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The Academy of Art - History and Concepts

Started: 1562
The Academy of Art Timeline


The Academy in the Renaissance

Giorgio Vasari's <i>Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany Surrounded by his Artists</i> (1556-62) was a preliminary drawing for a fresco cycle celebrating Cosimo's intellectual and artistic leadership.

In 1563 Cosimo I de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, and the most powerful art patron in Europe, founded the first academy dedicated specifically to the advancement of the arts. His Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy and Company for the Arts of Drawing) was to establish and further the cultural and artistic dominance of Florence. At the same time, the progressive institution celebrated what was in effect the "birth of the artist". Superseding the medieval guild system, which set training standards and governed artistic production and commerce, the Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno instigated an educational system based on humanist principles derived from the philosophical model of Plato's fourth century Academy of Athens. No longer the anonymous craftspeople of the Middle Ages, artists were viewed as the recipients of divine inspiration with masters of the standing of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo considered the very embodiment of the learned Renaissance man. The historian Mary Ann Jack wrote, "The Accademia del Disegno was the most important institution for Florentine artists in the late sixteenth century. Records show that virtually all of the city's artists matriculated in the academy, and some of the most prominent artists in Florence [...] Cellini, Vasari, Ammannati, Giambologna, and Buontalenti, were among its officers".

Giorgio Vasari and Disegno

Giorgio Vasari's fresco <i>Saint Luke Painting a Portrait of the Madonna (Self-portrait)</i>, (after 1565) was painted in the Accademia's chapter room.

The noted artist and critic Giorgio Vasari, and his friend and colleague, the humanist scholar Vincenzo Borghini, shaped the Accademia curriculum, which included lectures on geometry, anatomy, classical literature and philosophy. Students learned technical skills by imitation, drawing copies of both classical works and those of more recent Renaissance Masters.

In his Vite (The Lives of the Best Painters, Sculptors and Architects) (1568) Vasari noted the primary importance of disegno (drawing). As he wrote: "Proceeding from the intellect, drawing, the father of our three arts - architecture, sculpture and painting - turns multiple elements into a global concept. The latter is like the form or concept of all things in nature, all original in its measurements [and] the animating principal of all creative processes". Disegno drew firmly upon Renaissance Humanism, recalling Petrarch's De remediis utriusque Fortune (Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul) (1366), which argued that drawing must be the origin of both painting and sculpture. At the same time, Vasari saw the Academy as heir to both the medieval guild and the Christian tradition (which attributed the origins of painting to the legend of St. Luke painting the Virgin Mary when she appeared to him as an apparition). The Academy became thus a conveyer of classical culture and antiquity, but reconceived to accommodate the new age of human inspiration.

Accademia di San Luca (Rome)

This contemporary photograph of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Apostolic Palace of Vatican City shows, from left to right, Raphael's The Parnassus and The School of Athens (both 1509-1511).

Rome's Accademia di San Luca was officially invested in 1593 under direction of the Roman Mannerist Federico Zuccari (it became the Royal Academy in 1872 and the National Academy from 1948). The Accademia promoted the theoretical and aesthetic foundations of disegno. Raphael was singled out as the master of disegno and was especially revered for his history paintings. In 1509 he had painted The School of Athens (1509-1511), part of a series of frescos he made in the living quarters of Pope Julius II. Based on the teachings of ancient Greek philosophy, Raphael painted four stanzas representing different fields of knowledge but with a self-portrait on the right of the picture, as an assertion of the Renaissance artists' claim to be deserving of a new and higher humanist standing.

At the same time, the power and vibrancy of Venetian painting had begun to attract supporters. Artists such as Titian composed by means of colorito (color). Rather than creating preparatory sketches and studies, Venetian artists worked directly onto the picture surface. As art historian Bruce Cole noted, Titian would paint with "empirical method, working his way through the design as it laid out on the prime canvas ... slowly and carefully, always adjusting his forms and paint to achieve a premeditated effect and often strikingly original results". The Colorito technique was viewed, as art historian Paul Hills described it, as "the source of animation, of the pulse of life and likeness". Though the concept of disegno would ultimately prevail in Rome and in other European academies, the quarrel between the value of disegno and colorito would be a source of heated critical debate that passed down through the centuries.

Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Paris)

The painter and designer Charles Le Brun played a leading role in establishing the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, or the French Royal Academy, under the patronage of King Louis XIV in 1648. Le Brun was part of a group of artists who felt constrained by the medieval guild system, which was still dominant in France and operated according to political allegiances and nepotism over individual merit.

By 1661 the French Royal Academy began emphasizing a classical - or royal - style, devoted to the glorification of Louis XIV, and this model of an academy influenced the development of academies throughout Europe. Academies were vital in fostering national schools of painting and sculpture and remained pinnacles of aspiration for most French artists long into the nineteenth century. Appointed as the Academy's director in 1663, Le Brun modelled the French system on the Italian Academies, opening an art school, enlisting noted patrons, and upholding strict classical standards. At the same time, the French Academy made its own unique contributions, expanding its role to include: an annual Salon where members exhibited their work; a branch of the Academy in Rome; the Prix de Rome award which granted a three-year scholarship for a student to study in Rome; and the establishment of a "Hierarchy of the Genres". These elements were widely adopted by new academies, including the British Academy of Art and the Danish Royal Academy of Art.

Poussinistes versus Rubenistes

Color drives the composition in Peter Paul Rubens's <i>Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt</i> (ca. 1615)

For the Académie Royale, the conflict between colorito and disegno took on new energy between the Poussinistes - those who preferred the classical works of Nicolas Poussin - and the Rubenistes - those who favored the sensuous works of Peter Paul Rubens. At a 1672 Academy conference entitled Sentiment on the discourse on the merit of colour, Charles Le Brun argued "drawing imitates everything real, whereas colour only represents the accidental". Color was considered an aesthetic embellishment, or, as Le Brun put it, "color depends entirely on matter, therefore it is less noble than drawing, which depends only on the mind".

Nicolas Poussin's <i>Et in Arcadia ego</i> (1628) exemplified the classical approach

The Poussinistes would win the debate, establishing Poussin as the central figure to the Academy's teachings. Indeed, many Academians cited Poussin as Raphael's rightful heir. As art historian Michael Paul Driskel put it, "by interpreting Poussin as the 'French Raphael,' French art theorists in and around the Academy heightened Poussin's prestige and strengthened his pedigree as the father of the French classical tradition [...] in the hope of creating their own version of the beau ideal".

The Royal Academy of Arts (London)

Joshua Reynolds' <i>Captain the Honourable Augustus Keppel</i> (1752-53) depicts the British hero in the pose of the Apollo Belvedere (ca. 120-140)

In 1768 Sir William Chambers headed a group of 22 artists and architects - including four Italians, a Frenchman, a Swiss and two women - who signed a petition seeking permission from King George III to "establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design". With the King's blessing, the Royal Academy of Arts emerged as an independent institution ran by 36 artists and headed with an elected President, the esteemed portraitist Joshua Reynolds. The Academy featured an art school, a design school, public exhibitions - including its famous Summer Exhibition - and a public lecture series through which the Academy disseminated its scholarly principles.

Benjamin West's <i>The Death of General Wolfe</i> (1770) depicted a scene from 1759 Battle of Quebec.

Reynolds's own "Discourses" series of annual lectures followed the "Hierarchy of Genres" already established by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Reynolds, however, laid the foundations for what would become known as the Grand Manner; a style that applied the academic standards of history painting to portraiture. The art historian Cecil Gould observed that in Reynolds's vision of portraiture "Landscape backgrounds or ornamental detail must be reduced to a minimum and individual peculiarities of human physiognomy absolutely eliminated [while] Draperies should be simple, but ample and noble, and fashionable contemporary costume absolutely shunned".

Over time, the Grand Manner expanded the status of genre works further to include full landscapes (typically depicting the British countryside as ideal pastorals). In 1770 The Academy's future president, and the King's personal "History Painter", the American ex-patriot Benjamin West, produced The Death of General Wolfe, a painting that transformed history painting by representing a scene from contemporary history with its heroic figures presented in contemporary clothing.

