Art of the 19th century was ruled by the academic tradition. The term “Academic art” is used to refer to fine art sanctioned by the established institutions of Europe, particularly the French Academy and the 19th-century Salons. Usually beautifully finished in the neoclassical art style, these works tended towards mythological or historical subject matter, but they were primarily defined by the highly refined techniques of the painter. The academic tradition reigned supreme in European artwork for decades, and it has left a lasting impression on art history.
Origins and Academic Curriculum
For much of history, artists had been organized in guilds and were primarily considered artisans or craftsmen. The first formal art academy was founded in Florence during the Renaissance by Cosimo l de’ Medici and Giorgio Vasari with the aim to provide instruction and improve the professional standing of the artists of the Medici court. Almost every artist in the city belonged to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of Art and Drawing), including Old Masters like Michelangelo Buonarroti and Artemisia Gentileschi.
Academies became widespread in the 17th century, with the most significant being the Royal Academy of Art in France. The Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (later the Académie des Beaux-Arts), housed in the Palais du Louvre in Paris, was founded under King Louis XIV in 1648 in an effort to distinguish artists from craftsman. These painters and sculptors were considered practitioners of the liberal arts rather than mere laborers; therefore, instruction at the Académie placed an emphasis on the intellectual aspects of creating art.
The French Académie Royale was known for its conservative and highly structured teaching methods based on a foundation of drawing. Young artists would begin by drawing from ancient Greek sculpture and Old Master paintings, and then progressed to drawing from life with nude models. Studies in perspective, geometry and human anatomy supplemented their drawing instruction. These drawings were examined by academicians frequently, and after several years of this, students were permitted to graduate to academic painting. Instruction was not limited to the Académie itself, as students would often study painting in the workshop of an academician, continuing a time-honored practice that had prevailed since the Renaissance period.
This training became the standard, and the Académie des Beaux-Arts was the premier institution for art instruction and exhibition in France. It became the model for later academies, continuing into the modern day. By the 19th century, Academic art had permeated European society and had become the “official” art of France, where the state subsidized the French Académie.
The emphasis on the intellectual component of painting had a significant impact on both style and subject matter in Academic art. The Académie favored Neoclassical and Romantic aesthetics and a highly polished academic style, preferably depicting mythological or historical themes. The brushwork was clean and hidden, and effects of perspective and shading were expertly utilized to create the impression of a three-dimensional space on a canvas.
The Académie espoused a hierarchy of genres in painting, ranked according to their edification value as follows: History painting; portraiture; genre painting; landscape painting; animal painting; and still life. History painting (paintings with any religious, mythological or historical themes) held the most value and was also known as the grand genre. The Académie used this system as the basis for awarding scholarships and prizes and for allocating spaces in the Salon.
Allegorical painting was considered the highest form of history painting because it embodied some interpretation of life or conveyed a moral or intellectual message. Academic art trended toward idealism rather than social realism art, in order to best represent the French paintings’ artistic and allegorical ideals. The Académie rejected avant-garde tendencies amongst its students because of the challenges it presented to established artistic conventions and worked diligently to maintain their set standards.
The greatest celebration of Academic art was the annual Paris Salon — the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Salon was highly competitive, and its jury strict and conservative. Salon paintings were juried to ensure that Academic standards were upheld, and the jury was resistant to modernist art for the majority of the 19th century. Acceptance into the Salon was important to 19th-century artists because it gave their work the Académie’s stamp of approval, and a successful showing provided an opportunity to connect with new patrons and collectors.
Salons were hugely popular events with high attendance numbers; as many as 500,000 people would see the exhibit during its two-month run. Thousands of paintings were on display at once, lining the walls from floor to ceiling in what became known as a “Salon-style” display. The artist had to not only put their best effort forward in order to be accepted into the exhibition, but also to rise above the fray and be noticed by critics and the public. As a result, Salon paintings have a reputation as some of the most beautiful, most finely crafted artworks ever created.
The Salon exhibition is where a number of Academic artists made a name for themselves, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau and especially William Bouguereau, who dominated the Salons of the Third Republic so consistently that it became known as “Le Salon Bouguereau.” Images of women, usually “Venuses,” were dominant in the second half of the 19th century, but genre scenes also delighted viewers.
Academic artists thrived at the Salon up until the late 19th century when new exhibitions that showcased modernist artists like the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne gained in popularity. The importance of traditional art academies also began to wane as the public’s artistic tastes changed. Still, the prevalence of Academic art and its later competition with modern aesthetics provide an intriguing view into the evolution of art.