Academic Art
History, Characteristics of Painting & Sculpture Taught in Fine Arts Academies.

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Abduction of the Sabine Women
(1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin, the
foremost exponent of conservative
academic style of painting. His
meticulous compositions, idealistic
content with its complex allegorical
references, and polished finish, made
him the 17th century epitome of the
"academic style" in France.

Academic Art
The mode of painting and sculpture approved by official academies of fine arts, notably the French Academy and the Royal Academy.


What is Academic Art?
History and Development
How the Academies Controlled Art Education and Exhibitions
How Academic Art Was Taught
Salon Exhibitions
Decline of the Salon
Academic Art in the Late 19th-Century
European Academies of Fine Art
Academic Art in the 20th-Century: Largely Irrelevant
Academic Art in the 21st-Century: Old Values v Computer Software

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.

For the Top 300 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
For the Top 100 works of sculpture
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

What is Academic Art?

In fine art, the term "Academic art" (sometimes also "academicism" or "eclecticism") is traditionally used to describe the style of true-to-life but highminded realist painting and sculpture championed by the European academies of art, notably the French Academy of Fine Arts. This "official" or "approved" style of art, which later came to be closely associated with Neoclassical painting and to a lesser extent the Symbolism movement, was embodied in a number of painterly and sculptural conventions to be followed by all artists. In particular, there was a strong emphasis on the intellectual element, combined with a fixed set of aesthetics. Above all, paintings should contain a suitably highminded message. Artists whose works have come to typify the ideals of academic art include Peter-Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835), J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), Thomas Couture (1815-79), and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).

The history of the French Academy - whose formation only gained official approval as a means of boosting the political authority of the King - perfectly illustrates the problems of establishing such a monolithic system of cultural control. From its foundation in 1648, the French Academy sought to impose its authority on the teaching, production and exhibition of fine art, but subsequently proved incapable of modernizing or adapting to changing tastes and techniques. As a result, by the 19th century it was increasingly ignored and sidelined, as modern artists such as Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso revolutionized the theory and practice of art.


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 patron of the arts (typically the pope, a King or a Prince), and undertook to educate young artists according to the classical theories of Renaissance art. The development of these artistic academies was a culmination of the effort (begun by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo) to upgrade the status of practising artists, to distinguish them from mere craftsmen engaged in manual labour, and to emancipate them from the power of the guilds. For more, see History of Academic Art (below).

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)
Louvre, Paris. By Eugene Delacroix,
the romantic dramatic painter, whose
style offended the academic hierarchy.

Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)
National Gallery, London.
By Paul Delaroche.
An ideal example of academic art.

Characteristics of Academic Art

The most important principles of Academic art, as laid down by the French Academy, can be expressed as follows:

1. Rationality

The Academy was at pains to promote an "intellectual" style of art. In contrast, say, to the "sensuous" style of the Rococo, the "socially-aware" style of French Realism, the "visual" style of the Impressionism, or the "emotional" style of Expressionism. It considered fine art to be an intellectual discipline, involving a high degree of reason, thus the "rationality" of a painting was all-important. Such rationality was exemplified by a work's subject-matter, its use of classical or religious allegory, and/or by its references to classical, historical or allegorical subjects. Careful planning - through preliminary sketching or use of wax models - was also valued.

2. Message

Great importance was placed upon the 'message' of the painting, which should be appropriately "uplifting" and have a high moral content. This principle was the basis for the official "Hierarchy of the Genres", a ranking system first announced in 1669, by the Secretary to the French Academy. The genres were listed in the following order of importance: (1) History Painting; (2) Portrait art; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscapes; (5) Still Life Painting. The idea was that history paintings were better platforms from which to communicate a highminded message. A battle scene or a piece of Biblical art would convey an obvious moral message about (say) courage or spirituality, whereas a still-life picture of a vase of flowers would struggle to do the same. In practice, artists succeeded in injecting moral content into all types of pictures, including still lifes. See, for instance, the genre of vanitas painting, mastered by Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56) and others, which typically depicted an array of symbolic objects, all of which conveyed a series of moral messages based on the futility of life without Christian values.

As well as Christian principles or humanistic qualities, academic artists were encouraged to communicate some eternal truth or ideal to the viewer. Hence some academic paintings are no more than simple allegories with names like "Dawn", "Evening", "Friendship" and so on, in which the essence of these ideals are embodied by a single figure.

3. Other Artistic Conventions

Over time the Academic authorities gradually built up a series of painterly rules and conventions. Here is a small selection:

• Artists should use 'idealized' rather than 'overly realistic' forms; thus realism - in faces, bodies, or details of scenes, was discouraged. Ironically, Ingres, the doyen of the Academy, was criticized for the abnormal length of the model's back in La Grand Odalisque (1814, Louvre).

