Academic Art
Influence of Academies on Painting & Sculpture, Styles, History, Characteristics.

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The Rape of the Sabine Women
(1636-37) by Nicolas Poussin, the
foremost exponent of conservative
academic style of painting.

For the chronology of visual arts
around the world, see:
History of Art Timeline.

Academic Art Style

From the sixteenth century onwards, a number of specialized art schools sprang up across Europe, beginning in Italy. These schools - known as 'academies' - were originally sponsored by a political patron of the arts and undertook to educate young artists according to the classical theories of art established during the Italian Renaissance. The painting and sculpture produced according to the rules and conventions taught by these academies, came to be known as Academic Art. The development of these artistic centres was a continuation of the effort, began by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, to upgrade the status of practising artists and to distinguish them from mere craftsmen engaged in manual labor. There was a strong emphasis on the intellectual element in fine art, combined with a fixed set of aesthetics. Although enlightened at the beginning - during the 16th and 17th century - the Art Academy teaching system proved unable to adapt to changing tastes and techniques. As a result, by the 19th century it was increasingly ignored and sidelined, as modern artists such as Gustav Courbet, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Picasso revolutionized the theory and practice of fine art.

Samson and Delilah (1830) by
Peter Paul Rubens, whose style of
painting represented the more
colourful dramatic school within
the academies.

The Valpincon Bather (1808) by
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres
doyen of the more conservative
academic style of art.
See Female Nudes in Art History.

Influence of Academies

In time, these traditional centres of fine art wielded enormous power in the art world. Very often, in addition to their control of education, they had a monopoly of public art exhibitions, both of which held the key to an artist's future prosperity.

Furthermore, they insisted upon a strict hierarchy of painting genres - first history painting, then portraits, genre, landscape and still life - which determined a painting's importance.

By the nineteenth century, many of these official academies had lost touch with artistic trends and continued stubbornly to promote a form of academic art that was old-fashioned and out of touch with modern styles.

Liberty Leading the People (1830)
by Eugene Delacroix, the romantic
dramatic painter, whose art style
offended the academic hierarchy.

Both the Realist and the Impressionist schools of artists rejected the academic approach, resulting in the decline of Academic art for most of the modern era.

Italian Academies

The first modern art academy was the Academy of Art in Florence founded in 1562 by the painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), under Grand Duke Cosimo 1 de Medici.

The second important art academy, the Academy of Art in Rome (named after Saint Luke, the patron saint of painters), initiated in Rome about 1583, was sponsored by the Pope and presided over by the painter Federico Zuccaro (1542-1609). Due to opposition by more powerful local painters guilds, the spread of art academies throughout Italy was slow.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the Top 300 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
For the Top 100 works of sculpture
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.


European Academies

Outside Italy, the first academy to be established (1583) was at Haarlem in Holland, under Karel Van Manda (1548-1606). In France, the first was the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, founded in Paris in 1648 through the efforts of the painter Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), whose influence on French painting and sculpture was dominant during the period 1663-83.

Despite its close affinity with the Italian academies, which were greatly respected by travellers on the Grand Tour, the French Royal Academy was much more active. It opened branches in provincial cities, it awarded scholarships for study at the French Academy in Rome and became the model for all the other royal and imperial academies of Northern Europe, with the exception of the Royal Academy of Arts London.


In due course, fine art schools were established in Nuremberg Academy (1674) by Joachim Von Sandrart (1606-1688), Poland (1694), Berlin (1697), Vienna (1705), St Petersberg (1724), Stockholm (1735), Copenhagen (1738), Madrid (1752), London (1768).

Lesser academies were set up during the eighteenth century in several German states, and in cities in Italy and Switzerland. The first official American Academy of the Fine Arts appeared in Philadelphia, in 1805. In Ireland, there are two academies of visual art: the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), founded in 1823, and the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts (RUA), established in 1930.

Unofficial Academies

During the decline of Academic Art in the nineteenth century, alternative institutions were formed, and independant academies and art schools sprang up in many forms. Artists set up studio schools for selected pupils in imitation of the system used at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts. Among the best were the academy of Eugene Carriere (1849-1906), the studio of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), the Subjects of the Artists School, founded in New York (1948) by Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) and others. In addition, there were other modern art schools linked to modern design training, such as the famous German Bauhaus (1919-32).