For the public, the Academy became a vibrant center of cultural life; the summer exhibitions were so popular in fact that catalogue sales and ticket fees made the Royal Academy financially independent. Open to artists outside the Academy (including amateurs) each exhibition received thousands of entries. A committee would choose several hundred works, filling entire walls with paintings, though the advantageous placement of the work often became a matter of infighting and debate. While central to the success of its members, these exhibitions also launched the careers of affiliates of the Academy.

The Academies of German-speaking Europe

This night-time photograph shows Johann Gottfried Schadow's 1793 sculpture atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

The success of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture inspired the founding of other academies in cultural centers throughout Europe. Even powerful independent regions and cities established academies that were nationalistic in their ambition. Prior to the establishment of modern-day Germany and Austria, German-speaking Europe was divided into numerous independent states, a number of which established respected academies. Noted engraver Jacob von Sandrart founded the first art academy in German-speaking Europe, the Nuremburg Academy of Art, in 1662. Subsequently, The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was founded in 1692, and the Brandenburg Academy of Art in Berlin soon followed in 1694.

These academies played an important role in shaping the national consciousness via art, as exemplified by Johann Gottfried Schadow's 1793 sculpture on Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. The classical sculpture, which secured the 29-year-old Schadow's standing as an academician, would become a symbol of German power (not always for the good) down the centuries. The Academy's emphasis on classicism was not seriously challenged until the fin de siècle and the emergence of Modernism. Indeed, in 1897, a group of young artists, including Gustav Klimt, Kolomon Moser, and architects Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, formed the Vienna Secession movement. Rebelling against the Academy's conservatism, the movement elevated the standing of the applied and decorative arts and would play the leading role in emergence of Art Nouveau.

The Academy in Spain and New Spain

This 2014 photograph shows the master works of the <i>Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando</i> in Madrid.

In the 18th centuries, the Spanish monarchy established three academies in Madrid, Valencia, and in Saragossa. The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, established in Madrid in 1752, was the first and most influential, as, closest to the crown, it influenced the building of academies in the colonies of New Spain. The Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City began as an engraving school in 1778 but soon expanded to teach Mexican students in sculpture, painting, and architecture. In Spain and in Mexico, the academy remained a powerful artistic force well into the 20th century. Though they would rebel against the academy system, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Fernando Botero all studied at the Academy in Madrid, and the noted Mexican artist Diego Rivera trained at the Academy of San Carlos.

The Academy in Russia

Valery Jacobi's <i>Inauguration of the Academy of Art</i> (1889) recreates the 18th century event.

The Russian Academy began in 1757 with Ivan Shuvalov's founding of the Academy of the Three Noblest Arts; renamed the Imperial Academy of Art in 1764 by Catherine the Great. The name change reflected the Russian Empire's emergence as a great world power and its Academy operated as a de facto arm of the government. The Academy extended Russian influence throughout Europe. Noted Russian artists were sent to Rome and Paris, while celebrated European artists were invited for extended stays to the court in St. Petersburg. The institution remained closely allied with the values of the French Academy, so much so in fact that in the mid 1800s a group of young artists, led by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, rebelled against the Academy's insistence on the practice and principles of the leading defender of Classicism, Dominique Ingres. Lobbying for realistic treatments of everyday subject-matter, they formed the Peredvizhniki, a movement emphasizing landscape painting and Russian rural life. The leading member of the group, Ilya Repin, was so esteemed that, when the Academy was abolished following the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was renamed the Ilya Repin Leningrad Institute for Painting.

The Academy in Sweden and Denmark

Wilhelm Bendz's <i>Mountain Landscape</i> (1831) exemplifies the Danish Academy's approach to landscape.

In Sweden and Denmark, the foundation of academies became central to a "golden age" of art that developed subsequently in each country. Founded in 1754, the Royal Danish Academy of Portraiture, Sculpture, and Architecture in Copenhagen later became the vibrant center for the Golden Age of Danish painting. Beginning in the early 1800s, the artistic flowering was shaped by the work and teaching of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersburg. A Neoclassicist who had studied with Jacques-Louis David in Paris, Eckersburg mentored a new generation of artists including Wilhelm Bendz, Constantin Hansen, and Martinus Rørbye. Shaped by a rising middle class, and strongly influenced by the Dutch Golden Age, the Danish Academy adapted its approach away from history painting in favor of landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits. The Danish Academy's reputation and approach attracted young foreign artists such as the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich who studied in Copenhagen.

