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The Academy of Art - History and Concepts

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Academies: Their Development and Importance


<i>The Life Class of the Academy</i> by Charles Nicolas Cochin (c. 1760)

The training received in the traditional academy concentrated on drawing from antique statuary and live models. The image of artists "drawing from life," or discoursing in front of a live model, became a classic academy scene, such as in Johann Zoffany's The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72). Artists also learned subjects such as history, since history painting - which borrowed subjects from literature, mythology, the Bible, and history itself - was widely regarded as the most demanding genre. Although the academies also produced skilled portraitists and still life painters, such genres were held in lower regard.

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The French Academy

The most influential European academy was the Académie Royale de Peintre et de Sculpture, which was founded in Paris in 1648. Soon after its establishment it became devoted to the glorification of Louis XIV, and the connection between centralized academies and the state remained important as they spread across Europe in the 18th century. Academies were vital in fostering national schools of painting and sculpture and remained pinnacles of aspiration for most artists long into the 19th century.

The French Academy only gave students draughtman training, while learning to paint was usually done after the completion of the courses. Painters such as François BoucherJacques-Louis David ran studios, where their apprentices would work on commercial projects, while receiving an education in painting.

The Academy Exhibition

An important function of the academy was to provide artists with a regular exhibition venue. Since the authority of the academies lent considerable authority to these juried shows, they often became the most important event in the exhibition calendar. This in turn lent further weight to the academies as arbiters of popular taste. The most famous example of this is the biannual exhibition of the French academy, the Salon, so called because it was initially held in the Salon Carre of the Palace of the Louvre. The Salon was the most important regular exhibition in Europe throughout the late-18th and 19th centuries. The story of its decline is intertwined with that of the rise of modern art.

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The Academy vs. Modern Art

In the wake of Romanticism, many artists began to question centralized authority, including that represented by the academy. And by the late-19th century, many artists were rejecting authority entirely; indeed, it is arguable that in its early stages modern art came to define itself by an opposition to "academic" art - "academic" becoming a term of abuse for all that was old and moribund. Today, with the state having withdrawn from large-scale patronage and official exhibition venues having lost ground to a variety of public museums and commercial galleries, art schools have also moved on. Most have all but abolished life drawing classes, and many are skeptical of the value of any formal and prescribed training whatsoever.

Most Important Art


"The sculptor, and the painter also, should be trained in these liberal arts: grammar, geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, perspective, history, anatomy, theory of design, arithmetic."
"Art takes nature as its model."
"The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form."
Nicolas Poussin
"One always begins by imitating."
Eugene Delacroix

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