It originated in 1663 in France under the reign of King Louis XIV as an annual reward for promising young painters, sculptors and architects, who demonstrated their excellence by participating in demanding elimination contests with their peers. There were competitions in Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Etching, and in 1803, Musical Composition was added. The winners were sent to study at the Académie de France in Rome, Italy founded by Jean Baptiste Colbert in 1666.
Students often competed for several years in a row, and suffered greatly if they were not successful. Some of the famous artists who competed for the Grand Prix de Rome in painting, without winning or even receiving even an honorable mention, included Eugene Delacroix, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas. Jacques Louis David attempted suicide after having lost the contest for three years in a row.
For 300 years, the French Grand Prix de Rome in History Painting was the highest honour that an artist from anywhere in the world could achieve, capturing the attention of the international press and catapulting its winners towards fame and, often, down the road to financially successful art careers. The gruelling competition for the Prix de Rome was abolished in 1968 but the prize is still given to young artists whom the Academie deems worthy of encouragement.