As Plain as the Nose

Humble pie is painting from direct observation.

— Lennart Anderson

In an art class, I’ve been painting a plaster cast of the nose of Michelangelo’s David.

Despite the schnozzola’s simplicity, so far it’s taken me 24 hours to paint it—and I still have three more hours to go before it’s done.

My instructor demands a degree of exactitude that clearly taxes my ability to observe reality and reproduce it on a two-dimensional surface.

Of course, that’s why I’m enrolled in the class.

To improve my eye-to-hand skills.

But talk about humble pie!

The class is like a pie-eating contest.

The exercise isn’t only humbling; it’s withering.

But I’m in good company.

The practice of painting fragments of David’s face goes back to mid-19th century England.

An 1860 catalog in Great Britain’s National Art Library shows that the London studio of master mold-maker Domenico Brucciani produced and sold plaster casts “taken from antique and modern statues,” including fragments of David.

The casts were made specifically for art teachers.

An instructor named Édouard Lantéri institutionalized their use throughout British art schools 40 years later, when he published three teacher’s guides explaining the casts.

Lantéri believed that precisely reproducing David’s facial features—the mouth, nose, ears and eyes, in that order—was the best way for an artist to learn how to model (i.e., to mimic “form” in two dimensions).

His three guidebooks, in fact, were titled Modelling.

“The best models for the details of the face I consider to be those taken from the mask of Michelangelo’s David,” Lantéri wrote.

“They are executed with such precision, so much knowledge of form and anatomy, that in copying them the student is seized with the desire to know the reason for these forms.”

For better or worse, Lantéri’s idea stuck and spread from Great Britain to the US, where it still holds sway among many art teachers today.

Including mine.

Above: Cast of David’s nose by Michelangelo Buonarroti. David’s Nose by Robert Francis James. Oil on canvas board. 24 x 18 inches. You can discover another artist’s take on David’s nose here.