- The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century PaperbackBy Albert Boime
- School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of ArtsBy James Fenton
- Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836By David H. Solkin
- The Florentine Academy and the Early Modern State: The Discipline of DisegnoBy Karen-Edis Barzman
- Representing Belief: Religion, Art, and Society in Nineteenth-Century FranceBy Michael Paul Driskel
The Important Artists and Works of The Academy of Art
The third in a series of four frescoes, the work was commissioned by the Pope for his Vatican Palace. This fresco, described by art historians Horst Woldemar Janson and Anthony F. Janson as "Raphael's masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance", depicts the Academy of Athens, founded by Plato in the fourth century. In the center of the painting, the legendary philosopher is revealed in fervent conversation with his equally famous student, Aristotle, as they walk through the animated crowd of philosophers gathered on the temple steps. Raphael has created an imagined academy here, as many of the collected philosophers were never Athenians and lived long before the era of Plato and Aristotle. At the same time, he portrayed many of the figures as his contemporaries. For instance, Plato is thought to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, while in the center foreground Heraclitus is thought to be a portrait of Michelangelo. The work thus reveals how the Renaissance Academy saw itself as the rightful heir to Greek Classicism.
Raphael's sublime artistic mastery became foundational, especially to the French and British Academies, which emulated his classical proportions and his commitment to the principle of disegno. As art historian Michael Paul Driskel wrote, "Raphael's position at the pinnacle of artistic achievement was already well established in France by his prominence in the king's collection and his influence on the generation of French artists who founded the Academy [...] By claiming Raphael as their own, the Academicians were able to construct their aesthetic on the bedrock of classicism".
This spirited drawing lends an impression, not only of the crowded competition that the French Academy encouraged among its members, but also of the hierarchy that governed such exhibitions with large history paintings gaining the greatest profile and minor genres, such as still life, placed in less favorable positions. This partial view of the Salon shows one wall, its paintings hung in the "salon-style" from floor to ceiling and placed according to their importance. The few viewers shown here (in the work's lower foreground) are aristocrats; their elegant clothing and powdered wigs echoed in the marble busts and cameos surrounding them. The work represents how the Academy's aesthetic standards were thought to accommodate the tastes of the bourgeois class.
Though considered a proficient and imaginative genre painter (and following three failed attempts to win a Prix de Rome) Saint-Aubin left the Academy and became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, making a career as an illustrator and a street draughtsman. As art historian Kim de Beaumont noted, his "most original contribution was to capture in paintings, finished drawings, and thumbnail sketches the art exhibitions and sales of his day, both as great events in the life of Paris and in all their fascinating documentary detail. Saint-Aubin was, in fact, the first artist ever to produce panoramic representations of the exhibitions of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture".
This group portrait represents most of the 36 members of the British Royal Academy in the life drawing room at Old Somerset House (where the Academy was initially housed). Wearing black and holding his ear trumpet (as he was hard of hearing) Sir Joshua Reynolds stands left of center, facing away from Francesco Zuccarelli and George Moser who are discussing how best to position the male nude on the right. On the room's walls, shelves hold the plaster busts and replicas of various classical works that students would have been required to copy. Exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts fourth annual show, the painting met with great success and was purchased by King George III.
Although it appears realistic, Zoffany's painting is an artful fiction, given that only students under the tutelage of a single instructor would attend a life class. As art historian Meredith Gamer noted, the work "is best understood [...] as a mission statement of sorts, one that announces the Academy's allegiance to what was then considered the most technically and intellectually demanding of art forms". Zoffany became famous for works such as these, later characterized as Conversation Pieces - large paintings designed to delight and impress the public and draw critical attention at the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions.
As a "mission statement", the work reflected the Academy's ambition to create a national school of art to match any of its European rivals. It also depicted some of the unique qualities of the British school; in effect, a group portrait, it evoked the British emphasis on portraiture as equal to history painting. As art scholar Desmond Shawe-Taylor noted, "Zoffany's group is conceived as a pastiche of the most famous intellectual conversation in art, Raphael's School of Athens [...] The reference is not quite an outright parody; nor is it a solemn tribute. Zoffany's painting is more a good-humoured mock-heroic version of the School of Athens". The art historian Amanda Vickery also picked up on the detail of the portraits of Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman on the right wall. On the one hand, Zoffany shows the Royal Academy's "modernity" by including women amongst its members. At the same time, it enforced a rule that barred female artists from attending life classes (which featured male nudes). Vickery wrote, "the painting is seen to epitomise the ambivalent recognition and conditional institutional support extended to female artists" at this time.