French Academy of Fine Arts
History, Teaching of Academic Art, Salon Controversy.

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L'Eminence Grise (1873)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
By Jean-Leon Gerome,
Professor at the French Academy's
Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

French Academy of Fine Arts
Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture


Early History
Academic Art
Conservative Teaching Methods
The Salon Controversy
Related Articles About French Arts

For a general guide to the evolution of painting, sculpture and
other artforms, see: History of Art (2.5 Million BCE -present).

The Oath of the Horatii (1785)
Louvre, Paris. A wonderful
example of academic-style
mythological painting by
Jacques-Louis David, the
great political painter of the
French Revolution.

The Valpincon Bather (1808)
Louvre, Paris.
By J.A.D.Ingres, the doyen of
the French Academy, famous
for his painstaking slowness
and polish.


The French Academy of Fine Arts (Academie des Beaux-Arts) is the premier institution of fine art in France. The brainchild of painter, designer and art theorist Charles Le Brun (1619-90), the Academy was founded in 1648 as the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture). It was abolished temporarily during the French Revolution before being renamed the Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Academie de Peinture et de Sculpture). In 1816, it was amalgamated with two other arts bodies, the Academy of Music (founded in 1669) and the Academy of Architecture (founded in 1671), to form the Academie des Beaux-Arts. The primary aim of the Academy was to teach painting and sculpture to promising students, and to offer a place of exhibition for those artists accepted as members (academicians). In both areas, the Academy rapidly achieved a monopoly, provoking - as we shall see - significant controversy in the process. Instruction was organized through its art school - the Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris - whose aesthetics and practices were based on the antique canons formulated in Classical Antiquity, as revised during the era of Renaissance art (1400-1530). All students, for example, were required to perfect their drawing skills before advancing to figure drawing and eventually oil painting. The Academy was also responsible for the French Academy in Rome (founded in 1666), and the scholarship known as the Prix de Rome. At the same time, from 1667 the Academy held an annual exhibition for its members - the only permitted public art exhibition in France - known as the "Salon", after its location in the salon carre (square room) at the Louvre. Although the French Academy was the most influential of all European arts institutions, other important academies included: the Academy of Art, Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno), established in the early 1560s by the Medici family; the Academy of Art, Rome (Accademia di San Luca), founded in the 1580s under the sponsorship of the Pope; and the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London, under the patronage of King George III. These and other academies across Europe propagated what became known as "Academic Art" - an idiom associated with Neoclassical painting and sculpture from ancient Greece. Unfortunately, the French Academy rapidly achieved a monopoly in all areas of visual art, which allowed it to coerce artists into adopting a rigid set of aesthetic rules. Not until the advent of Impressionism - which established itself despite opposition from the Academy - along with the founding of alternative exhibitions, such as the Salon des Independants (founded 1884) and the Salon d'Automne, Paris (founded 1903). Today, the pendulum has if anything swung too far in the other direction. Academies like the Academie des Beaux-Arts have a much more open view and embrace the most experimental forms of postmodernist art, as well as hypermodern teaching methods.

Detail taken from
A Burial at Ornans (1849-50)
By Gustave Courbet.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
A controversial realist genre
painting, painted on a huge
canvas normally reserved for
prestigious religious works.
It was Courbet's way of honouring
the common people, and was a
defining work of French Realism.


Early History

Although founded in 1648, the Academy remained powerless due to opposition from the crafts Guilds until 1661 when it came under the wing of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, chief adviser to Louis XIV. Colbert recognized the political advantage of being able to impose artistic standards and glorify the King, and so gave the Academy exclusive control of both the teaching and public exhibiting of art. In 1663 he appointed the talented and dynamic Charles Le Brun as the Academy's first Director. Under this new regime, the Academy rapidly acquired almost complete control over artists in France.

To begin with, only artists who were elected members of the Academy (ie. academicians) were eligible for official arts jobs. For example, the positions of all court-appointed painters and sculptors, designers and architects, as well as all inspectors and chiefs of royal factories - like the Gobelins Tapestry works - and arts professors were reserved exclusively for academicians. How did an artist enter the ranks of the Academy? By getting a committee of academicians to "accept" his submitted work of art.

Furthermore, in order to bring his skills to the attention of potential customers, an artist had to exhibit his works in public. But since the only permitted public art show was the Salon, he could only exhibit if his submission was "accepted" by the Salon jury (also made up of academicians).