• History paintings should depict people in historical dress. For example, Benjamin West (1738-1820) caused a scandal with The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery of Art, Ottowa), which was the first major history painting to feature contemporary costume.

• Complex rules governed the use of linear perspective and foreshortening, in keeping with Renaissance theory. Likewise in the way light was handled, and in matters of chiaroscuro.

• Bright colours should be used sparingly. The debate about the significance of colour rumbled on in the Academy for more than two centuries: see the role of Rubens and Delacroix, as outlined below.

• Colour should be naturalistic: grass should be green, and so on. This alone disqualified Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists from academic approval.

• The paint surface should be smooth with no trace of brushstrokes. Impasto was out, expressive brushwork was out: the Academy insisted upon a polished finish.


History and Development of Academic Art

The above characteristics of academic art didn't appear overnight. Rather they emerged over time, as the result of several ongoing debates between differing viewpoints, typically embodied by certain artists who then became "models" to be copied. There were several debates, such as:

Disegno or Colorito: Which Has Primacy?

The Italian Renaissance embraced two important factions: the Florentine Renaissance faction that championed "disegno" (design); and the Venetian Renaissance faction that preferred "colorito" (colour). The difference between these two factions can be summarized as follows:

To a Florentine, a painting consisted of shape/design plus colour: in other words colour was a quality to be added to design. But to a Venetian, a painting consisted of shape/design fused with colour: in other words, it was inseparable from design. In Florence, colour was regarded as an attribute of the object to which it belonged: so a blue hat or a green tree were patches of blue and green confined within the boundary lines of those objects. In Venice, colour was understood to be a quality without which the hat or the tree could hardly be said to exist, thus a painter's ability to mix colour pigments was all-important.

Poussin or Rubens?

Not long after the French Academy was reorganized in 1661, the Renaissance debate was revived by two rival factions. 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). Poussin specialized in medium-format mythological painting and classical, pastoral landscapes - see, for instance, Et in Arcadia Ego (1637, Louvre, Paris - and valued clarity and rationality above everything. To many, this highminded rational approach made him the perfect embodiment of the ideals of the Academy. Rubens, on the other hand, painted all the great religious and historical scenes with enormous verve and style, and with a wonderful eye for sumptuous colour. In simple terms, the question was: should Poussin's line (disegno), or Rubens' colour (colorito) predominate? At a higher level, the issue was about what lay at the heart of art: intellect or emotion? The issue was never conclusively resolved - not least because both were such exceptional artists - and it resurfaced a century and a half later

Ingres or Delacroix?

In the 19th century, the argument was revived but this time with new champions. Now it was the neoclassical, cool, polished paintings of the political artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) - see: Death of Marat (1793) and Oath of the Horatii (1785) - and his follower J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867), versus the colourful, dramatic, Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Ingres was the ultimate Academician, whose muted portraits, female nudes and history paintings were exquisitely arranged and polished according to classical convention. In contrast, Delacroix was the fiery hero of French Romanticism whose large-scale vigorous, sometimes violent canvases (albeit carefully prepared and sketched) represented a much more uninhibited interpretation of classical theory. (In comparision, one painter who straddled both sides of this stylistic divide was the Napoleonic history painter Antoine-Jean Gros: 1771-1835).

The debate eventually went in favour of Ingres, who was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome (1835-40). However, the aim of the French art world soon became to synthesize the line of Classicism with the colour of Romanticism. The academician William-Adolphe Bouguereau, for instance, believed that the trick to being a good artist is recognizing the fundamental interdependence of line and colour, a view echoed by the academician Thomas Couture who said that whenever someone described a painting as having better colour or better line, it was really nonsense, because colour depended on line to convey it, and vice versa.

Copy Old Masters or Copy Nature?

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 painting.

NOTE: 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-schemes, new forms of composition, and new types of brushstrokes, without paying too much heed to the doctrinal arguments which raged inside the academies. The powerful modern paintings of Gustave Courbet (The Painter's Studio, 1855, Musee d'Orsay), Whistler (Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl 1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), Jean-Francois Millet (The Gleaners 1857, Musee d'Orsay and Man with a Hoe, 1862, Getty Museym LA), Edouard Manet (Olympia, 1863, Musee d'Orsay), and Claude Monet (Impression: Sunrise 1872, Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris; or Nympheas 1920-6, Orangerie Museum, Paris), were more than a match for those conformist academic painters such as Alexandre Cabanel, Jean-Leon Gerome and Adolphe-William Bouguereau.

