Seldom do we see architectural designs that never made it off the drawing board. Often such drawings were stored away in dark archives or lost forever. Architectural drawings completed at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris seemed destined for similar fates. But one American collector’s ardor for Beaux-Arts drawings has meant that we can catch a rare glimpse of architectural treasures that beautifully document professional architect training in France.
Until June 13, visitors to the New-York Historical Society can see French architectural drawings from the private collection of investor and philanthropist Peter May, in the exhibition “The Art of Architecture: Beaux-Arts Drawings From the Peter May Collection.”
In the exhibition, over 50 drawings by students and graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris illustrate the history of French architectural training in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Also included are two drawings by New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White from the historical society’s collection. Beaux-Arts architect Charles Follen McKim was a graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
“The idea of the show is to illustrate the steps along the path toward becoming a professional architect,” exhibition curator Maureen Cassidy-Geiger said in a telephone interview. Scholar Cassidy-Geiger is the Peter May collection curator. Her specialty is 17th- and 18th-century European court culture and the history of decorative arts and collecting, but her range extends to architecture and design from the Renaissance to the 20th century.
Each drawing demonstrates the Beaux-Arts style, the classical architectural style that European and American architects practiced until World War II. Cassidy-Geiger stressed that many of the drawings tend toward the artistic, even if they originated as admission drawings for the École des Beaux-Arts, or assignment and competition drawings to express the progress and mastery of the student.
What makes this exhibition particularly remarkable is that most of the surviving architectural drawings of this caliber are kept in the archives of institutes and libraries. “Private collectors of this material are few and far between,” Cassidy-Geiger said. And May’s collection of some 700 architectural drawings is one of the largest of its kind.
Board members of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation in America who visited the exhibition, many of whom are architects and designers producing architectural drawings similar to those in the exhibition, found it astonishing that this private collection existed, Cassidy-Geiger explained.
Cassidy-Geiger has hung the drawings in what is called the “salon style,” with the pictures tightly packed and placed high on the wall in a two-story space—a style that’s rarely seen in museums and art galleries today. Displaying the drawings en masse makes quite an impact, and it demonstrates their variety and scale. Detailed drawings are hung at eye level so visitors can enjoy the exquisite works in their minutiae. And hung up high are monumental pieces effectively showing these grandiose drawings’ large scale.
“Having them framed as if they were old master drawings or paintings is highly unusual,” she said.
For May, these framed works in his homes and offices constantly inspire him. “The ability to live on a daily basis with so many beautiful pieces has significantly enriched my life and love of architecture,” Peter May said in the foreword of “Living With Architecture as Art: The Peter W. May Collection of Architectural Drawings, Models, and Artefacts, Volume I.”
It seems the exhibition team shared May’s sentiment as they were in awe of the framed drawings, and one was particularly impactful. “It was just a jaw-dropping moment when they saw the frames, and realized that the ‘Joan of Arc’ should be the centerpiece,” Cassidy-Geiger said.
Collectively, the drawings illustrate the different stages of training at the École des Beaux-Arts, starting with admission drawings hung on the left side of the wall, and presentation drawings rendered by graduates are displayed on the right side.
The School of Fine Arts in Paris dates back to 1648. Practicing architects (“patrons”) recommended students to the school until 1823, after which students took an entrance exam.
Some students already worked with an architect in private practice in studios (“ateliers”), where the patron trained them in design and drawing skills and helped them gain admission to the School of Fine Arts or advanced their education.
At the ateliers, which were often affiliated with the school, students learned the architectural skills necessary for their admission drawings. And once they were admitted, it was in these ateliers that the students would learn how best to advance through the school system.
For example, students learned orthographic drawing, a technique whereby buildings are rendered completely flat with no perspective, usually with three different views: a plan, a front elevation, and a side elevation. But students enlivened their drawings by adding watercolor shadows and staffage, the addition of figures to give some dimensionality to the drawing, Cassidy-Geiger explained. “For Peter May, this made them … more artistic. They weren’t simply flat architectural drawings; they actually had some life and vitality,” she added.
Of all the works on display, she particularly enjoys a composite study of St. Geneviève Abbey in Paris. In this piece, the student reconstructed part of an alcove window and balcony in which he added details of architectural ornamentation such as urns and a wrought iron balustrade made three-dimensional by shadows.
“This to me is also a signifier of the artist, the artistry of these drawings, that this person not only had to accurately render architectural substance, but actually created this really breathtaking composition,” she said.
Study at the School of Fine Arts in Paris was different from what we recognize today. “It really took a lot of personal initiative, one would have to say. … You really had to commit, because a lot of it was self-guided,” Cassidy-Geiger said.
In the school’s atrium, the students studied a collection of plaster casts of classical masterpieces. By the 19th century, many European museums had similar cast halls. And a library full of architectural renderings and printed books were also available for the students to study, she said.
Students were tested on their skills in mathematics and perspective drawing, and they advanced through the school by entering “concours” (competitions), with each one centered on a particular theme. They entered at least two concours per year, and the types of projects varied, including even posters and stamp designs, Cassidy-Geiger wrote in “Living With Architecture as Art.” A few of the original assignments are on display in one of the exhibition cases. Students would’ve been given a printed assignment specifying the building type, the dimensions of the paper, and the different renderings required. For each competition, they needed to submit four drawings: a plan, an elevation, a perspective, and a cross-section. If a student omitted a required element, his competition entry was rejected.
Once submitted, the competition drawings were tacked to the wall for judging. They weren’t framed, but students were taught to render frames within their compositions. Students included a faint watercolor frame or even gilt-metal tape that acted as a framing device, Cassidy-Geiger said. Each submission was judged blindly; all identifying marks were omitted from the entry, but the student and his associated atelier was annotated on the work when the judging was over.
“Whoever won first, second, or third accrued a certain number of points, and once they reached a certain threshold, they could advance to the next class. It could take three, four, or five years to actually get through the system, and they were all aiming for the Rome Prize,” she explained.
The Rome Prize
Some of the largest drawings in the exhibition are Rome Prize competition entries. Cassidy-Geiger highlights a rather delightful plan for an observatory with a series of whimsical driveways winding through mountainous terrain. The exhibition’s centerpiece is a vertical rendering of a grand monument to Joan of Arc that was awarded fourth place in the competition. All first-, second-, and third-prize winning entries are kept in the archives of the School of Fine Arts.
Winning the Rome Prize allowed students to spend three to five years studying at the French Academy in the Villa Medici in Rome. Studying in Rome, the heart of classical art at the time, meant that students could completely immerse themselves in the ruins of antiquity.
Drawings created abroad by the Rome Prize winners are also included in the exhibition: from reconstructed ruins of a Roman theater delicately rendered in watercolor to splendiferous reconstructed polychromed wall paintings of Herculaneum and Pompeii. “These were the kinds of renderings that were produced by the winners of the Rome Prize and by the architects that went to Rome to study antiquity,” Cassidy-Geiger said.
On returning to France, the students would begin working as architects. But whereas British architects would enter into private practice in independent studios to compete for public and private commissions, many graduates of the School of Fine Arts in Paris went to work for the French government.
At the end of the exhibition, on the right, are a few examples of graduate presentation drawings, which would have been seen by private funders or government officials. The drawings are beautifully rendered, not just for the aesthetic but for practical purposes, to communicate the design to someone who might not necessarily read an architectural drawing.
To find out more about the exhibition “The Art of Architecture: Beaux-Arts Drawings From the Peter May Collection,” which runs until June 13 at the New-York Historical Society, visit NYHistory.org