The Contest

Article by Darren Rousar.

contest-1Portrait of Antoine-Charles-Horace Carle Vernet (detail), by Jean Pierre Dantan.
Used as the source image for the first contest explained below.

If you were asked to draw a picture of the sculpture shown above, could you do it? What if I told you that you could only look at it for awhile, and then you had to draw it from memory – could you still do it? A contest set up by Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1852 proved that it was possible, “with an astonishing exactness of imitation.”

An unnamed student observed the bust for an hour or so. In the process he arranged his observations systematically in his memory, as he had been taught. He then went into another room and proceeded to make a remarkably precise drawing entirely from the memories of those observations.


The contest described above, as well as those mentioned below, were undertaken in an effort to validate the teaching methods of Pere Lecoq de Boisbaudran in the eyes of the powers who controlled arts education in nineteenth-century France.

Pere Lecoq, as he was known by his students, had spent the previous years perfecting his theories. After presenting them to a select committee at the Académie, it was decided that tests in the form of contests should be held so that the members might see the process and results with their own eyes. Among the committee members in attendance were the outstanding painters Horace Vernet and Robert Fleury.

And validate them he did.

After seeing the results of the contest, the committee responded:
“M. de Boisbaudran [has] discovered a method of systematically cultivating the students’ memory so as to make it capable of retaining visual impressions with accuracy, a power of indisputable advantage to all who study art.”1

unloading-coal-barges-memory-study-By-bellengerUnloading the Coal Barges.
Memory study by Bellenger for the third contest.

An Unequal Contest

After proving his methods to the fine arts community his attention turned to those from the world of industrial design. They were not so easily convinced. Perhaps the students were gifted, they asked?

Therefore, another contest was suggested, this time under the auspices of the École des Beaux-Arts. But there was a problem. One of the directors, Léon Cogniet, baulked.

“I look upon the proposed competition as entirely superfluous. There is not one of my pupils that I know of, who could enter with any show of reason into a competition in memory drawing with M. de Boisbaudran’s ablest and most practiced pupils. I cannot, therefore, ask any of them to take part in such an unequal contest, of which the issue is quite certain, for it is a challenge which I personally should not think of taking up.”

“I have cultivated my memory a great deal, and perhaps with some profit. I have often got my pupils to do so. But neither they nor I have done it so consecutively or methodically as to imagine that we could produce results, when the model is no longer present, to compare in mathematical exactness with achievements such as M. de Boisbaudran submitted [in the first contest] to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, as is recorded in their minutes.”

Vague Drawings

Another director had reservations about his own student’s abilities to compete in the contest but ultimately agreed to it.

The results of this and a third contest caused Pére Lecoq to observe that “many of their opponents were reduced to a state of complete inability to produce anything while even the most successful of them only managed to make vague drawings, without definite shape, which were like dreams already half-effaced.”

the-choir-practice-memory-study-by-lhermitteThe Choir Practice.
Memory study by LHermitte for the third contest.

Looking at these drawings by students of twenty or so, one is struck by the power of grasping the scene as a whole, of seizing just those things which the posed model can never give, while the faults in proportion, construction, and detail are just the faults which it is the proper service of the model to correct and complete.2

Martin Aldur (1909)

And now over to you. Could you draw, from memory, a recognizable drawing of the bust shown at the top of this article?

1 The Training of the Memory in Art, by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, 1914, pages 45-51.
2 A review of The Training of the Memory in Art, by Martin Aldur, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 15, No. 77, 1909, page 303.

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