Monday, November 23, 2020

What the heck is "The Académie?"

 "The Académie" sounds, to me, like a graphic novel about a school for angsty mutant artists run by an eccentric megalomaniac, but in fact it was the elite institution that controlled art and good taste in France during the 1700s and 1800s. It replaced the Italian Baroque apprentice/guild systems of the 1500s- 1600s and was eventually abandoned in the early 1900s with the advent of modern art. The Académie produced juried exhibitions called "Salons" which held the key to fame and commissions (and scandal). Other European countries modeled their Academic systems on that of France as well. When people say, "Academic style," they mean clean-lined, idealistic (a bit staged), slightly grandiose, and shaded with soft rich shadows. In reality, though, several styles flourished in the Académie at any given time, but the Académie's famous ideological battles are why everyone thinks of Ingres and David. Eventually with the rise of Impressionism, cubism and Dada, no one looked to the Académie any longer as the leaders in art or good taste.

There were academies all over Europe since at least Renaissance times, but before it became a "system" in the 1700s most artists were involved in the guild system of the Baroque era. 

The Old Guild System

Guilds and trade unions engaged in rigorous gatekeeping, both for training and for running a business. Today we might wonder why a painter would even need a guild; after all if you really wanted to you could just put up an easel in the corner of your living room, buy some paints and how-to books, and print up some business cards. But that's all thanks to the Industrial Revolution which changed painting in the late 1800s.

Before that artists were stuck in the studio creating every paint color from scratch with pigments that came from dirt, plants, animals and rocks. Perfecting the texture with binding agents an solvents. Building wooden canvases and other supports, preparing the surface, varnishing the finished pieces. Once an artist found a good paint recipe they kept it secret, only telling their assistants. That's why certain Baroque artists were famous for signature colors, like Titian for his copper-haired muses. An artist might also hoard a secret technique.

Some of Rosa Bonheur's supplies as she left them in the 1890s (image via). You can see the mix of modern paint tubes which came about after the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, as well as more traditional bottles of pigments, solvents and binders. I can see at least four types of yellow pigment here; some were common while others were quite rare. Pigments might have different physical properties like opacity or mix well with one type of red vs another, for example. That's why an artist needed more than red, yellow and blue, which is why today the shades still have names like "cadmium red," "alizarin crimson" "scarlet lake" and "rose madder." They aren't merely poetic, and those shades today can contain the real pigments or synthetic versions, but are still used in the same way. One type of yellow, "gamboge,"  comes from a tree in Southeast Asia and its availability varied according to shortages caused by faraway wars. This makes it possible to reliably date a painting based on its use (I learned that from Elementary, thanks Moriarty). Large doses can also be fatal (many paint pigments are poisonous), which is why van Gogh tried to eat yellow paint while mentally unwell. Each pigment has a very particular backstory and would be an interesting way to approach studying history.

And these artists didn't do it all by themselves. A studio required staff, so they took trainees under their wing. Some of them were apprentices and protegées who would eventually inherit the studio or set up their own; a protegée was meant to carry on the reputation of a master artist, not to compete. An artist's wife and family members might also assist or paint parts of the image, uncredited.

All of this cost money, like opening a new restaurant would nowadays. It was a full-time job (with taxes to pay) so the studio needed patrons such as wealthy clergy and nobility, perhaps a successful merchant. Even if the studio was part of a convent staffed entirely by artist-nuns (and that did happen), they still had to get the permission and financial backing from religious higher-ups. Then there were expensive props and supplies, models to pay. Some artists even showcased how much money they were spending (i.e. showing off the wealth of the client) by making paint colors from semiprecious stones, like blue from lapis lazuli. 

An artist also had to be a terrific sales-person and networker. Back then artists were regarded as skilled craftsmen, like carpenters. But due to their efforts artists were just beginning to be seen as creative intellectuals who could be both respected and allowed to hob-nob and even marry into elite social circles. This would pave the way for the caché of the Académie in the 1700s.

Artists formed guilds or unions to protect business where aspiring artists had to be elected to membership and then pay dues. Most of these guilds denied membership to all women and Jews, with some exceptions-- usually women who had inherited a studio. Women could also be kicked out of guilds (and even punished by authorities in some places) if they studied or painted nudes, which was a major impediment to figurative work (and the highest paid, most respected commissions). This continued long into the Academic era.