Teaching Methods Of Academic Art

Post-Renaissance academies, like the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, the Accademia di San Luca in Rome and the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, taught art in the classical method, according to a strict set of conventions and rules. In general, the style taught and practised by academy painters and sculptors was known as academic art.

Students began with drawing, first from prints or drawings of ancient Greek sculpture or the works of High Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) of the High Renaissance era. Next, they copied from plaster casts or originals of antique statuary, and finally from nude, life models. (See Male Nudes in Art History.) Copying Old Masters was considered the only means of absorbing the correct principles of contour, light, and shade.

Only after completing several years training in drawing, as well as anatomy and geometry, were students allowed to paint: that is, to use colour. Indeed, fine art painting was not even on the curriculum of the École des Beaux-Arts until 1863: instead students had to join the studio of an academician in order to learn how to paint. This dogmatic teaching method was reinforced by strict entry qualifications and course assessments. For example, entry to the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts was only possible for students who passed an exam and possessed a letter of reference from a noted Professor of art. If accepted, the student began the fine arts course, advancing in stages only after presenting a portfolio of drawings for approval. In addition, regular art competitions were held under timed conditions, to record each students' ability.

At the same time, the academies adopted a strict ranking system regarding subject matter. History Painting was the highest art form, followed by portraiture, genre paintings, landscapes and finally still life. Thus, the highest prizes were therefore awarded to history painters - a practice which caused much discontent among student artists. This inflexible hierarchy of genres was central to much of the discontent among famous painters, which undermined the authority of the academies, almost from the beginning.


Typically, each academy of art staged a number of exhibitions (salons) during the year, which attracted great interest from art buyers and collectors. A successful showing at one of these displays was a guaranteed seal of approval for an aspiring artist. Since several thousand paintings would usually be on display, hung from eye-level to the ceiling, there was tremendous competition to secure prime position from the Hanging Committee, who as usual were influenced by the genre of a painting and (no doubt) by the 'academic conformity' of its artist.

Academy Membership

Even when an artist had graduated, his future prospects remained largely dependent on his/her status with the academy. Artists who showed regularly at the Paris Salon, and whose paintings or sculptures were 'approved of', might be offered Associate and ultimately Full membership of the academy (Academician status). Securing this coveted accolade was the goal of any ambitious painter or sculptor.

Academic Art Styles of Painting

As noted, Academic art denotes the traditional classical style of painting and sculpture taught and practised at the great European academies of art, such as the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, or the Royal Academy in London. It was a style which reflected the artistic principles of the Italian Renaissance, which were themselves modelled on the earlier Greek tradition of painting and sculpture. Great importance was placed upon the 'message' of the painting (hence history painting was viewed as far superior to still life), and the use of classical or religious allegory. One might say that Academic Art represented an 'intellectual' style of art, in contrast to the socially-aware style of the Realists, the visual style of the Impressionists and the emotional style of the Expressionists. Curiously, Cubism's intellectual approach is much more in line with Academic art than its modern style of abstraction might suggest.

Although in its early days, academic art was embraced by artists of the Baroque style, Neoclassical art and Romanticism movements, it was totally rejected by nineteenth century painters and sculptors from the Realist and Impressionist schools, as being dull, old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern art. Nonetheless, despite their outward dogmaticism and certainty about what constituted proper art, the academy authorities and members argued continuously within the confines of their establishment over what style or which painter was the ideal model to follow.

Rubens or Poussin

After the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was reorganized as the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1661, by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French financial controller under Louis XIV, an argument errupted among its members that shaped artistic attitudes for the rest of the century. The issue concerned which style of art was superior - that of the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) or that of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). In simple terms, the question was: should Poussin's line (disegno), or Rubens' colour (colore) predominate? At a higher level, the issue was about what lay at the heart of art: intellect or emotion.

Ingres or Delacroix

In the nineteenth century, argument over art styles was revived but this time with new champions. Now it was the classical art of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) versus the dramatic Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Ingres represented the ultimate Academician, whose officially approved Neo-classicist style portraits, nudes and history paintings were exquisitely arranged and polished according to classical convention. In contrast, Delacroix was the fiery hero of French Romanticism whose colourful vigorous canvases (albeit carefully prepared and sketched) represented a much more enlightened interpretation of Renaissance theory. In comparision, one painter who straddled both sides of this stylistic divide was the pioneer French Romantic Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835).

