Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Olde School

A traditional Philly art school shows the community how to get 'real' the Naturalist way.  

The recent opening of the new Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia with its abundant collection of Post-Impressionist paintings by Cezanne, Matisse and others seemed warmly welcomed by many art lovers, not to mention its Fairmount neighborhood realtors.

But not everyone has been so strongly jubilant. In a less gentrified section of the same community is an art learning center called the Cambridge Street Studios, which is a private school and studio run by a handful of dedicated artists who've pitched in to build a resource that is helping preserve and promote traditional art, and make learning it affordable and accessible to all.

The school teaches a formal curriculum of Naturalism in art, which refers to the classic study of the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting. Along with the Realism movement of the 19th century, Naturalism stood in stark contrast to the stylized and idealized renderings of subjects in Romanticism.

But it also appears to distinguish itself from other art movements, including that of the revered Barnes stash of Post-Impressionism and early modernist style paintings.

At least that was how it was conveyed to me by Cambridge Street Studios artist and instructor Anthony Ranalli, a soft spoken young man with strong ideas and a clear devotion to his mission in art. Mr. Ranalli goes so far as to contend that the Post-Impressionist era was somewhat of a opportunistic scheme foisted upon the public by art dealers of the time to bring about a more prolific art industry, that they flooded the market with the newer, trendier styles to make a quick buck. Painters in the Post-Impressionist and modern styles could produce work at a fraction of time to that of the academics.

Sketch by Anthony Ranalli.

Completed drawing by Anthony Ranalli

Cambridge Street Studios, Philadelphia.

The notion is compelling no doubt, and one that I might add to my list of other curious old world conspiracy theories, including that of the Society of the Illuminati, or the numerous mysterious dark tales of the Jeffersonian era Freemasons - just catch an episode of the History Channel some afternoon for intriguing details on those.

But because beauty is often subjective and informed by complex sensibilities, and because the state of the art world is one of constant flux, it's likely that many issues contributed to the rapid changes in popularity of the styles. Something to which Mr. Ranalli will readily admit. Perhaps there's a novel here to unravel, a puzzling caper of art, passion, betrayal and heroism. In any case, one thing is for certain about the artists at Cambridge Street Studios - they are diligent, industrious, and extremely dedicated to their craft.

Designer in Exile recently chatted with Mr. Ranalli about his admirable work, the ethos of the Naturalist style, and the impressive curriculum offered at the school:

What exactly is Naturalist style portraiture?

The academic naturalist aesthetic seeks to portray all subjects true to their appearance in nature. It is our belief that nature is our superior without idealization or mannerization. Our process focuses on an in depth study of the science of light on form and a drawing process that lends itself to a high level of accuracy. Through  understanding we seek to convey beauty.

Tell us about your school and describe the curriculum you offer.

Cambridge Street Studios was founded in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia in 2010 by Angela Cunningham, Jeremy Deck, Andrew McManus and myself. We came together while studying at the Grand Central Academy, atelier of Jacob Collins in New York City. We opened our doors to provide the Philadelphia area with a school where one can receive a formal academic training in the study of painting, drawing, and sculpture at an extremely affordable price.

The Barnes Foundation building, Philadelphia.

The program at Cambridge Street follows the learning pedagogy of the 19th century French academy and teaches a working process that allows artists the ability to make and complete works with confidence and deliberation. We are constantly seeking devoted students for both full-time and part-time curricula. We also offer a variety of intensive workshops.

Name some artists who represent the naturalist aesthetic.

There is a wide variety of artists within the category, but some of the more familiar ones would be artists such as William Bliss Baker with his landscape paintings, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painters such as Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-bouveret, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Gian Lorenzo Bernini - artists who often chose themes that were simple, honest, unaffected, with people in natural settings or jobs. The subjects were often working class non-aristocrats.

John Singelton Copley's famous portrait of Paul Revere comes to mind. Would he be considered a Naturalist?

Not quite, although he's often included in the scope of realism, our focus is primarily with the late 19th century French academic painting. That's what we aspire to most.

Thanks for the talk and good luck with your studio program.

My pleasure.

More info on the school can be found at Additional examples of Anthony Ranalli's artwork can be found on our designer in exile Tumblr page.
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  1. Interesting article, and the artists work shown here is stunningly beautiful. However, it's really hard to knock the masterpieces included in the Barnes Collection without simply sounding like a contrarian.

    Bill K.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I don't think Anthony was knocking Barnes as much as offering an explanation for the flooded market of Post-Impressionist and early modern art during the 19th century (the categories promanently featured in the Barnes collection) and how that impacted on other schools of the period. There are certainly some true masterpieces there. Nonetheless, some critics do remain underwhelmed by the exhibit.

  3. While it's true that the art dealers may have been excited by developing new styles, I hardly think this was a "conspiracy" when you consider that the academy continued to thrive well beyond the time that people began to catch on to the new painting.