How the Academies Controlled Art Education and Exhibitions

The French Academy had a virtual monopoly on the teaching, production and exhibition of visual art in France - most other academies were in the same position. As a result, without the approval of the Academy a budding painter could neither obtain an official "qualification", nor exhibit his works to the public, nor gain access to official patronage or teaching positions. In short, the Academy held the key to an artist's future prosperity.

How Academic Art Was Taught

Academy schools taught art according to a strict set of conventions and rules, and involved only representational art: there was no abstract art permitted. Until 1863 classes inside the academy were based entirely on the practice of figure drawing - that is, drawing the works of Old Masters. Copying such masterpieces was considered to be the only means of absorbing the correct principles of contour, light, and shade. The style taught by academy teachers was known as academic art.

Students began with drawing, first from prints or drawings of classical Greek sculpture or the paintings of Old Masters such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) of the High Renaissance era. Having completed this stage, students then had to present drawings for evaluation. If successful, they then moved on to drawing from plaster casts or originals of antique statuary. Once again, they then had to present drawings for evaluation. If successful, they were allowed to copy from live male nudes (known as 'drawing from life').

Note: one side-effect of the focus on drawing from the male nude was to make it diffficult for women artists to gain admittance to the Academy, until the second half of the 19th century (1861 for the London Royal Academy), due to moral issues.

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, painting was not even on the curriculum of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the French Academy's school) until 1863: instead students had to join the studio of an academician in order to learn how to paint. (Note: Among the best of the academician studios was the studio of Gustave Moreau, in Paris.) This dogmatic teaching method was reinforced by strict entry qualifications and course assessments. For example, entry to the Parisian Ecole 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 (as we have seen) 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 maintained the strict ranking system of the painting genres. History Painting was the highest 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.

Salon Exhibitions

Typically, each academy of art staged a number of exhibitions (salons) during the year, which attracted great interest from art buyers and collectors. In order for a painting to be accepted by the Salon, it first had to be approved by the Salon "jury" - a committee of academicians who vetted each submission.

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.

The French Academy, for instance, had its own official art exhibition, known as the Paris Salon. First held in 1667, the Salon was the most prestigious art event in the world. As a result, its influence on French painting - in particular on artistic style, painterly conventions and the reputation of artists was enormous. Until the 1850s the Paris Salon was enormously influential: up to 50,000 visitors might attend on a single Sunday, and as many as 500,000 might visit the exhibition during its 8-week run. A successful showing at the Salon gave an artist a huge commercial advantage.

Even if an artist had graduated successfully from an Academy school and had 'shown' at the Salon, his future prospects were still largely dependent on his 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. Even Impressionist painters who had been rejected by the Salon - like Manet, Degas and Cezanne - still continued to submit works to the Salon jury in the hope of acceptance.

Note: Although the British Royal Academy (RA) shared some of the weaknesses of the French Academie des Beaux-Arts and others, it adopted a more independent line. For example, the unorthodox style of JMW Turner did not prevent his becoming the youngest ever member of the RA.

Decline of the Salon

By the 1860s, the French Academy and others had lost touch with artistic trends and continued stubbornly to promote a form of academic art, and a rigid teaching method, that was old-fashioned and out of touch with modern styles. (They still ranked paintings according to the "Hierarchy of Genres" [see above], thus for example a history painting always 'outranked' a landscape, and would therefore be 'hung' in a better position in the Salon.)

Due to this inability to keep up to date, the Salon became more and more conservative, and ultimately went into a serious decline. The first overt sign of trouble came in 1863 with the announcement by the French ruler Emperor Napoleon III that a special Salon des Refuses would be held, simultaneously with the official Salon, to showcase all works that had been rejected by the Salon jury. The alternative Salon proved as popular as the official one. Even so, it is worth remembering that French Impressionism - still the world's most popular style of painting - was rejected by the official Salon, forcing its adherents to exhibit privately. See Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris (1874-86).

In fairness, one should note that not every painting hung in the French Academy's annual Salon was old-fashioned in style or backward-looking in content. Some progressive paintings did get past the jury. Such works included: the historical painting Joan of Arc (1879, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) by Jules Bastien-Lepage; the Orientalist painting Hassan et Namouna (1870, Private Collection) by Henri-Alexandre-Georges Regnault; The Death of Francesca da Rimini and of Paolo Malatesta (1870, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) by Alexandre Cabanel, Jean-Leon Gerome's classical Pollice Verso (1872, Phoenix Art Museum); Pierre-Auguste Cot's neo-Rococo picture Spring (1873, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's The Wave (1896, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).

