Charles Bargue lived from 1826 to 1883 and is almost unheard of today, he was a man who was very highly skilled in drawing and painting but never reached the heights he could have in his art.
Perhaps he is better known for putting together portfolio of drawings for the French publisher Goupil & Cie, this was around the time they had just sacked a young Vincent Van Gogh who was training as an art dealer. The drawings by Bargue were intended to be a course in drawing, in the way that the rapidly fading ateliers (traditional French schools of painting) had been teaching, this course of study being almost an apprenticeship in drawing and painting.
In my opinion this is badly lacking in art education today, it is fine to paint from an abstract point of view and create completely new dimensions in paint and mark making, however I feel this should come with some substance as painting and drawing are both crafts and need an understanding in technique and materials, really in order to push the boundaries further.
M.Bargue has enabled people to take up this traditional practice of study in our own homes in and for that he deserves a great amount of gratitude. The portfolio of drawings of 197 drawings he produced were designed to be copied as closely as possible, taking into account every dimension and every tone and through this process rapidly developing drawing and observation skills. The portfolio was initially published around 1865 they were used by both Van Gogh and Picasso in their early days.
Above is a Bargue plate, this is from further on in the portfolio and generally they are arranged in order of complexity.
The Bargue plates became very popular and were used worldwide for around fifty years until this academic, traditional way of learning to paint and draw fell massively out of fashion in the early 20th Century and then they disappeared, unavailable for the best part of 100 years.
Then in 2003 they were published again as the final part of a massively challenging project to find and restore all the plates, which brought back the full set of Bargues, unfortunately due to the huge effort in putting together the book and small print run it sold for around £100. The reason for this blog post is that it has been republished this year and is available for around £20 which is incredible value for the amount of knowledge it can impart on the self taught painter, it is available here.
I managed to get hold of a copy a few years ago and over a year worked through it diligently, it is very demanding and requires a large amount of concentration however it completely changed my ability to draw and it also changed the way I saw the world, giving me a much keener eye for detail and proportion. It is not to be undertaken lightly and when you are in the middle of a drawing which has taken two weeks, sweating over the tiniest detail you really question it's value, but when you finish and your hand eye coordination and perception of volume, proportion and size are transformed.
It is not for everyone, however I personally cannot recommend it enough and it really does change the way you see things so even if traditional academic painting is not your thing it can still be immensely beneficial even to a completely abstract painter. Don't be put off by how complicated some of the drawings appear, it is just a matter of time and patience to do exact copies of them.
It does help to get the plates blown up in a photocopy to get the dimensions down properly on paper and towards the end refer to the book for the details, the book teaches the method of sight size drawing which when learnt properly is incredibly powerful. The painting below was executed by a painter trained in sight size drawing, and I will post further on this technique soon.