Put simply, the Academy exercised total control over all aspects of French painting and sculpture. And those artists whose work it disapproved of, found it extremely difficult to make a living.

Academic Art

As part of its regulation of French painting, the French Academy imposed what was known as the hierarchy of genres, in which the five different painting genres were ranked according to their edification value. This hierarchy was announced in 1669 by Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy, and ranked paintings as follows: (1) History Painting; (2) Portrait art; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscape Art; (5) Still Life Painting. This system was used by the academies as the basis for awarding scholarships and prizes, and for allocating spaces in the Salon. It also had a major impact on the financial value of a work. Although the introduction of these aesthetic rules had theoretical merit, their rigid interpretation undermined the whole process.

As well as regulating genres and themes, the Academy introduced numerous conventions on (eg.) how a painting should be painted: including overall style (the Academy prefered representational art in the neoclassical idiom); recommended colour schemes; how much brushwork should remain visible; how a picture should be finished off; and many others.

Conservative Teaching Methods

The French Academy's school - the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris - was renowned for its conservative and unchanging approach to art education. Students began with drawing, first from prints of Greek sculpture or famous paintings by Old Masters like Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Raphael (1483-1520); then from plaster casts or originals of antique statuary; finally from this they progressed to figure drawing from live male nudes (known as 'drawing from life'). At the end of each stage their drawings were carefully assessed before they were allowed to advance any futher. Only after completing several years of drawing, as well as geometry and human anatomy, were students allowed to paint: that is, to use colour. In fact, there was no painting at all on the curriculum of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts until 1863: to learn how to paint students had to join the workshop of an academician.

The Salon Controversy

For some 150 years (1740-1890), the Salon was the most prestigious annual/biannual art exhibition in the world. As many as 50,000 visitors might attend the Salon on a single Sunday, and a total of 500,000 might visit the exhibition during its 8-week run. For much of the time the Salon was used by the Academy as a way of forcing artists to conform to its own increasingly rigid and outdated set of aesthetics, a practice which met with more and more opposition. An early victim of the Academy's strictures was the popular artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), who in 1769 was accepted into the Academy not as a "history painter" but as a mere "painter of genre." This, despite the view of Denis Diderot, chief editor of the Encyclopedie, that Greuze represented the "highest ideal" of French painting of the day.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed much greater controversy, as an increasing number of highly regarded paintings were refused admission to the Salon, not because of their lack of quality, but because they did not conform to the rigid rules of the Academy. At the same time, large numbers of mediocre "academic-style" works were accepted.

In 1855, for instance, the realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) submitted to the Salon his masterpiece - The Artist's Studio (A Real Allegory) (1855, Musee d'Orsay). The huge realist painting featured portraits, still-life pictures, and landscapes, illuminated by the presence of one of the most striking female nudes in French painting. But the Salon Jury turned it down. In 1863, an even greater uproar occurred among artists and art critics when the Salon Jury rejected more than 3,000 submitted works, including Dejeuner sur L'Herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet, and paintings by Paul Cezanne, the American Whistler and Camille Pissarro. This led the French Emperor Napoleon III to announce that painters whose works had been rejected by the official Salon could exhibit them simultaneously at the Salon des Refuses (an exhibition of rejects) at a nearby venue. This controversy greatly undermined the reputation of the Salon.

Note: Eminent academicians included: J.A.D. Ingres (1780–1867), Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835), Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).

Note: Arguably the artist with the most interesting relationship with the French Academy was J.A.D. Ingres. Read about it in these articles analyzing his greatest works: The Valpincon Bather (1808), La Grand Odalisque (1814), Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832), and Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1844-65).

Famous painters (in addition to those already cited) whose works were rejected by the Academy include: Camille Corot (1796-1875), Johan Jongkind (1819-1891), Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891), to name but a few.

In 1881, the Academy gave up control of the Salon, which was taken over by the Society of French Artists (Societe des Artistes Francais). This was followed by the founding of two other major annual art exhibitions in Paris - the Salon des Independants (established 1884) and the Salon d'Automne, Paris (1903). Since then, a number of new Salons have emerged, such as the Salon de Mai, Salon de la Jeune Peinture and the Salon des Realities Nouvelles.

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