History of Art Education Part 3: The Industrial Revolution

By the nineteenth century the factory had surpassed the craft workshop, skilled artisans of the past were gradually replaced by machines that could be operated by untrained workers. The workshop master of medieval times were replaced by the entrepreneur who could hire unskilled workers to operate machinery without the necessity of long apprenticeships.

This epochal change once again lead to the demise of the artisan, with each nation approaching its problem of art education in the industrial age in a different way. The first example of such thinking of art education for workers in industry was a drawing school in Edinburgh set up in 1760 “to encourage and improve Scottish industries through the teaching of drawing and design to artisans”. 

In France the rigorous rules around style and aesthetics were relaxed as the principle aim was not court and aristocratic patronage which all but disappeared after the revolution (1789-1799). This in turn lead ateliers becoming more experimental, with classical poses and painting style such as the painting The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the tent of Achilles (1801) by academician Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres giving way to informal and relaxed scenes of daily life, like the painting The Ironworker’s Noontime (1880)  by Thomas Anshutz. This development in turn lead to the development of impressionist artists like Claude Monet, James Whistler and Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh who all studied at one time in the academies. You can see how the classical routes of academic training was still visible but the emergence of free thinking allowed artists to explore all type of aesthetics and not just those rules set by a higher power.

'The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the tent of Achilles' - Ingres 1801
'The Ironworker's Noontime' - Thomas Anshutz 1880

Such was the decline of craftmanship during the industrial revolution in Britain, during the exhibition at the Crystal Palace of 1851 Britain’s industrial products were ranked among the lowest.  This lead to the reform of curriculum and a national drawing course for primary school introduced. And the emergence of the  National Art Training School , now the Royal college of art. 

The new drawing course implemented in 1857 was intended to give pupils “a power of close and refined imitation from the flat, knowledge of the elements of practical geometry and the power of drawing the objects themselves.”

-Macdonald, S. (1970). History and philosophy of art education.

Opposite is one of the exercises in the syllabus, This system of teaching was not simply “art for arts sake” but a program for the requirements of manufacturing, specifically textile manufacturing.

An exercise taken from the "National Drawing Course" 1857
The Bauhaus building, constructed 1925-1926

It was the emergence of the Bauhaus movement in 1919 and a program created as an attempt to disown all previous art styles that brought a fundamental change in views towards what the arts education should be.
Founded in Weimar Germany it became famous for its approach to design with its ideas of unifying mass production with individual artistic vision. At the core of the Bauhaus movement was the fact that there should be no division of craft based disciplines and that all crafts people should work together.


From this thinking came the most influential course in modern arts education. Known as the preliminary course or the foundation course which encouraged students to explore materials, colours and shapes. Josef Albers who became the master of the school in 1925 commented on the first day of teaching-
“All art starts with a material, and therefore we have first to investigate what our material can do. So, at the beginning we will experiment without aiming at making a product take the newspapers … and try to make something out of them that is more than you have now. I want you to respect the material and use it in a way that makes sense”

Below are a few examples of those same lessons

Josef Albers and his students at Bauhaus 1928 (photo Bauhaus Archives)
Work made during Josef Albers Class
Work made during Josef Albers Class
Work made during Josef Albers Class
Work made during Josef Albers Class
Work made during Josef Albers Class

Other prominent artists that taught at the Bauhaus school included Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, examples of Klees and Kandinsky’s students work can be seen on the right and it is little wonder that from these lessons in pure form and shapes Bauhaus’s distinctive style developed. 

Aswell as traditional 2 dimensional works of art furniture like the club chair model b3 (left) or the Wassily chair became an icon on the Bauhaus movement.
Ironically  it is clear that by trying to free a student from past theories, rules and traditions in arts and by centring thought around functionality the Bauhuas movement created an ideology of its own.

After the Nazi regime closed down the school a significant number of the teachers settled in the united states, with Albers later becoming head of art school at Yale university. By the end of world war 2 the Bauhaus style was known as the international style with the Bauhaus system influencing almost all curriculums of art schools. 
And so instead of life drawing being the core of every fine art course, the foundations of design based on Bauhaus teachings became almost universal apart form the Soviet Union.

Bauhaus teaching had a lot in common with the drawing course set up after the great exhibition of 1851, both having the principle of design elements at its core rather than life drawing. The difference being the British system was created to teach students the basis of beauty for industrial design whereas the Bauhaus philosophy was to teach design in order to cultivate artistic and individual vision.




Post war years

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) Jackson Pollock 1950
They Are Happy Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev (1949)

As America rose to dominance after World War 2 where previously Europe had centre stage, its art education grew rapidly partly with thanks to the G.I. bill of 1944 which gave veterans the chance to study at institutions across the country and movements especially that of abstract expressionism  became a  by word for American freedom over the communist states. 

This contrast is clear when comparing two artists form the same era, on the left we see one of the most famous abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock with his 1950s painting Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), compared to the Soviet artist Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev of a similar time. These 2 paintings show the difference of attitude towards the arts at this time.

Thierry de Duve (1944-) Belgian professor of modern art theory

Britain also had the same reaction to the post world era with the Labour government ethos being one of equality and national infrastructure. the by contrast outdated teachings of traditional arts education made way for more progressive views.

Belgian professor of modern art Thierry de Duve talks about the changes to art education in the 20th century in his 1993 essay ‘Artist and the Academy’ :

“Art schooling was affected by the avant-garde. As the examples and standards of the past could no longer be trusted, Psychology replaced anatomy in its function as foundation discourse for a new artistic humanism. The new doctrine stated that all men are endowed with innate faculties which it is the function of education to allow to grow.  In principle, if not in fact, the learning of art became simple: students should learn how to tap their unspoilt creativity, guided by immediate feeling and emotion”

This new avant garde approach to arts education can be seen in  Derek Hyatt comments about Leeds art school of the 1950s which some had called “the most influential [art school] in Europe since the Bauhaus”.

