The Royal Academy of Art

Jean-Baptiste Martin, Une assemblée ordinaire de l’Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, Louvre

In 1648 Louis XIV founded the French Royal Academy of Art (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture), under the direction of Charles Le Brun, first painter to the king.  The first academy exhibitions were held in a “room” or “salon” of the Louvre, which later became an annual event known as the “Salon.” Works submitted to these state-sponsored exhibitions were juried to ensure that Academic standards were enforced.

Johan Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72
The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The English Royal Academy of Art was founded in London in 1768, and was modeled on its French counterpart.  The purpose of these academies was to impose state control over all aspects of the production and sale of art:

“The functions of the academy were many. It acted as a school to train young artists as well as a guild to govern the conduct and pricing of established masters. It mounted exhibitions to display recent work to fellow artists, critics, and collectors. And it presented lectures and published catalogues to elevate public taste. For more than a century, London’s Royal Academy established the highest cultural standards in the English-speaking world.”
Britain’s Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s, National Gallery of Art

Angelica Kauffman, Design, 1778-1780, Royal Academy of Art

Artistic Training:  Learning from the Antique
Today, art students are taught to draw from “direct observation,” but at the academy schools students were trained to copy from plaster casts of classical sculptures and Old Master paintings, rather than nature.  The purpose of this method was to train students to internalize the idealizing conventions of past masters.  When students were allowed to work from the live model, they were trained to “improve” upon nature by making the figures look like classical sculptures.  Nature was considered to be too ugly for “fine art.”

This tradition was still in place in the 19th century, when the Impressionist painter Claude Monet trained at the academy schools.  One of his teachers made this comment about a drawing he was working on:

“Not bad!  Not bad at all, that thing here, but it is too much in the character of the model . . . .  All that is very ugly.  I want you to remember, young man, that when one executes a figure, one should always think of the antique.  Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest.  Style, you see, style is everything.”

Nicholas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, c. 1655, Louvre

The Hierarchy of Genres
The Royal Academy ranked subject matter according to prestige.  History Painting – which included subjects from the Bible and historical events from ancient Greece and Rome – was ranked highest because of its noble themes.  As the French painter Nicolas Poussin explained:

“The first requirement, fundamental to all others, is that the subject and narrative be grandiose, such as battles, heroic actions, and religious themes.”

Portraiture came next, and landscape, still life and genre scenes ranked lowest, because the subjects were considered “common” and “everyday,” rather than grandiose or noble.

P.A. Martini, The Salon of 1785

Size Matters
The Hierarchy of Genres also governed size:  History Paintings were generally large in scale because of the importance of the subjects, while lesser subjects were smaller in scale.  This can be seen in this engraving of the Salon of 1785.  The large paintings are all “history paintings” (one of the largest being Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, which we will study later.  The smaller pictures are probably still lifes and landscapes.  As for the portraits, their size corresponds to the rank and wealth of the sitters!

Louis Le Nain, Family of Country People, c. 1640, Louvre

Realism is for Poor People
History Painting was painted in what was called “the Grand Manner,” which consisted of figures and poses based on the ideal types from classical statuary.  Realism was reserved for pictures of common people, and scenes of everyday life, as in this painting by Louis Le Nain, who was a contemporary of Poussin.

Antoine or Louis Le Nain, Peasant Family in an Interior, Smarthistory 

Angelica Kauffman, Color, c. 1778-1780 Royal Academy of Art

The Poussinistes versus the Rubenistes
There was a famous academic debate in the 17th century about the merits of color versus design, which came to be known as the Poussinistes versus the Rubenistes.  The Poussinistes proclaimed the importance of drawing and design, and championed the work of Nicholas Poussin, an austere and intellectual French painter who spent most of his career in Rome.  The Rubenistes argued for the superiority of color, and they championed the work of Peter Paul Rubens, who was known for his sensuous use of shimmering color.  This debate between design and color echoes the distinction between disegno and colorito that had characterized the contrast between Florentine and Venetian painting in the Renaissance, and it will replay itself in the 19th century in the rivalry between Neoclassicism and Romanticism.


Web Resources:

The Academy, Smarthistory

Britain’s Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s, National Gallery of Art 

Jim  Lane, “Poussinistes Vs. Rubenistes,” Humanities Web 

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