Modelled on the French Academy, Carl Gustaf Tessin set up the Royal Drawing Academy in Stockholm in 1735. The prime destination for Sweden's aspiring artists, painters such as Guillaume Taraval, John Henrik Scheffel and Olof Arenius, and the architect Carl Harleman, all taught there. The Academy duly expanded and change its name to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1768. Soon after, in 1773, King Gustaf III wrote the first binding statutes for the Academy and its new curriculum covered painting, architecture, graphics, anatomy, philosophy and history. The late eighteenth century witnessed the dawning of Sweden's own Golden Age, with the famed Neoclassical sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel elected to the Academy's board. In 1810, the institution was renamed the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts (Kungliga Akademien för de fria konsterna) the name it bears to this day.

The Academy in the United States

John Trumbull's <i>Declaration of Independence</i> (1819) summed up his career as the artist of the American Revolution and was a statement of artistic intent for the American Academy of Fine Arts.

The Pennsylvanian artist Benjamin West (who succeeded Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy following the Englishman's death) produced paintings of contemporary American events that did much to transform the Royal Academy's concept of the genre. At the same time, the Royal Academy offered a model for an American arts institution of similar stature. Founded in 1794 in Philadelphia, the Columbianum was the first attempt at an American Academy based on the English model.

Though the Columbianum was rather short lived, it paved the way for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), which opened in 1805. It was founded by the painter and scientist Charles Willson Peale, the sculptor William Rush, and other artists and business leaders, and its charter stated that the PAFA's role was to "Promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts, in the United States of America, by [...] exciting the efforts of artists, gradually to unfold, enlighten, and invigorate the talents of our Countrymen". Arts academies were considered key attributes for cities vying to become America's cultural capital and the PAFA was in fact a rival to the New York Academy of the Fine Arts (later named the American Academy of Fine Arts (AAFA)) which had opened just three years earlier.

Between 1816-36, The AAFA was led by John Trumbull. Dubbed the "artist of the American Revolution", Trumbull had studied extensively with Benjamin West at the Royal Academy, and, as head of the AAFA he adopted its dogmatic, conservative approach to arts education. In 1825, advocating a naturalistic approach to landscape based upon scientific observation and en plein air painting, and led by the polymath Samuel F.B. Morse (himself a former Royal Academian), some thirty artists including Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand founded the National Academy of Design (NAD) in New York. The NAD opposed to the PAFA and AAFA which was run by businessmen and collectors, whose aim (so the NAD members argued) was to cultivate public tastes that, in turn, served their own commercial concerns. The NAD, on the other hand, put the needs and ideas of the artist at the forefront of its agenda. Although a single national academy failed to govern in the United States, the PAFA and the NAD are arguably the country's most important arts institutions and remain ongoing concerns.

Concepts and Trends


Wilhelm Bendz's <i>Model Class at the Copenhagen Academy</i> (1826) depicts a live drawing class at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts

The art historian Michael Driskel noted that the "formation of the Academy and the development of academic theory was predicated on the notion that painting was a 'discipline' governed by rules that could be defined and taught. These rules were derived from the works of the most exemplary past masters". Copying the classics was the favored mode of academic study, as students focused exclusively for the first two years on drawing copies of Old Masters' paintings or casts of classical sculpture. Students also studied geometry, human anatomy, and the literary classics. Later on, students would begin by "drawing from life", sketching live male models; a practice which was seen as central to a complete arts education. On completion of their courses, students would finally learn painting and the use of color in the studios of established masters.

Hierarchy of Genres

Peter Drevet and Charles Le Brun's 18th century portrait of André Félibien, a leading figure in the French Academy.

The Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was the first to establish a codified Hierarchy of Genres in 1669. Academy Secretary, Andre Felibien, had ranked history painting at the most scholarly and edifying genre followed, in diminishing rank, by portraiture, genre painting, landscapes, and still lifes. History paintings were large works depicting subjects taken from classical mythology, the Bible, literature, or from important historical events. Mastery of the genre was a necessary requirement for any student who wished to be admitted to the Academy as a member or to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. As Driskel noted, the French Academy's "rules were derived from the works of the most exemplary past masters, including Titian, Correggio, Michelangelo, and above all, Raphael and Poussin, whose art perfectly fit the classicizing predilections of the French".


