The French Academy


The French Academy was established in 1648 for the purpose of controlling art in France and included a network of provincial schools in Rouen, Marseilles, Dijon, and Tours.  Art was intended to extend the nation’s prestige beyond politics and military glory and was intended to establish a hegemony in the arts and crafts. The French Revolution toppled this “Royal” Academy, replacing it in 1795 with the Institut, a representative body of intellectuals and artists who took over the instruction of artists in the School of Fine Arts in Paris and Rome.  They served in an administrative capacity that was honorary but powerful.  The Institut defined “art” and “artist” and established standards that should not be violated.  Meanwhile, other major cities followed the lead of the French.

In London, the Royal Academy was established in 1768. By 1790, over one hundred academies of art or public schools of art were flourishing: Vienna (remodeled) 1770, Dresden 1762, Berlin 1786, Copenhagen 1754, Stockholm 1768, St. Petersburg 1757, Madrid 1752, Dusseldorf 1767, Frankfort 1779, Munich 1770, Genoa 1752, Naples 1756, Mexico 1785 and Philadelphia 1791/1805. The increased importance of academic training in the arts coincided with the development of the modern nation state, and the government’s growing awareness of the usefulness of art in an international contest for prestige.  By the end of the Eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style was the official style of “Academic art,” regardless of country.  This official style of the academy was based upon the foundations of classical art and art theory, as expressed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture (1755).

According to Winckelmann, contemporary art should not copy Greek art but to should imitate the Greeks in their “noble grandeur and calm simplicity,” by attempting to think about art as they did.  This new frame of mind or mental state was hostile to that of the Rococo and put Antiquity forward as the only model to be followed.  “It is easier to discover the beauty of Greek statues than the beauty of nature,” Winckelmann stated, “imitating them will teach us how to become wise without loss of time.”

Winckelmann’s well-meaning volume of art history led to a formulaic copying by artists of classical models.  The academic learned response to the designated “ideal” beauty became a dictum to be followed.  Copying a pre-given object/objective led to the academic stress on drawing (disegno) because the pure outline was more faithful to the image.  Unlike fleeting, conditional and changeable color, drawing sought the essential and distilled the form into purity, a purity, which would have a moral character.  The moral character of art was definitively addressed by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who stated that art, and only art, could lift the human being up from his/her natural state into a moral state.  Art alone produces harmony between our sensual instincts and formality and between life and order. Still, there were problems with teaching art, for speaking prophetically, Schiller asked in 1783,  “Do you expect enthusiasm where the spirit of the academies rule?”

Napoléon reorganized the Institut in 1803 and increased its membership.  The members were given exclusive rights and unprecedented power to admit and honor works shown in the Salons. Napoléon’s gift of control to a handful of individuals was part of his plan to ensure total control of art now yoked to his propaganda machine. The Salon, in its modern form, now showed the works of all artists, deemed worth of admission, not just the members of the Academy.  The Institut also awarded the Grand Prix de Rome to Beaux-Arts students (males only).  When Napoléon fell from power in 1814, the Restoration government sought to reestablish the historical link between the old Royal Academy and the Institut, which also managed to control the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, even though the two bodies were theoretically separate.

The connections between the Academy, the Ecole, and the government varied with the ruler in power who could intervene or not in the affairs of the art world. Nevertheless, the Academy exercised a great deal of power over the world of French art, and by extension, over all other serious art worlds, for French art had established an hegemony in Europe.  The forty members of the Academy held fourteen chairs in painting, eight in sculpture and in architecture, four in engraving and six in music and controlled the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the contents of the annual Salon exhibitions.

Also read: “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”  

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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