Study of the figure of Laocoön, between 1851-1873
Unknown artist and Formerly attributed to Charles Landseer RA (1799 - 1879)
RA Collection: Art
This highly finished chalk study of the central figure of the Laocoön group is signed by Charles Landseer and was therefore assumed to be his work. However, it is more likely that the drawing was in fact carried out by a student at the Royal Academy Schools during the period when Charles Landseer served as Keeper (between 1851-1873) and that it was signed by him to authenticate it as the work of one of his students.
During this period, aspiring artists gained admission to the RA Schools by submitting drawings after casts of Classical sculptures for the approval of the Academy's Council. If these were approved the student was admitted as a 'probationer' and given a specified period of time to draw from the casts at the Academy. They then submitted further drawings in order to enrol as full students. The same system was in place for progression from the Antique School to the Life School and to the School of Painting (in the latter case, life drawings were submitted). The Laocoön and the Belvedere Torso were amongst the most popular casts chosen for these exercises (see Farr).
It was the Keeper's responsibility to show the students' drawings to the Council. It seems to have been quite common for the Keeper to sign or otherwise inscribe the students' drawings to authenticate them - see, for instance, a drawing by Charles West Cope initialled by William Hilton (07/4287). The drawings were not signed by the student before they were put before Council in the interests of fair play. The drawing of the hand of Laocoön by Charles Landseer's younger brother Edwin and two drawings of casts by George Richmond were probably signed by the artists retrospectively(07/3675 and 07/3674). However, it was not the Academy's policy to collect such studies, making this and a handful of others a rare and interesting group within the RA collection.
The style in which this study has been drawn is a further indication that it is not the work of Charles Landseer himself. The highly detailed and anatomically accurate figure is drawn in black chalk with shading and highlights effected by blending with the stump, which is typical of the the style promoted in the Schools in the middle of the 19th century c. 1850-1870 (see Art in the Age of Victoria). Earlier drawings of this sort were often detailed but with more linear shading using hatched and cross-hatched strokes and sometimes employing white chalk to create dramatic highlights like the example by Edwin Landseer mentioned above.
The Royal Academy has several casts after the original marble sculpture of 'Laocoön and his Sons' now in the Vatican Museums, Rome, which is itself possibly a Roman version of an earlier Greek sculpture. The group was excavated on the Esquiline Hill, Rome, in 1506 and soon became an iconic image. The cast of the whole Laocoön group was one of the most important in the collection of the Royal Academy Schools and can be seen in early paintings of the Academy and its members such as Singleton's group portrait (03/1310). The cast of onlythe central figure, shown in this drawing, would have been of equal interest to students as it would enable them to concentrate their efforts on the most impressive and dramatic figure in the group.
Helen Valentine ed. , Art in the Age of Victoria , exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts/Yale University Press, 1999, p. 42
Lessons from Life, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London 1994, repd. fig. 1
Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1982, pp. 243-247
Dennis Farr, William Etty, London, 1958, p. 9
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