The Academy of Art
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"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."
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The School of Athens (1509-10)
The idea of an academy has its roots in the school Plato established to teach philosophy in Athens in the fourth century BC. When Raphael painted four stanzas representing various branches of knowledge for the Vatican, he devoted one to philosophy and represented many ancient Greek thinkers. But he included a self-portrait on the right of the picture, as an assertion of Renaissance artists' claim to be deserving of a new and higher education than that which was once provided by the guild system.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, academies - and their "academic" style - became focuses of dissent among many modern artists seeking to develop new styles. Yet, for centuries, the idea of the academy - a place where artists could obtain instruction and exhibit their work - commanded respect. Before their growth, the medieval guild had supplied a trade association for artists who regarded themselves principally as craftsmen. During the Renaissance, however, the status of the artist was raised to that of an individual who was gifted both technically and intellectually. Artists began to see themselves as the peers of philosophers and poets (Raphael included himself in his famous gathering The School of Athens (1509-10)), and academies came into being to provide the new kind of multifaceted education that was required.
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.
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 eighteenth century. Academies were vital in fostering national schools of painting and sculpture and remained pinnacles of aspiration for most artists long into the nineteenth century.
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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story of its decline is intertwined with that of the rise of modern art.
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 nineteenth 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.
Useful Resources on The Academy of Art
| The King's Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760-1840 |
By Holger Hoock
| Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century |
By Rafael Cardoso Denis
| Academies, Museums and Canons of Art |
By Gill Perry, Colin Cunningham
| The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century |
By Albert Boime
| Johann Zoffany, Royal Academy, Seven Magazine Review |
By Judith Flanders
| Sizing Up Jacques-Louis David, in a Compact Way |
By Roberta Smith
| Italy as Neoclassicist Inspiration |
By Roderick Conway Morris
| Dahesh Museum |
Collects Art Purely by European-Trained Artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
| The Frick Collection: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin |
| The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Salon and the Royal Academy || The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The French Academy in Rome |
| The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Neo-Classicism |