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Academic art

Birth of Venus
Alexandre Cabanel, 1863

Academic art refers to the style of painting and sculpture produced under the influence of European Academies, where many artists received their formal training; though it can be meant to extend to all art influenced by Academies, its often meant to refer to artists influenced by the standards of the Académie française, who practiced under the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, and more usually used to refer to art that followed these two movements, in the attempt to synthesize both of their styles, and which is best reflected by the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Thomas Couture, and Hans Makart. Also called academism, academicism, art pompier, and eclecticism, and sometimes linked with historicism and syncretism.

Table of contents
1 The Academies in History
2 Development of the Academic Style
3 Academic Training
4 Criticism and Legacy
5 Major Artists
6 References
7 External Links

The Academies in History

The first Academy of Art was founded in Florence in Italy in 1562 by Giorgio Vasari who called it the Accademia del Disegno. There students learnt the "arti del disegno", a term coined by Vasari, and included lectures on anatomy and geometry. Another academy, the Accademia di San Luca (named after the patron saint of painters, St. Luke), was founded a decade or so later in Rome. More so than the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, the Academia di San Luca served an educational function and was more concerned with art theory.

The Academia di San Luca later served as the model for the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture founded in France in 1648. The Académie française very probably adopted the term "arti del disegno" which it translated into "beaux arts", from which is derived the English term "Fine Arts." The Académie française was founded in an effort to distinguish artists?who were gentlemen practicing a liberal art?from craftsmen, who were engaged in manual labor. This emphasis on the intellectual component of artmaking had a considerable impact on the subjects and styles of academic art.

After the Académie française was reorganized in 1661 by Louis XIV ( whose aim was to control all the artistic activity in France) a controversy occurred among the members that was to dominate artistic attitudes for the rest of the century. This was what has been described as the 'battle of styles', the conflict over whether Peter Paul Rubens or Nicolas Poussin was a suitable model to follow. Followers of Poussin, called poussinistes, argued that line (disegno) should dominate art, beause of its appeal to the intellect, while followers or Rubens, called rubenistes, argued that color (colore) should dominate art, because of its appeal to emotion.

This debate was revived in the early 19th century, under the movements of Neoclassicism, typified by the artwork of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Romanticism, typified by the artwork of Eugène Delacroix. Debates also occurred over the subject of whether its better to learn art by looking at nature, or to learn by looking at the great artistic masters of the past.

Like academies formed throughout Europe, which imitated the teachings and styles of the Académie française. In England, this was the Royal Academy.

Development of the Academic Style

Since the onset of the poussiniste-rubiniste debate many artists in practise worked between the two styles. In the 19th century, in the revived form of the debate, the attention and the aims of the art world became to 'synthesize' the line of Neoclassicism with the color of Romanticism. One artist after another was claimed by critics to have "achieved" the synthesis, among them Théodore Chassériau, Ary Scheffer, Francesco Hayez, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, and Thomas Couture. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a later academic artist, commented that the trick to being a good painter is seeing "color and line as the same thing."

Another development during this period included adopting historical styles in order to show the era in history that the painting depicted, called historicism. This is best seen in the work of Baron Henrik Leys, a later influence on James Tissot. Its also seen in the development of the Neo-Grec style. Historicism is also meant to refer to the belief and practice associated with Academic art that one should incorporate and conciliate the innovations of different traditions of art from the past.

A.W. Bouguereau, 1863

The art world also grew to give increasing focus on allegory in art. Both theories of the importance of line and color basicially asserted that through these elements the artist exerted control over the medium to create psychological effects, in which themes, emotions, and ideas can be represented. As artists attempted to synthesize these theories in practice, the attention on the artwork as an allegorical or figurative vehicle was emphasized. It was held that the representations in paintings and sculpture should evoke Platonic forms, or Ideals, where behind ordinary depictions one would glimpse something abstract, some eternal truth. Hence, Keats' famous musing "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". The paintings were desired to be an idée, a full and complete idea. Bouguereau is known to have said that he wouldn't paint a war, but would paint War. Many paintings by Academic artists are simple nature-allegories with titles like Dawn, Dusk, Seeing, and Tasting, where these ideas are personified by a single nude figure, composed in such a way as to bring out the essence of the idea.

The trend in art was also towards greater idealism, which is contrary to realism, in that the figures depicted were made simpler and more abstract--idealized--in order to be able to represent the Ideals they stood in for. This would involve both generalizing forms seen in nature, and subordinating them to the unity and theme of the artwork. Because history and mythology were considered as plays or dialectics of ideas, a fertile ground for important allegory, using themes from these subjects was considered the most serious form of painting. A hierarchy of genres, originally created in the 17th century, was valued, where history painting--classical, religious, mythological, literary, and allegorical subjects--was placed at the top, next genre painting, then portraiture, still-life, and landscape. History painting was also known as the grande genre. Paintings of Hans Makart are often larger than life historical dramas, and he combined this with a historicism in decoration to dominate the style of 19th century Vienna culture. Paul Delaroche is a typifying example of French history painting.

All of these trends were influenced by the theories of the philosopher Hegel, who held that history was a dialectic of competing ideas, which eventually resolved in synthesis.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Academic art saturated European society. Exhibitions were held often, and the most popular exhibition was the Paris Salon. The Salon was a sensational event that attracted crowds of visitors, both native and foreign. As much a social affair as an artistic one, 50,000 people might visit on a single Sunday, and as many as 500,000 could see the exhibition during its two-month run. Thousands of pictures were displayed, hung from just below eye level all the way up to the ceiling in a manner now known as "Salon style." A successful showing at the Salon was a seal of approval for an artist, making his work saleable to the growing ranks of private collectors. Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme were leading figures of this art world.

