Learning Pictures By Heart

Article by Darren Rousar.

holbein-legrosOn the left, Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Erasmus
On the right, Alphonse Legros’ copy from memory.

One of the tasks Père Lecoq set before his students was the learning of pictures by heart. It was an intermediate exercise for learning how to seize upon the fleeting images in nature. Why? Because pictures are the same tomorrow as today and can be learned at leisure. They can then be easily compared with the drawings and paintings done from them. It is not so with nature.

The practice of copying masterpieces was not new. What was new was doing so from memory, and Lecoq made that a requirement in his drawing school.

Alphonse Legros was one of Lecoq’s early students. He went on to make quite a name for himself, not only as an artist but also as a popular teacher, most notably at the Slade School in London. Fortunately we have an account, in his own words, of his experience copying Hans Holbein’s Erasmus.

At the Museum

One day I was sent to copy the portrait of Erasmus, but my drawing-board was so enormous and so cumbersome that I could not succeed in setting it up and had to renounce my project. However, I did not excite myself about it, but resolved to learn my subject by heart and see if I could not draw it on my return to the school.

I calculated the exact distances between various points, fixed the characteristic traits firmly in my mind, and then the secondary ones, easy enough once I was sure of the principal ones. And thus I learned slowly to dissect and reconstruct this masterpiece.

When I returned Lecoq asked me for my drawing. “I have not done it,” I replied, and then, seeing his perplexed look, I added quickly, “but I am going to do it now!”

The professor went off, displeased and incredulous, and I set myself patiently to the task, recalling and arranging my mental notes and conjuring up in my mind all the features of this great and moving picture.

When Lecoq came by again the drawing was well advanced. He seemed well pleased, sat down beside me, and watched me continue. From that day Lecoq showed a particular interest in me, and took me from the general room into his own studio. So this portrait of Erasmus had a marked influence on my future.

You can see both Holbein’s Erasmus and Legros’ copy of it above. Why Legros mentions a drawing and yet does a painting must be an error in translation.

Legros was not the only Lecoq student to engage in memory copies from the Louvre. Below is Fantin-Latour’s copy (on the right) of Titian’s Entombment (on the left).


And here is another Titian copy (on the right). This time by George Bellenger.


The Same Tomorrow

As implied in the article’s opening paragraph, an advantage to learning pictures by heart is that you can directly compare your efforts to your sources. When working from memories of nature you have less opportunity to make that comparison and therefore have no way to check your accuracy.

That is a problem because skill only comes about after receiving feedback. Comparing your attempt to your source is feedback.

Why not regularly dedicate some time to learning pictures by heart? Then, when you’re confronted with the ever-fleeting effects of nature you’ll be better able to recall what you saw.

Some of the content in this article came from a review of The Training of the Memory in Art, by Martin Aldur, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 15, No. 77, 1909, pages 304-307.

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