The Important Artists and Works of The Academy of Art

Progression of Art
Raphael: The School of Athens (1509-1511)

The School of Athens

Artist: Raphael

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".

Fresco - Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin: The Salon due Louvre in 1765 (1765)

The Salon due Louvre in 1765

Artist: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin

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".

Watercolor, pen and black and grey ink, graphite pencil on paper

Johan Joseph Zoffany: The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72)

The Academicians of the Royal Academy

Artist: Johan Joseph Zoffany

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.

Oil on canvas - Royal Academy of Art, London

Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii (1784)

The Oath of the Horatii

Artist: Jacques-Louis David

This famous history painting was seen as the fruition of the aesthetic approach of the French Academy, as it launched Neoclassicism, a movement that employed classical aesthetic principles and subject matter. Here, the artist depicts a dramatic moment from Roman history, as the three Horatii brothers salute their father before going into battle. In the center of the picture, Horatus holds their upraised swords, his hand grasping the sharp blades, while, behind him, the women and children of the family wilt with grief anticipating the painful losses that will follow. In a minimal architectural setting that conveys a classical gravitas, the scene is presented with clarity, elevating its classical source and strong moral message for a contemporary audience. Celebrated by King Louis XVI, as well as by the French revolutionaries that deposed him, the painting propelled David to the front ranks of French painting.

As art critic Roberta Smith observed, when the work appeared at the 1785 Salon, it "announced the triumphant return of the grand tradition of Poussinian history painting, and answered the prayers of critics who had been fulminating against the decadence of court painting for years, with Boucher as main scapegoat". For the French Academy, David's work marked the restoration of the Poussin's classicism, following the frivolous use of color of the Rococo era. David's influence was so great that the following period was called "the Age of David" and he influenced prominent French Academy artists such as François Gérard, Antoine Jean Gros, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Even the Romantic artists Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault acknowledged a debt to David's famous painting.

Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Thomas Cole: Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825)

Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill)

Artist: Thomas Cole

Having emigrated to America from England in 1818, a 24 year-old Cole arrived in New York (via Ohio and Philadelphia) in 1825. He soon journeyed up the Hudson River to the eastern Catskill Mountains where he executed a series of landscapes, three of which, a New York bookseller agreed to display in his shop window. John Trumbull, the President of the American Academy of Fine Arts (AAFA), saw Cole's paintings, purchasing one for himself, and recommending the other two to his colleagues Asher B. Durand and William Dunlap. Legend tells it that Trumbull was so impressed with Cole he told his colleagues, "I am delighted and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years' practice". Cole's spectacular Romantic landscapes (which would give birth 25 years on to the first truly American fraternity of landscapists, The Hudson River School) saw him immediately welcomed into the fold of New York's cultural elite.

Under the guidance of the polymath Samuel F. B. Morse (who had studied at the Royal Academy and who was familiar with its operations) the inception of the National Academy of Design can be traced back to November 1825, when, Cole, Durand, Martin E. Thompson and a group of thirty or so other AAFA members met to discuss the formation of an artist's union. Calling themselves the New York Drawing Association, the group would meet on three evenings a week for drawing sessions. The AAFA was, however, unhappy about the formation of a breakaway group and obstructed its access to its collections. Nevertheless, the rebels represented a potent threat to the Academy's authority. An attempt at reconciling the two parties (by nominating artists to the board of directors) under the banner of a single Academy proved unsuccessful.

In January 1826, the New-York Drawing Association severed all ties with the AAFA, and renamed itself the National Academy of the Arts of Design (NAD). Meeting initially at the Old Alms House at City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, the founders defined the four "arts of design" as painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving. Thus was born the first Academy in America to be founded, and exclusively controlled, by professional artists. NAD initially taught classes included anatomy, perspective, ancient history, and mythology and, from 1837, added, for advanced male students, life drawing to its curriculum. Women had been members of the Academy from the outset and frequent contributed to NAD's annual exhibitions but life drawing classes for women were not instituted until 1857. By the turn of the 20th century, NAD had adopted the European atelier system, giving students the option of completing their training under a specific master. The Academy's reputation continued to grow in stature and it can claim amongst its alumni such names as Winslow Homer, George Inness, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning.

Oil on canvas - Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Nymphes et satyre (Nymphs and Satyr) (1873)

Nymphes et satyre (Nymphs and Satyr)

Artist: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Depicting a scene where several nymphs are playfully pushing a satyr into a forest pond, this painting was inspired by a poem of the first century Roman poet Publius Statius: "Conscious of his shaggy hide and from childhood untaught to swim, he dares not trust himself to deep waters". Here the satyr, half-man, half-goat, and traditionally a figure of lust and drunkenness, has the tables turned on him, as the nymphs that he thought to besiege tussle him into the depths he so fears.

Like other leading French academic artists of the late 1800s, Bouguereau continued to follow the classical approach, as seen in his subject matter and the triangular composition that centers the five figures. Yet, he also aspired to Romanticism's penchant for eroticism as evinced in this work's emphasis on the multiple viewpoints of the female nude. This combination made his work appealing to both critics and collectors. As art critic Chris Miller wrote, "Bouguereau's works were much sought after, particularly by American entrepreneurs, made wealthy in the Gilded Age, and the artist, well aware of their tastes, said in 1905: 'I soon found that the horrible, the frenzied, the heroic does not pay, and as the public of today prefers venuses and cupids, and I paint to please them'".

Trained at the École des Beaux Arts, Bouguereau studied painting with François-Édouard Picot, and worked determinedly to win the Prix de Rome, which he won on his third attempt (in 1850). As art historian Fronia E. Wissman noted, an early critic praised him as having "a natural instinct and knowledge of contour. The eurythmie of the human body preoccupies him, and in recalling the happy results which, in this genre, the ancients and the artists of the sixteenth century arrived at, one can only congratulate M. Bouguereau in attempting to follow in their footsteps ... Raphael was inspired by the ancients ... and no one accused him of not being original". This "lack of originality" proved to be Bouguereau's undoing so far as modernists were concerned. As art critic Grace Glueck noted, "Degas and his friends used the term 'bouguerated' to derogate a finicky, overly finished painting surface, and van Gogh put him down as a well-paid maker of 'soft, pretty things'".

Oil on canvas - Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"The Academy of Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 01 Sep 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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