The History of the Gabriel Prize

For centuries — at least as far back as the Renaissance — young architects have made a practice of the sketching tour: traveling to see, to record, and to learn from the masterworks of history. The Gabriel Prize belongs to this long tradition; the details of the program — a focus on France and on finished drawings especially — are what set the Gabriel Prize apart, at least from other modern American fellowships. These things were George Parker, Jr.’s particular interests, and they gave the Gabriel its personal stamp.

For George Parker, Jr., the Gabriel Prize was in the first place a tribute to a country he loved. He had discovered France as a young man and returned frequently thereafter throughout his life. His interest in French decorative arts was deep, scholarly, and widespread. His contributions to organizations such as Les Amis de Versailles, La Demeure Historique, Les Vieilles Maisons Françaises, and La Malmaison testify to the breadth of his interests. Through these projects Parker came to see the crucial role France has played in the visual arts. The Italian Renaissance had retrieved the achievements of the ancient world for medieval Europe. Thereafter, France played an increasingly central role in transmitting later cultural advances to surrounding countries. From the reign of Louis XIV onward, French influence over the arts, language, manners, and cuisine spread beyond its borders to adjoining northern countries, such as Germany, Holland, Denmark, Russia, and Sweden. The title of “Western European Architecture Foundation” reflects this history. Gabriel, in turn, was the name of one of France’s most famous architects — Ange-Jacques Gabriel — author of such extraordinary achievements as Place de la Concorde, Versailles, the Petit Trianon, L’ École Militaire, Le Château de Compiègne, and many other masterpieces.

The Gabriel Prize program was established partly out of Parker’s concern about the lack of knowledge on the part of students of historic precedents, and the erosion of their ability to draw by hand. As a commitment to such concerns, he envisioned sending a selected candidate to France to draw, to think creatively, and to learn by doing. Such a program called for the organization of recruiting and selection procedures. Prospective candidates for the program need to be American citizens, and, as Parker so wittily described it, “someone who went to the wrong school, took ten years or so finding it out, and would welcome the opportunity of three months to take stock and review the future.” He established the Foundation with such a purpose in mind. The subject matter was broadened beyond Parker’s own personal preference, the French 18th-century, to a period of three centuries between 1630 (the start of the “French age classique” with the completion of the Château de Maison Lafitte) through the revolution of 1830 (introducing the beginning of Victoriana) and then on to 1930. Concerning technique, it became apparent that there is a wide difference between filling small sketch books with exquisite impressions and executing a color drawing as large as 20 x 30 inches. Such a requirement, unique in the field of traveling scholarship, is the drawing test that Parker had in mind. Final drawings testify to the variety of approaches. While some original intentions exceed the artists’ abilities, others are overwhelmed by their newly discovered skills.

The selection process includes three phases, with candidates registering their interest through the submission of pertinent illustration of personal work and an outline of the studies contemplated. A first jury is empowered to select from such submissions three candidates who are then invited to meet a second jury assembled with the task of naming the final winner. The winner is required to begin studies in France by May 1st, keep a traveling sketchbook, and prepare three large colored drawings within a period of three months under the supervision of the European representative.

Jurors are chosen for their experience as teachers, as artists, and for their knowledge of study abroad. They are architects, landscape architects, painters, professors, and past Gabriel Prize laureates. The goal is to maintain a variety of viewpoints and experiences among the jurors.

In view of the many high-quality Gabriel Prize candidates in 1993 and 1999, the second jury of those years suggested awarding two prizes instead of one. The Foundation endorsed such a recommendation as a unique opportunity to recognize outstanding talent, and, in 1999, to honor the memory of George Parker, Jr., who died November 7, 1998. Foundation president, Patrick J. Fleming, and vice-president, Carol Fleming, are present at the juries, keep a faithful record of the proceedings, maintain a liaison with the candidates as well as the winner, and are vigilant of the program’s integrity and the continued health of the Foundation.

Following the final jury selection, the Foundation meets with the winner to assist with travel preparations, lodging suggestions, and introduction to French scholars most likely to contribute to the winner’s program of study. During the following three months, the European representative is responsible for helping to coordinate the details of the study, providing critiques of the large drawings, and assuring their timely delivery.

With the help of such valued colleagues, the Foundation is alive and well in fulfilling the wishes of its genial founder.