In a cramped, high-ceilinged room, thirty or more jostling art students vie for position as they set up their mounted boards. On a raised wooden stage stands a naked figure, bathed in the yellow glow of suspended pendant lamps or floodlit by natural light from the skylights overhead. From the hung portraits that cover the walls to the sea of easel frames and furrowed brows darting between paper and pose, all eyes are on the life model as the sketching session begins.
To the young men and women enrolled at the famed Académie Julian, this was an everyday scene of student life, yet today it seems a rarefied educational atmosphere. Established in 1867, the school quickly developed a reputation for its outstanding technical instruction. Less conservative than its sister institutions, it was among the first of the Parisian academies to readily accept female and foreign students, who enjoyed a balance between rigorous, disciplined practical training and comparatively free stylistic rein.
These beautifully accomplished life drawings by David Wood, one of many anonymous young British artists to emigrate to study at the Académie, illustrate just how proficient its pupils could be. Produced under the watchful guidance of alumnus Henri Royer, an acclaimed portraitist who continued to teach at the school in the early 1900s, Wood’s studies are disarmingly direct.
Positioned mere inches from his model, he realises a sumptuous blending of light and shade through the use of a ‘stump’, a traditional sketching tool made from tightly rolled paper sharpened to a tip. By altering the angle of application, varying gradations of tone can be achieved by blurring graphite marks into one another. The technique is deceptively simple; a cardinal sin is to over-smudge, effecting an unnatural, shiny surface that loses all sense of line and nuance of texture.
Wood’s touch is sensitively poised between striking realism and, on closer inspection, surprising looseness. The resulting portraits, some of which would have been completed in as little as thirty minutes to offer their models some respite, capture the spirit of their subject with extraordinary candour. They offer not just a window into the remarkable world of French academic art, but into the life and soul of their sitter.