Watteau's <i>The Embarkation for Cythera</i> (1717) pioneered the <i>fête galante</i>, a new category invented by the Academy for Watteau's work.

Though academies were often viewed (especially by modernists) as having entrenched ideas on artistic practice, they were in fact shaped by paragoni, an Italian word meaning "comparisons". The comparisons between the merits of painting and sculpture, or disegno versus colorito, led to ongoing aesthetic debates. Such debates hinged partly on the complexity and range of skills involved in mastering each art and played a role in formulating the Hierarchy of Genres. The debates also took on geographical or nationalistic concerns, as the rivalry between artistic approaches often reflected a shifting power dynamic that was as much political and cultural as aesthetic. When Rome and Florentine disegno vied against Venetian colorito, for instance, the artistic debate was informed by the political and economic rivalry of the city-states. Similarly, the French Academy resolved the debate between Poussin's disegno and Rubens's colorito preferences, coming out in favor of the Frenchman (Poussin).

These debates also sparked new movements and fluctuations in academic taste. For example, in 1820, the works of Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and François Boucher launched the Rococo movement. Their exuberant and sensuous use of color became an academy standard. Similarly, Neoclassicism dominated the late 1700s only then to be challenged by Romanticism, with artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault using color to intensify the emotional impact of their painting.

The Academy Exhibition

François Joseph Heim's <i>Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824</i> (1827) conveys the artistic and cultural importance of the Salon.

A primary function of academies was to provide artists with a regular exhibition venue. Since their authority lent considerable credence to the juried shows, academy shows were often considered arbiters of taste and, as such, the most important event in the arts exhibition calendar. Possibly the most famous example was the biannual exhibition of the French academy, the Salon, so called because it was initially held in the Salon Carré of the Palace (in The Louvre). The Salon became the most important regular exhibition in Europe throughout the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was key to a successful career since it ensured that a student would graduate to academy member. At the same time, the enormously popular exhibitions drew art collectors and those who commissioned portraits and other artistic projects.

The challenge to the authority of the academy system began with the rise of "alternative" salons. Having been rejected by the official Salon, artists such as Camille Pissarro, Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and James McNeill Whistler were among the avant-garde artists who exhibited in the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Attracting more visitors and art critics than the official Salon, the Salon des Refusés hastened the demise of the French Academy's dominance and was a signifying development in the dawning of the modern age of art.

Later Developments

By the nineteenth century, many artists began to challenge the idea of a centralized authority. Modern artists, whose preference was for naturalism, began painting en plein air. While nature was, for groups such as the rural Barbizon School, a source of great inspiration, the Romantics were emphasizing the power of color to conjure scenes of drawn from an impassioned imagination. As Delacroix noted, "Draughtsman may be made, but colorists are born". The case against the academy became so compelling that by the mid-nineteenth century even academic artists such as Bouguereau and Cabanel aspired to combine the classical elements of the academy with Romanticism's passion and color (though such concessions were dismissed by avant-gardists as stale and sentimental and only served the interests of the bourgeoisie).

It wouldn't be long before many artists were rejecting authority entirely; indeed, it is arguable that in its early stages modern art came to be defined exclusively by its opposition to academy art. Today, with the state having withdrawn from large-scale patronage, and official exhibition venues having ceded ground to a variety of public museums and commercial galleries, art schools have also modernized. For example, many academies have reduced their emphasis on life drawing classes, and others remain sceptical of the value of dogmatic training programs.

Do Not Miss

  • Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.
  • Looking back to the arts of Greece and Rome for ideal models and forms, Neoclassicism was a major art period that set standard and redefined painting, sculpture, and architecture.
  • The Rococo was a far reaching artistic movement associated with ornate decoration that included architecture, painting, sculpture, music, interior design, landscape design, and theater.
  • Europe experienced a harsh interwar period after the chaos and aftermath of World War I, and with the onset of the Great Depression. Meanwhile artists focused on the so-called "return to order" (rappel a l'ordre), a renewal of depictions of Greek and Roman topics and imagery.

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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]. . TheArtStory.org
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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