Later, more progressive alternative Salons - like the Salon des Independants, founded by Albert Dubois-Pillet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and the Salon d'Automne, initiated by Hector Guimard, Frantz Jourdain, Georges Desvallieres, Eugene Carriere, Felix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard - emerged to provide the public with a full range of modern art. In the period 1884 to 1914, these new Salons helped to introduce revolutionary new styles of painting to the public, including Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, to name but three. Only then did the public get to see abstract paintings and abstract sculpture.

Academic Art in the Late 19th Century

By the 1880s, there were two systems of art operating in France, in parallel: the "official" system of academic art, involving the Academy of Fine Arts, and its school the Ecole des Beaux Arts (it had relinquished control of the Salon in 1881); and an alternative system of modern art, involving private schools, plus the Salon des Independants and other private exhibition venues.

The official system catered for conservative circles - for instance, both sculpture and architecture were run by strong believers in academic art - but had no real influence elsewhere, not least because it failed to encourage innovation. It was criticised by Realist artists like Gustave Courbet for its promotion of idealism, instead of paying more attention to contemporary social concerns. It was criticized by Impressionist painters 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. And practitioners of both Realism and Impressionism strongly objected to the low ranking accorded to landscapes, genre paintings and still lifes in the academic hierarchy of the genres.

Meanwhile the alternative system was flourishing. All serious art collectors, dealers and art critics in Paris paid far more attention to new developments in the Salon des Independants than they did to the same old repetitive style of academic painting in the official Salon. Private schools prospered, including the Academie Julian (started 1868), Charles Gleyre's School (started 1843), Academie Colarossi (started 1870) and the Lhote Academy (started 1922). In London, the leading unofficial academy was the Slade School of Fine Art (opened 1871), which competed with the hopelessly arid teaching methods of the official Royal Academy. There were other schools that taught art design, such as the famous German Bauhaus design school (1919-32). Meanwhile Secession - see, for instance, the Munich Secession (1892), the Vienna Secession (1897) and the Berlin Secession movement (1898) - was sweeping across Europe, setting up progressive alternative organizations to the old-style academies. In short, by the turn of the century, everything that was new, innovative and exciting was happening 'outside' the official system.

European Academies of Fine Art: Origins and History

The first modern art academy was the Academy of Art in Florence founded in 1562 by the painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), 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 powerful local painters guilds, the spread of art academies throughout Italy was slow.

Growth of the Academy System

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 Academie 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.

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.

Academic Art in the 20th-Century - Largely Irrelevant

The reputation of academic-style art fell further during the first three decades of the 20th-century. First, as mentioned above, there was the Expressionist movement followed by Cubism, both of which were seen as wholly anti-establishment. Then, during the period 1916-25, the Dada movement attacked the very idea of traditional art. After this, with the exception of figurative Surrealism (1925-50) and American Scene Painting (1925-45), abstraction dominated art until at least the 60s. Thus, movements like Neo-Plasticism (1918-31), Abstract Expressionism (1947-65), and Op-Art (1955-70), to name but three, championed a completely different set of aesthetics to that of academic art. None of these styles necessitated any form of academic training, or traditional craftsmanship, and most seemed to contradict some, if not all, of the rules laid down by the Greeks, re-discovered by the Italian Renaissance and promoted by the academies.

After 1960, the art world - whose centre was now located in New York, not Paris - dumbed down even further - the mass consumer imagery of Pop Art contrasting with the austere severity of Minimalism. To confuse matters further, completely new types of art were invented, such as Conceptual art, and Installation art. New forms of fine art photography emerged, as well as various types of digital and computer art. By the late 1980s/ early 1990s, contemporary art competitions, like the Turner Prize were rarely, if ever, won by traditional or academically trained artists. In other words, on the surface at least - the fine art academy had - by 2000 - become almost irrelevant to the mainstream practice of art.

Academic Art in the 21st-Century: Old Values v Computer Software

Nonetheless, while there remains a superficial gulf between the style of postmodern art and the style of academic painting, there are reasons to think that things may change. This despite the fact that non-academic art - as exemplified by artists like Francis Bacon (1909-92), Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Picasso (1881-1973) - is the most fashionable type of art in the salerooms of auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's.

So why might there be a resurgence of academic art? Well, let's get one thing straight, art taught in today's academies is very different to that taught 50 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. So academic art itself has undergone significant modernization, in both content and methods of instruction. But the main reason why it may become more important, is that today it is abstract, hypermodern art which dominates: it is this stuff that is now mainstream. So perhaps collectors will look for something new - like a return to old values, at least in painting or sculpture. Against this, is the ever-increasing power of computers, with their art and design software, and other online tools, that may eventually make all hand-made art redundant, if not extinct.


• For other art movements and periods, see: History of Art.
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