In France, classicism was considered almost a national French characteristic and was equated with the “grand manner” of Poussin. Classicism was characterized by a structured and logical composition, clearly defined forms, and strong but restrained color. Within the French Academy, Classicism was always aligned with the academic system and was considered the artistic norm. In France, classicism was based upon a well worked out body of theory and system of instruction, which was based on the tenants of classical art. Classicism was also aligned with le grand gout, or art in the grand manner, or le grand art. The heroic nudity of these antique statues was seen as universal and timeless, removed from specific time and place and from actual reality. Realism or naturalism in art was considered suitable for and referred only to lower class taste. Classicism did not concern itself with individual feeling or emotions but expressed states of emotions that were universal, signaled to the viewer through codified gestures. These idealized and perfected human forms presented ideal states of being as conveyed by noble deeds and exemplary morality. The ideals of classical art from antiquity was the basis of academic education and training.
Academic art is the product of an art school where training was based in drawing from plaster casts and, later, nude models. The carefully delineated forms were carefully modeled for a restrained three-dimensional effect that was rather like a bas relief. This art revolved around the mastery over the human form, which was considered to be the basis for the mastery of drawing all objects. So grounded in the study of the human figure, the term “académies” refers to drawings and paintings of the live model, who posed in stereotypical postures considered “classical” and noble. The principle of teaching was to proceed from the part to the whole. The parts would then be grouped into an ensemble stretched across the canvas. This method of collection and organization would lead to canvases crowded with actors striking a variety of glorious poses in a painted theater, rarely relating to one another. Composition became an exercise in adding bodies to a grid foundation, as best seen in Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence (1850). The highest form of art resulted from the study of the human forms displayed in large-scale history painting, depicting noble and uplifting morality plays from the past.
The Prix de Rome could be won when a student showed his (males only) ability to conceive of a composition on a subject from the Bible or mythology or classical literature or history as dictated by members of the Academy. This proscribed topic gave the student a chance to use academic poses and to render historical costumes, draperies, and accessories, showing the mastery of human anatomy, folds of cloth, and use of carefully drawn detail. The students learned of an ideal form that appealed to the mind and the intellect rather than to the emotions and the senses, an ideal that conveyed a universal truthfulness and a timeless authenticity. Color was applied in somber tones and was used to reinforce the linear zones and designs. This conservative handling of color was accompanied by fini, the smoothly finished pictorial surface (facture). The careful drawing, smooth surface of classicism in the Academy stood for an intellectual structure, a system of order, imposed upon nature in order to rule and control it.
The threat to classicism in the Nineteenth Century came from many directions. First, there was the breakdown of the standards of hierarchies of subjects due to the new audiences and patrons. Second, the works of artists who insisted on disregarding the rules of classical art making. In an outbreak of the old Poussin vs. Rubens debate, the Romantic artists preferred color over line and were interested in natural and transient light. Uninterested in classical composition, they also paid little attention to the carefully worked out method of half-tones, demi-teints, and of the prized finish of academic art. By mid-century, artist trained outside of the Academy, like Gustave Courbet, could become successful and prominent. In the clash between the Romantics and the Classicists, bourgeois realism and naturalism was a compromise between the polarities of line and color. Perhaps it is no coincidence that vanguard art developed in sub-genres neglected by the Academy. Here in pure landscapes, still lives and genre scenes, Realism and Impressionism could experiment in a territory that was virtually unoccupied. While the Academy stubbornly upheld unyielding theoretical positions and meaningless antique art, the official painters were able to bring about a quiet revolution in pictorial techniques. Romanticism is essentially an art of painting, and, before 1863, painting was not taught at the Academy.
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