Art and the institution have been inextricably linked for centuries; the first art museums emerged during the Renaissance, and ever since, these cultural bodies have played a significant role in the cultural landscape of Europe and beyond. By the 18th century, national academies emerged as major arbiters of style and taste, steering the course of Western aesthetics for better or worse. London’s Royal Academy, alongside the French Salon, was arguably the most important of these historic institutions. Decisions by its members — a closely-knit group of artists representing a veritable who’s-who of early British painting — had a profound impact on the artistic landscape that is still felt to this day. Read on to learn more about this powerful organization as we dive into its history and lasting impact.
In 1768, Sir William Chambers, a prominent architect, approached King George III with the idea to form a Royal Academy dedicated to the arts. He was successful, securing funding for what was officially named the "Royal Academy in London for the Purpose of Cultivating and Improving the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture," known by its artists — then and now — simply as "The R.A." The great English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds was elected its first president, and its initial group of members boasted some of the most important and diverse names in 18th-century European art. Among them was the portraitist Thomas Gainsborough, the Swiss neoclassicist Angelica Kauffman, the landscapist Richard Wilson and the colonial American painter Benjamin West, who was elected president after Reynolds' death in 1792.
From the very beginning, members of the Academy emerged as national authorities on all things aesthetic. As part of their founding charter, members were not only required to teach the next generation of young artists through the Academy setting, but they were also responsible for hosting an annual exhibition of works, as well as supporting artists and their families. While in its earliest years funding for the Academy was underwritten by the King, today the institution operates as a charity, receiving much of its income from exhibitions and important donors.
Beyond its official obligations, members have long been consulted on artistic matters important to the nation. For instance, when the nation considered the purchase of the Elgin Marbles in 1816, Academicians were asked to give their opinions to Parliament; likewise, when the new Houses of Parliament were decorated in the 1830s, architects and artists of the Academy consulted on the project.
The influence of the Academy was largely in thanks to its impressive — and large — membership. Initially only 36 members, by the 20th century, membership was set to 40 full Academicians and 30 Associates. Each designation was distributed between the Academy’s three artistic branches: painters, sculptors and architects. Once an artist reached the rank of full Academician, they wielded a remarkably high level of power. Full Academicians alone possessed the ability to elevate others to their status. They were also responsible for determining which works were accepted into the annual Summer Exhibitions, and they were each entitled to hang upwards of eight works at the exhibition every year. They also decided where works would hang. Theoretically, then, an exhibition could be dominated by the works of the Academicians, all claiming the most prime real estate for themselves.
Naturally, there was much debate involved in the acceptance and placement of paintings in the Academy’s annual exhibition. Especially in its earliest decades, the show offered artists an unprecedented opportunity to showcase their art to the public — and thus to potential patrons. Thousands upon thousands of Britons attended these exhibitions, while countless more read about them in newspapers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they greatly expanded the market for contemporary art, bringing together artists and potential patrons. Thus, artists naturally submitted only their finest paintings to the annual show, both in hopes of being accepted and being singled out by a new collector.
However, this new opportunity also meant an explosion of competition. Exhibitions of the age were a visually overwhelming environment; paintings were hung from floor to ceiling, sometimes more than five or six tiers in height. Those works closest to the ceiling were often tilted downwards to help attendees better see them, but it was still a less-than-ideal viewing experience. The best positions were, of course, at eye level, also known as “on the line,” but there was no way to guarantee such placement.
Thus, the savviest of painters created works that would make an impact regardless of their placement. Some relied on monumental canvases, hoping that size would help them catch the eye of visitors, while others submitted multiple works in various genres to showcase their diverse talents. Because they represent the very best of an artist’s output, a work with a Royal Academy provenance is something highly coveted today.