Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain and France many aspiring, competitive artists shared the common goal of submitting their compositions to the premiere academies and exhibitions of the age. To have one’s work accepted at the Royal Academy of Art in London or the annual French Salon in Paris , was to be granted access to a more lucrative world of loyal (and wealthy) patrons, attention from critics and the fame which accompanies both. Artists were able to better hone their technical skills, eke out their own creative styles and actually become known while alive among their contemporaries once connected to such lofty cultural institutions.
Public aesthetic sense was swayed almost entirely by the pieces stacked one atop another upon the solemn walls of the autumnal Salon or Royal Academy, the majority of which fell in line with polished academic traditions. Most acknowledged were artists who proved proficient in constructing echoes of the classical age or the high renaissances of Italy and Flanders. Romantic allegorical subjects full of fleshy nudes and gods were popular, as were dramatic religious scenes from the Bible and of saints being swept into martyrdom. Large-scale history paintings requiring an intellectual bent to be remotely understood reigned supreme. Yet some more rebellious personalities, like the peasant-obsessed French realist Gustave Courbet and the free-wheeling Englishman J. M. W. Turner with his crazed, swirling atmospheres also managed to find acceptance, as well as raised and furrowed brows, within the elite art communities.
Most artists, however, preferred to stay stylistically safe — within the bounds of commonly accepted “good art.” And in order to produce compositions bursting with scholarly reason, photorealistic details and sweeping emotions, most painters in the academic tradition would first complete basic sketches before painstakingly rendering a finalised tour de force on canvas. Although these sketches were crucial to formal artistic training, their more schematic and hurried qualities did not allow them to be considered prized pieces in their own right. Sketches were instead viewed merely as a means for an artist to capture his or her sudden reactions to scenery or subject matter, to work out any kinks that might impede the birth of a masterpiece. They could be intended to broadly outline the whole of a composition, with general coloration and definition of space, or to examine the most miniscule details within a scene, like the bony anatomy of a toy dog’s paw.
Slowly, simple sketches became more credible, if not entirely fit for public exhibition. Critics began to remark that a quickly jotted sketch reflected the first inventive impulses of the artist’s hand and mind. Many even came to enjoy the relaxed, lively characteristics granted to sketches through loose brushwork and splashed on, rather than delicately shaded, colouration. However, despite the increased appeal of the sketch, commentators and instructors pressed that an artist could only truly demonstrate genius and mastery of their trade by arranging complexly conceived and thoroughly varnished images.
One wonderful example of a smallish, seemingly nonchalant, but overwhelmingly pleasing artistic draft is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s portrait of A Woman with a Dog, created around 1769. It portrays a heavyset noble woman in a candy-colored silken court dress, clutching a wriggling white lapdog. Fragonard elaborates on some details, such as the intricate ruffling of the woman’s gown and collar, as well as her rotund facial features. Yet other aspects are left slightly unfinished, like the blank, slate gray background, the teal ribbon trailing from owner to pet, the lady’s more generalised pearl jewellery and coiled hairstyle, along with most of the lower right corner of the composition. The general essence of the stately woman and her perky companion are captured, and the combination of saccharine pinks, blues, and yellows indeed forms a beautiful portrait— but it is by no means a glossed over, perfected image with a witty theme woven throughout.
In contrast, Salomé, painted by Henri Regnault in 1870, is a finely-finished canvas depicting a female protagonist. The model’s full body is rendered expertly; her skin has an idyllic sheen to it, her hair is painted with many individually defined curls, and her facial expression is precisely chiaroscuro‘ed into a confident smirk. Like Fragonard’s quick portrait, Salomé also features a majorly monochromatic background, but instead of just dumping on pigment to fill a void, Regnault mottled the amber hues quite specifically to resemble decadent silken damask, and oriental and leopard skin rugs. And, like Fragonard, Regnault also dedicated demonstrable effort to elaborate upon his subject’s dress, but dove even further into picayune detail, playing with the differences between opaque and sheer clothing— Salomé‘s legs become suddenly noticeable under a thin veiling of gold tulle and beading. In this ultra-finished composition, it is also evident that the artist purposefully included hints about the identity of this seated beauty. She sits dandling a shining platter and thick-handled knife across her knees, which, to the properly informed, reference the decapitated head of Saint John the Baptist— the reward Salome was given after dancing sensuously before her stepfather, King Herod. Though it clearly took much time and consideration, Regnault managed to construct an entire Old Testament storyline from a single static figure.
Differences of detailing, choice of technique and time spent tend to sift out finished products from preliminary drawings even today. In this image-laden twenty-first century, both types of compositions still fulfill their respective purposes in professional creative circles. And though critics still exist to be sour and opinionated, they tend to have more sway over theoretical discussions in universities than over the pictorial tastes of the general masses. What a stroke of luck for the humble sketch, which proves more useful than ever to archivists and historians attempting to piece back together entire artistic practices, and can now be enjoyed evidence of progress and jolts of inspiration, or just something pleasurably less complicated to gaze at by curious publics.