During the reign of Academic art, the paintings of the Rococo era, previously held in low favor, were revived to popularity, and themes often used in Rococo art, such as Eros and Psyche, were popular again. The Academic art world also idolized Raphael, for the ideality of his work, in fact preferring him over Michelangelo.

Academic art not only held influence in Europe and the United States, but also extended its influence to non-Western countries. This was especially true for Latin American nations, which, because their revolutions were modeled on the French Revolution, sought to emulate French culture. An example of a Latin American academic artist is the Mexican Angel Zarraga.

Academic Training

Students painting "from the live" at the École
''Photographed late 1800s

Young artists spent years in rigorous training. In France, only students who passed an exam and carried a letter of reference from a noted professor of art were accepted at the Academy's school, the École des Beaux-Arts. Drawings and paintings of the nude, called académies, were the basic building blocks of academic art and the procedure for learning to make them was clearly defined. First, students copied prints after classical sculptures, becoming familiar with the principles of contour, light, and shade. The copy was believed crucial to the academic education; from copying works of past artists one would assimilate their methods of art making. To advance to the next step, and every successive one, students presented drawings for evaluation.

If approved, they would then draw from plaster casts of famous classical sculptures. Only after acquiring these skills were artists permitted entrance to classes in which a live model posed. Interestingly, painting was not actually taught at the École des Beaux-Arts until after 1863. To learn to paint with a brush, the student first had to demonstrate proficiency in drawing, which was considered the foundation of academic painting. Only then could the pupil join the studio of an academician and learn how to paint. Throughout the entire process, competitions with a predetermined subject and a specific allotted period of time measured the students' progress.

The most famous art competition for students was the Prix de Rome, or Rome prize. The winner of the Rome prize was awarded a fellowship to study at the Académie française's school at the Villa Medici in Rome for up to five years. To compete, an artist had to be of French nationality, male, under 30 years of age, and single. He had to have met the entrance requirements of the École and have the support of a well-known art teacher. The competition was grueling, involving several stages before the final one, in which ten competitors were sequestered in studios for 72 days to paint their final history paintings. The winner was essentially assured a successful professional career.

As noted, a successful showing at the Salon was a seal of approval for an artist. The ultimate achievement for the professional artist was election to membership in the Académie française and the right to be known as an academician. Artists petitioned the hanging committee for optimal placement "on the line," or at eye level. After the exhibition opened, artists complained if their works were "skyed," or hung too high.

Criticism and Legacy

Academic art was first criticised for its use of idealism, by Realist artists such as Gustave Courbet, as being based on clichés and representing fantasies and tales of ancient myth while real social concerns were being ignored. Another criticism of Realists was the "false surface" of paintings--the objects depicted looked smooth, slick, and idealized--showing no real texture. The Realist Theodule Augustin Ribot worked against this by experimenting with rough, unfinished textures in his paintings.

This Year Venuses Again... Always Venuses!
Honoré Daumier, no. 2 from series in Le Charivati, 1864

Impressionists, who were associated with loose brushstrokes, likewise criticized the smooth finish of Academic art. Actually, such loose brushstrokes were also part of the academic process. When artists started planning a painting, they would first make drawings and then oil sketches of their subject. These oil sketches, known as esquisses, were painted freely and looked similar to the canvases of the Impressionists, many of whom were trained in the academic tradition. Only after the oil sketch did the artist produce the final painting with the trademark academic fini. Academic artists tried to hide the brush stroke, as to bring attention to the subject of the art, instead of the means of creating it. The Impressionists generally did not create a smooth finish, preferring instead loose brushstrokes that captured the play of light and attested to the artists' presence. Impressionists and other artists championed the idea of plein air painting, where the painter would work from life outside, rather than doing dry academic excercizes confined to a studio.

Realists and Impressionists also defied the placement of still-life and landscape at the bottom of the hierarchy of genres. Its important to note that most Realists and Impressionists and other among the early avant-garde who rebelled against Academism were originally students in academic ateliers. Claude Monet, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and even Henri Matisse were students under academic artists.

As Modernism and its avant-garde gained more power, Academic art was further denigrated, and seen as sentimental, clichéd, conservative, non-innovative, bourgeois, and "styleless". The French referred derisively to the style of Academic art as "art pompier"--pompier meaning "fireman"-- alluding to the paintings of Jacques-Louis David (who was held in esteem by the Academy) which often depicted soldiers wearing fireman-like helmets. The paintings were called grande machines which were said to have manufactured false emotion through contrivances and tricks.

This denigration of Academic art reached its peak through the writings of art critic Clement Greenberg who famously stated that all Academic art is "kitsch". References to Academic art were gradually removed from histories of art and textbooks by Modernists, who justified doing this in the name of cultural revolution. For most of the 20th century, Academic art was completely obscured, only brought up rarely, and when brought up, done so for the purpose of ridiculing it and the bourgeois society which supported it, laying a groundwork for the importance of Modernism.

With the goals of Postmodernism in giving a fuller more sociological and pluralistic account of history, Academic art has been brought back into history books and discussion, though many postmodern art historians still hold a bias against the "bourgeois" nature of the art. Still, the art is gaining a broader appreciation by the public at large, and whereas academic paintings once would only fetch measly hundreds of dollars in auctions, they're now commanding millions.

Major Artists


External Links