Thursday, August 15, 2013

Shorty Lasar and the Angle Machine

"Shorty" Lasar, Gérôme, and a Parisian gardien
(guardiens were much like museum guards, keeping artists in line in the mornings,
and overseeing tourists in the afternoons)
Illustration by John Cameron

In 1878, Shirley Fox relocated with his parents and older brother to Paris.  His father, who had accepted a job position in France, happened to make the acquaintance of the artist Charles-Émile-Hippolyte Vernet-Lecomte, and confided in the Frenchman that he wished that his younger child should train to be a painter.  Vernet-Lecomte agreed to take on the young boy,  and so began Shirley Fox's education in the arts ;  he was not yet 12.

From his private study with Vernet-Lecomte, Fox went on to study at the Académie Julian, and by age 15, was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts.  As was the custom, new students to the Beaux Arts, no matter their proficiency, had to make their début working from the antique.  Once a student's cast drawing placed well in the monthly drawing competitions, he was permitted to enter the life class.  

It was during Fox's early days working from the antique that he befriended an American student by the name of Charles "Shorty" Lasar.  Lasar, who would go on to run his own atelier in Paris and train the likes of Violet Oakley and Cecilia Beaux, was then a struggling first-year trying to move up in the school.  In his 1909 memoir, An Art Student Reminiscences of Paris in the Eighties, Fox recalled the following story about "Shorty" Lasar and the little device he created to improve his draughtsmanship.

He (Lasar) it was who, during the first few weeks he became a student, so absolutely startled our master, Gérome.  Lasar had settled down to tackle one of Michael Angelo's large reclining figures.  These are complicated things to draw, and poor "Shorty," not possessing then the power of draughtsmanship that he subsequently attained, got into a horrible mess with his "angles" and direction of the limbs.  This the patron, at his next visit, was not slow to point out, explaining the fact in language more forcible than polite.  Now "Shorty" had a positive genius for overcoming obstacles and usually an ever-ready "scheme" to help him out.  So realising that something must be done, and that the case called for special measures, he then and there devised his famous "angle machine," an invention which, I believe, he subsequently patented, and which was of the greatest benefit, in later years, to his many pupils.  This "angle machine," like most great inventions, was beautiful in its simplicity.  It was just a rectangular frame, such as one might cut from any postcard, with a plumb-line attachment in the centre. Armed with this instrument, he once more attacked the offending drawing, and, with infinite pains and labour, set to work to measure and correct every possible angle it contained.  At the professor's next visit the gardien, who used to while away his time listening to such criticisms as he could conveniently overhear, had approached Lasar's drawing to catch what the great man had to say.  Seating himself in the student's place, and adjusting his pince-nez, Gérome began to examine the work before him, glancing quickly from it again and again to the statue.  This went on for some time and his face assumed a puzzled look.  Seizing a crayon, and holding it at arm's length, he proceeded, in his quick, decisive manner, to verify certain of the angles depicted, measuring them with the utmost care.  Then he tried others and his puzzled look increased.  At last he spoke.  Turning round sharply and looking at Lasar as if he were some strange curiosity, he rapped out his words.  "It's astonishing," he exclaimed.  "I don't understand!  How did you do it?"  On Lasar making some vague reply he continued, "I can't understand it at all :  the angles are perfect ;  there is not an error."  The gardien's eyes at this point were bulging with astonishment.  Gérome ended his criticism by remarking :  "Of course you can't draw a little bit, and as for your proportions they simply don't exist.  But your angles!  they are wonderful – perfect!  Raphael himself could do no better!"¹

My interpretation of Lasar's "Angle Machine," made from a postcard, a piece of
string, and a weight (thus making a plumb-line).

Additional Posts on Charles Lasar on Underpaintings:

Words of Wisdom:  Charles A. Lasar

Words of Wisdom:  More Hints from 'Shorty' Lasar

¹ Fox, Shirley, An Art Student Reminiscences of Paris in the Eighties, (Mills & Boon, Ltd., London, 1909),  pp.  81-85.


Ben Valentine said...

I love this story. There's so much to learn from it about Gerome; Glancing back and forth quickly. Measuring angles. Good stuff.

अर्जुन said...

Note that while drawing after the antique Shorty was seated.

kev ferrara said...

No, I think shorty is the very short fellow standing next to the seated fellow. Shorty was actually quite short.

innisart said...

@ Kev – Well, yes. . . Shorty is the diminutive person in the illustration. Gérôme is sitting in his student's chair so that he may better judge the accuracy of the drawing from Lasar's point of view ("Seating himself in the student's place"). I believe what अर्जुन was commenting upon was that Shorty had been sitting when doing the drawing (and was only standing so Gérôme could temporarily sit there), meaning that Shorty was drawing using comparative sizing, rather than sight sizing. If Shorty was drawing while sitting, he was stationary, and thus not moving back and forward as one does to sight-size. This could indicate that sight-size was not necessarily the de rigueur method in Gérôme's atelier.