method full circle and back into the art world of today. In the ateliers of the twenty-first century, artists have once again lit the torch of inspiration with the desire to reunite the powers of masterly painting and humanistic subject matter. As long as humanity is permitted to compare and decide for itself what constitutes art, truth, beauty, and a commitment to excellence will prevail.
FRED ROSS Chairman, Art Renewal Center (From the book Classical Painting Atelier - Juliette Aristides) Painting above by John Singer Sargent