Nature or Old Masters

Another debate over Academic art style concerned basic working methods. Was it better for an artist to learn art by looking at nature, or by scrutinizing the paintings of Old Masters? Put another way, which was superior: the intellectual ability to interpret and organize what one sees, or the ability to reproduce what one sees? In a way, this academic debate anticipated the argument among Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as to the merits of meticulous studio-painting versus spontaneous plein-air art.

None of these issues had a precise answer and, in general, the argument dwelt on which artist or what type of painting best synthesized the competing features. The principal weakness of the Academy as an institution, lay in its assumption that there was a 'correct' approach to art, and (more importantly) that they were the right body to find it. Meanwhile, European painters and sculptors moved on in their ceaseless quest for new art styles, new colour-palettes and new forms of composition, without paying too much heed to the doctrinal arguments which raged inside the academies. The powerful modern artworks of Jean-Francois Millet (eg. The Gleaners; The Angelus) Edouard Manet (eg. Olympia) and Claude Monet (Impression: Soleil Levant) were more than a match for those of more conformist academic painters like Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905) - all of whom are relatively unknown!

Royal Academy, London

Although the British Royal Academy (RA) shared some of the weaknesses common to the Accademia di San Luca, the Accademia del Disegno, the Académie des Beaux-Arts and others, it adopted a more independent line. For example, the unorthodox style of JW Turner did not prevent his becoming the youngest ever member of the RA.

Modern Academic Art

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Academic art (that is, the traditional Renaissance or Classical style promoted by official academies of art across Europe) experienced something of a revival.


As we have seen, Academic art declined during the nineteenth century due to its outdated image and inflexible formal approach. For example, it was criticised by Realist artists like Gustave Courbet for its promotion of idealism, instead of paying more attention to contemporary social concerns. Then the Impressionists criticised Academic art for its cosmetic manicured finish, whereby artists were obliged to alter the painting to conform to academic stylistic standards, by idealizing the images and adding perfect detail. The Impressionists thought that such an approach distorted reality. In addition, practitioners of both Realism and Impressionism strongly objected to the low ranking accorded to landscapes and still life in the academic hierarchy of the genres. This, despite the fact that many of these artists had trained under the academic system.

Twentieth Century Attitudes to Academic Art

On the face of it, with the coming of Post Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and other avant-garde movements, the new generation of colourful, expressionistic and abstract paintings seemed to contradict most, if not all, of the rules laid down by the Greeks, re-promoted by the Italian Renaissance and maintained by the academies. Indeed, one would hardly call Cubism a form of Academic painting!

Nonetheless, while there remains a superficial gulf between the style of modern art and the style of academic painting, deep down there are strong similarities.

To begin with, some of the most influential Post-Impressionists, such as Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), forsook Impressionist painting because he was determined to continue the Classical tradition exemplified by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the seventeenth century doyen of Academic painting. Except Cezanne wanted to do it outdoors, not in a studio. His grid-like organization of his subject matter and its meticulous, multi-layered composition is much more classical and 'academic' than, say, Monet's Water Lilies.

One of the prime motivations of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), when - along with Georges Braque (1882-1963) - he 'invented' Cubism, was to rediscover the value and importance of form in modern art. Dissatisfied with both the plein-air spontaneity of the Impressionists and the gaudy colour schemes of the Fauvists and Expressionists, he sought to reimpose the intellectual primacy of art by making form, not content, the decive factor. In this sense, he may be said to be upholding an important tenet of classical art theory.

The use of symbols and allegory by Symbolists and Surrealists, was a feature taken directly from Academic traditions. Curiously, Salvador Dali (1904-1989) the most renowned exponent of Surrealism began his painting career as a producer of exquisitely polished paintings in the style of seventeenth century Dutch masters.

The fragmentation of Twentieth century painting into dozens of different, sometimes overlapping, schools and styles - such as Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Op-Art, Pop-Art, Minimalism, to name but a few - reflected the chaos and uncertainties of the age. Over the past 20 years or so, this had led more and more artists (eg. Classical Realist atelier movement) and collectors to rediscover the values of Academic painting, and the benefits of classical artworks. The Academic hierarchy of the genres may have been swept away, but if the values attached to academic art in the salerooms of Sotherbys and Christie's are anything to go by, academic painting has not.

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