In 1899 Robert Alan Mowbray (R.A.M.) Stevenson published a book about the work of Diego Velazquez. Stevenson was a student of Carolus-Duran at the same time as John Singer Sargent. Duran stressed fresh and direct painting from life, not the academic style of slowly building up transparent layers. This style was inspired by the directness of painting that Duran looked up to in Velazquez and encouraged his students to study. Duran is quoted as saying, “Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez. Study Velazquez without respite!”
Stevenson recorded the methods taught in Duran’s studio while he was a student. Perhaps equally important, we learn more about what Sargent was learning during his formative painting years.
“For those who had asked his aid, Carolus-Duran formulated the principles of his own art, and enforced them by an appeal to the practice of others and, before all, of Velazquez.
“By his method of teaching, he hoped at least to give the student a knowledge of what he saw, and a logical grasp of the principles of sight. After a slight search of proportions with charcoal, the places of masses were indicated with a rigger dipped in flowing pigment. No preparation in colour or monochrome was allowed, but the main planes of the face must be laid directly on the unprepared canvas with a broad brush. These few surfaces – three or four in the forehead, as many in the nose, and so forth – must be studied in shape and place, and particularly in the relative value of light that their various inclinations produce. They were painted quite broadly in even tones of flesh tint, and stood side by side like pieces of a mosaic, without fusion of their adjacent edges. No brushing of the edge of the hair into the face was permitted, no conventional bounding of eyes and features with lines that might deceive the student by their expression into the belief that false structure was truthful. In the next stage you were bound to proceed in the same manner by laying planes upon the junctions of the larger ones or by breaking the larger planes into smaller subordinate surfaces. You were never allowed to brush one surface into another, you must make a tone for each step of a gradation. Thus, you might never attempt to realize a tone or a passage by some hazardous uncontrollable process.
“M. Carolus-Duran believed that if you do not approach tone by direct painting you will never know what you can do, and will never discover whether you really feel any given relation, or the values any contrasting surfaces. The first stages of this work looked like portraits of wooden figures cut with a knife in sharp edged, unsoftened facets. The effect on the Ruskinian of this hideous and pitiless logic was terrible. Most of them sickened at the strong medicine and fled from the too heroic cure for the namby-pamby modeling which trusts for expression to a red line between the lips, a contour line to the nose, and a careful rigger track round the eyes and eyebrows. I have felt the first spasms of this disgust, and I praise the master who stayed, not the pupil who fled. If Duran was not squeamish at criticizing and touching these awful dolls, why should the pupil take pride in the weakness of his stomach. Duran had little patience with the aesthete and conventional sentimentalist, and nothing amused him more than the “loss of my originality,” a plea often put forward by men still blind to the ordinary aspect of nature. He was pitiless to the transparent colour dodge, the badger-hair hypocrisy, and the hopeful haphazard glazings of the sentimentalist who cannot shape a nose, and would show all Browning’s works in a face.
“This severe system, it must be remembered, served merely as the gymnastic of art, it was a means of education for the eye not a trick of mannerism, or a ready-made style of painting. Had not Duran’s studio been already described, I believe in the 19th century, I should have said more of the teaching of a great painter whose only recognized master was Velazquez. There is, however, on point that i must mention, as it throws a light on the simplicity of Velazquez’s flesh tints and the surprising subtlety and clearness of his modeling of shape. Everyone knows that insubordination of the eye or that false estimation of comparative importance’s in nature which led some painters to exaggerate spots of local colour, definitions of detail, reflected lights, or, in fact, anything dangerous to the peace of the ensemble. They so treated the skin, as to embarrass modeling, which is the first quality in a face, for the sake of accidental spots, which are of little count in that most even and luminous of substances, flesh.”