“Final year painting students still completed a set piece figure composition, but it was clear art was taking other forms. The vacuum former, the power drill and sander, the film camera, became fine art tools along with brush, pen and charcoal. Fine art studios became workshops, knee-deep in plaster and perspex offcuts. Paintings became reliefs, constructions became mobiles filmed in motion. Time and space became materials of art, like line and colour.”


This progressive outlook on arts education  lead to the first Coldstream report in 1960, tasked by Willaim Coldstream Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education. The report  encouraged liberalising tendencies and experiment, but always with the underpinning of a necessary foundation of skill, an awareness of art history and a general technical knowledge. The report acted as a rubber stamp to this progressive new education with it stating:

Within the simple structure that we propose art schools can construct their own courses free of complicated rules.”

Derek Hyatt (1931-2015) - British landscape painter
Hornsely College of art sit in
Hornsely College of art sit in

Major discontent in the education of arts can be seen in the Hornsely College of art sit in of May 1968 initial started as a debate over facilities and freezing of union funds, then expanded to a manifesto for the complete overhaul of arts education, centring on the cultivation of the individual, the removal of outdated bourgeois art. The occupiers’ letter to college authorities at the end of the first month included the following:

 “We are demonstrating that it is entirely possible [to] … organise in cooperation with our tutors a curriculum in which individual needs are no longer subordinated to a predetermined system of training requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the students’ artistic and intellectual capacities.”

Degrees awarded within the Fine Arts in Britain at this time used a typical system of first down to thirds. This system of grading seems to jar against the new modern way of viewing artwork as envisioned by the Hornsby students, as a degree by its definition implies a measurable distance. Due to the altogether conceptual ideals of modern fine art where the artist and artwork should be free from criticism on a technical level, the question arises how can you grade a piece of work for which its very embodiment is often a rebellion against the core principles of the system it is being graded against. 
This has in some case ironically lead to modern art instead of becoming a liberated form of expression for the every person to  an often criticized elitist one in which you have those that are in the know and the outsiders who dont “get it”.

Leeds 13 art movement

This new modern art form can be epitomised by the famous Leeds 13 in which 13  third year Fine Art students at the University of Leeds caused a sensation with their end of year project. They claimed to have spent thousands of pounds of University Union money on a holiday to Málaga, this later turned out to be hoax with the photos staged and carefully choreographed.
The students were awarded a 2:1 but on later appeal upgraded to a first.

The sculpture course at London St martins college during the 1960s demonstrates the breakdown in boundaries between disciplines, with the painting and sculpture schools being joined in 1965, during this time sculptors like Anthony Caro lead the sculpture department specialising in welded found metal objects.  Bruce McLean sculptor and performance artist studied at St Martins from 1963- 1966 summaries his experience.

“I began to understand what it was all about, which was nothing. All the discussion centred on the proclamation that sculpture should be placed on a floor and not on a base. It seemed to me quite daft that adults should spend their time like that. It dawned on me that what it was really about was the making of a name for oneself.”

'Early One Morning' Sir Anthony Caro 1962
Sensation art show 18 September – 28 December 1997

The culmination of  arts education today then is less about technical proficiency but more about a demonstrable level of self exploration, this is seen in the 1970s Coldstream report into arts education where it states: 

We believe that studies in fine art derive from an attitude which may be expressed in many ways.”

This shows the complete change in attitude to arts education from one where the student is the understudy like seen in the apprenticeships of the medieval guilds and the French academies of the 19th century, to one where the student is now the finished product and a saleable commodity. Evidence of this is seen in modern art education’s curriculums that often include emphasis on “professional practice” over perfecting skillsets, where a final year show becomes one of vital career importance for an artist who may only just be in their 20s.

 The strongest evidence for this still was the emergence of the young British artists or YBA who studied at goldsmiths during the late 80s who include household names like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili , their infamous Sensation exhibition at the RA in 1997 becoming the principle of success for British art students and in a sense art education.
 Although in a strange twist of fate it was due largely to the patronage of one man
, Charles Sacchi who had become much like the  church in the medieval period and the state in later centuries dictating the pathways of art students who now consider the title of artist as one of continual pusher of boundaries with the goal of commercial success and  being noticed by galleries or Sacchi himself .  

'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' Damien Hirst 1991
'My bed' Tracy Emin 1998
'The Holy Virgin Mary' Chris Ofili 1996

To conclude this 3 part series we can see how the role of the artist has changed throughout the years, decades and centuries but often bound by recurring themes. Like how the monks of the medieval period who created art work autonomously as a penance and service to their god, plays a similar role to the drawing schools set up in the 19th century to create and develop designers and industrialists. This role of the artist is in stark contrast to the Renaissance man, an individual who embodies all aspects of Polymath life, not just drawing or painting and who can be given the title of genius. We see a similar role in todays art students where the emphasis is on the student as a learned scholar fully developed in skill and voice and who only needs a platform to present themselves. 

There are new developments in the arts with many private schools arising to fill the gap of yesteryear colleges that taught craft, realising that a grounding in technical ability is valuable skill and students are willing to dedicate time learning such a highly skilled craft.
Where this progression of the arts education leads of course remains to be seen, but art education very much follows closely to that of accepted societal norms and every epoch takes lessons good and bad from the past. There might yet be a paradigm shift  where the view points of modern and post modern art is cast aside as old fashioned, this seems not an unlikely scenario given that we are now past the centenary of the birth of the Bauhaus movement and many disciples of the pioneers in the era of abstraction and modernist art are well into their twilight years themselves.

So perhaps new generations will look elsewhere and maybe even behind them for guidance,  we wait and see.