My first experience of walking into the Cast Halls of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia as a student was accompanied by the feeling that I had walked into the Renaissance. Though I had yet to understand the uses of that fine collection of early plaster casts, I felt as if I was in a space that encouraged reason, reflection and hope as a young artist.
As the first academy of art in the United States, conceived of as early as the 1790s and chartered in 1805, the drawing curriculum at PAFA incorporates the concepts and tools of cast drawing as part of a solid grounding for the artist to this day. The founders’ first act was to purchase fine casts from Paris and Florence for the teaching of drawing. That historic collection is an integral part of the teaching of drawing and form at PAFA today. Cast drawing remains a source and support of critical thinking and practical visual tools.
One of the earliest references to cast drawing as a tool for training artists was made in Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting. Though scholarly debate and speculation suggests that Leonardo may have founded the first Academy of Art in Milan during his lifetime (he died in 1519), the first formal Academy of Art – the Accademia del Disegno – was created in Florence by Georgio Vasari in 1561. Followed rapidly by the founding of numerous academies, royal academies and state-sponsored schools of art in Europe and the United States, cast drawing was always an integral part of the art school curricula until well into the 19th century.
Drawing was considered the centrepiece of all art training, along with other studies in perspective, mathematics, art history and philosophy. Cast drawing, or “drawing from the antique”, was an important step in the training of fine artists; it followed the copying of drawings and engravings yet came before drawing from live models.
Fine castings in plaster of great ancient Greco-Roman or Renaissance sculptures were acquired from master casters in Florence, Rome and Paris to adorn everything from small ateliers to royal academies.
Museums also encouraged art students to draw from their fine collections of plaster casts. These collections, more economical to procure than originals, whether in a school or in a museum, provided beautiful examples from which art students and amateurs alike could draw and study.
For the art student, cast drawing was considered a primary way to understand the whole “effect” (overall qualities) of a form, and to analyse and understand light and shade, proportion, structural relationships, line quality and gestural movement. The cast also provided a safe transition to the drawing of the live model and understanding the complex relationships in a living body. Cast drawing provided a practical vehicle for the exploration of drawing media and methods as well.
Figural groupings of casts, both freestanding and in relief, taught lessons in composition, perspective and the interrelations between figures in a narrative image.
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