Classical Realism offers a radically different approach to artistic training precisely because of its hierarchical pedagogy and respect for past masters. Contemporary art often places undue emphasis on the artist as a spontaneously creative individual who need not be fettered by past traditions. In contrast, Classical Realism recognizes that the beginning art student is a novice who needs to be taught by experienced instructors. The sequence of courses that students undergo at Classical Realist schools parallels the formalized atelier training of the Nineteenth century. Students begin their education with intense observation of both nature and the human form with a keen emphasis on classical symmetry. Influenced by Johann Winckelmann’s conception of Hellenic art, Classical Realists seek to emulate the achievements of the ancient world in their works. Examining both ancient and neoclassical sculpture, students learn the fine points of detailing the human body and its movements with their artwork. Intensively studying skeletal and musculature construction; they soon come to appreciate man and nature’s physical complexities and effective ways of their representation using charcoal and oils.
Throughout America and Western Europe, Classical Realist ateliers express themselves using similar terms and concepts. They have successfully breathed new life into almost forgotten practices and made gallery visits palatable for cultural traditionalists. Appropriately, Classical Realism’s birth as an art movement came about in provincial, conservative Boston instead of New York or London. Artists who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts successively trained other Boston artists, which created a generational tradition of realist artistic representation. Protected against radical art movements by the traditionalism of elite Yankee patrons, these artists cleverly taught the techniques of academic painting to their proteges. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s American student, William Paxton (1869-1941) taught at the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s school for years and also completed commissioned portraits of Presidents Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. Taking Johannes Vermeer as his muse, Paxton created paintings of extraordinary complexity and subtlety. Awed by Vermeer’s use of focused versus blurred imagery within his paintings, Paxton replicated this ‘binocular vision’ technique within his works. His The Figurine (1921) marked a high point in domestic painting and proves remarkably illustrative of Bostonian culture.
The Figurine depicted an Irish household servant delicately cleaning a glass case containing a Ming dynasty imperial statuette. Referential to Boston’s domestic class structure, ethnic tensions and the city’s vital China trade, the work illuminated a specific, vital moment in American history. Brilliantly executed in oils on canvas and currently in the Smithsonian’s national collection, The Figurine represented the successful transmission and expression of atelier painting into America during its large-scale abandonment in Europe. Additionally, Paxton successfully transmitted academic painting techniques to his capable students who continued this tradition into the Twenties and Thirties. One of these capable proteges was Robert Hale Ives Gammell (1893-1981), whose works are monuments to Realist style and homages to the best of the Old Masters. Still referred to in reverential tones by traditional art patrons, Gammell’s works signify a vital connective point between the achievements of Jean-Léon Gérôme and current Classical Realists.
Descending from a prominent Yankee family and raised in the waning years of the Nineteenth century, Gammell displayed artistic precocity from a very early age. Commencing his studies under Paxton in 1911, Gammell readily utilized the extensive collection of Old Masters in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as material to copy from. After serving in the American Expeditionary Force during the Great War, Gammell spent much of the Twenties visiting European museums and galleries. While resident in Boston during this time, he completed numerous commissioned portraits for prominent American industrialists and statesmen. A deeply intellectual and sensitive man, Gammell soon began to draw closer to religious iconography in Western art and began painting Judeo-Christian and mythological themes extensively after 1930. Emergent from a similar background to T.S. Eliot, Gammell felt a spiritual sickness afflicted the West and that art had been affected by the horrors of the Somme and Verdun. Increasingly, his paintings dealt with mortality, otherworldly visions and images of the divine during this period. Knowing himself to be out of step with modern art circles in Europe, Gammell despaired that traditional painting and atelier training would be lost forever. This combined with the outbreak of war in 1939 caused him to suffer a complete nervous breakdown. He emerged from this experience a shaken man but firmly resolved to express his vocation during his remaining years.
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Gammell believed his talents and accumulated knowledge necessitated passing them down to a new generation of traditional artists. In 1946, he published a vital work, The Twilight of Painting, which chronicled Western art’s radical decline and the serious threat of its extinguishment through Modernism. Additionally, he established the Boston-based Gammell Studios in 1950 and rigorously trained novices in academic painting methods. Despite disdain from critics, Gammell persevered and earned continued admiration and respect from his loyal students. While training future Classical Realist figures such as Richard Lack, Gammell completed a remarkable series of paintings, which represent his greatest artistic achievement. Based on the mystical poem, The Hound of Heaven (1893) by the British ascetic Francis Thompson, these paintings portray extraordinary religious spectacles similar to those of Emmanuel Swedenborg and William Blake. The highly detailed and technically advanced skill within this series attests to Gammell’s ability and influences from the best of pre-Modernist art. Arrestingly beautiful and profoundly moving, they stand as a testament to Gammell’s spiritual vision and devotion to academic painting. This devotion would be continued by his finest student, Richard Lack, whose own oeuvre steadily increased awareness of current Realist painting in America and Western Europe.
Born to a Scandinavian immigrant family in Minneapolis in 1924, Richard Lack knew from childhood that he would be a painter. Showing proficiency in drawing and portraiture, he desired to learn how to ‘paint as the Old Masters did’. While studying at the Minneapolis School of Art, Lack became frustrated at his teachers’ inability to impart necessary techniques for academic painting. Moving to New York in 1949 in order to find an instructor knowledgeable in this tradition, he spent his mornings copying paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By chance, a student of Richard H.I.. Gammell’s studio named Robert Cumming noticed Lack copying a Velázquez portrait. Intrigued, Cumming invited Lack to visit Boston and introduce himself to Gammell. After presenting himself at the studio and convincing Gammell of his serious intent, Lack began intensively studying the practices of traditional painting. According to Lack, Gammell’s first major lesson was to teach him to ‘unlock’ paintings in order to see the complexity within them. Like many museum and gallery visitors, Lack had previously viewed pre-Modernist art as consisting of ‘beautiful mysteries’, which he could only see topically. Gammell insisted that his students understand the layers of paint and specific techniques behind each work of art. Additionally, one of Gammell’s patrons provided funds for a 1955 European trip in order for Lack to study major Old World art collections. Through intense observation and imitation while under Gammell’s tutelage, Lack learned to express his own talents in increasingly complex paintings.