Guilds formalized the apprenticeship process. Apprenticeship was also frequently denied to women, or it was so disreputable and vulnerable to predators that women could not safely participate. (Despite this there were a shocking number of women artists in Baroque times, working in all styles and financially successful.) After apprenticeship, when a painter was ready to apply to the guild they created the best painting they possibly could to show they had mastered painting; this was submission was called a "masterpiece." Which, of course, is where the modern term comes from.

The Painter in his Studio, by Adriaen Jansz van Ostade, 1663. (image via) Think about how much this would cost in 1663. Big windows, lots of space (enough for an entire family), supplies, props, references (books were luxuries).

It's only natural, then, that most studios also functioned as schools. Multiple apprentices would apply year after year. To supplement income many artists would also give drawing lessons to people like craftsmen, scientists and wealthy young ladies. Schools and city-states each developed their own styles and practices, so today we still say "the [x] school" when referring to a particular style.

The Académie

Schools eventually evolved into state-run academies. This gave the nobility more centralized involvement in what had previously been a piecemeal system by artists for artists. Art instructors leveraged this involvement to access high society, Enlightenment resources such as libraries and expert lecturers on philosophy and anatomy, and a certain high-minded caché. They secured sponsorship to send their most promising students abroad to study the old masters in Rome (the legendary and coveted Prix de Rome) and in Amsterdam. Whereas an old-fashioned apprentice was considered a craftsman and a businessman, someone trained at an academy was considered an intellectual gentleman.

King Louis XIV (the "Sun King" who established Versailles) organized the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris in the 1660s as part of his larger effort make France internationally famous for luxury goods. Paris was considered a cultural backwater at the time compared to Rome or Madrid, but by the late 1700s foreign students were traveling to Paris to learn, a phenomenon which would peak in the 1850s-1930s.  

The Academic curriculum was highly structured. Prospective students had to first pass a difficult entrance exam. Then those who were admitted set about learning to draw (not paint). They were given old drawings and etchings of paintings to copy, then if the teacher approved they moved on to sketching plaster busts and sculptures. With the teacher's approval male students would then move on to figure drawing class with live models. They considered painting secondary to drawing as interior decorating is to architecture, so it was only toward the end of the program or post-graduate that students learned painting by copying works at the Louvre and assisting older artists. Students didn't have much wiggle room in terms of style and content. 

An illustration c. 1880 of students drawing from plaster sculptures (image via). This was likely after Académie Colarossi in Paris finally opened its doors to female students in the Belle Epoque and women came pouring in from foreign countries to study. Some Academies in other nations followed suit.

The Académie also served as gatekeeper for professional success. They hosted juried Salons in which the accepted paintings were shown at the aristocratic social event of the season. Anyone could submit paintings, not just Academic students. Paintings were crammed together on the walls all the way up to the ceiling, so the Academic juries also controlled who got top billing by placing their favorite painters' work at eye level. Those who did well in Salons were almost guaranteed a good career. Being critically panned was a disaster. The Académie also offered assistance to working professionals such as studio space, research materials, travel funds, artistic community and access to powerful clientele; and of course cushy teaching positions. A professional artist could ultimately be elected into Academic membership, to become one of the celebrated gatekeepers who juried Salons and the like. While it was possible to make money and achieve fame outside the Academic System, it was certainly more difficult.

However many artists in the 1700s and 1800s still studied with individual professionals rather than at the Academies. Many simply could not afford Academic tuition or had not been accepted; women were usually barred from formal study. Others still preferred the art style of the individual with whom they trained or preferred the one-on-one style of teaching. Many artists mixed the two, obtaining training first from a middling local professional, then apprenticing to a more renowned artist, then taking courses at the academies, and then perhaps even studying with another artist after that. Thus many professional artists were also prolific teachers; in the 1700s nearly everyone seemed to study under someone who studied under Fragonard; in the 1800s all roads led back to David, Delacroix and Ingres (and to Rosa Bonheur for women). Most of the women I'm profiling for my Inktober project learned this way.

Allegory and Idealization

Simply put, allegory is when you paint a hot lady with a paintbrush and say, "this is a picture of The Arts." Allegory is similar to a symbol, but the way the Académie used it it almost always boiled down to a pretty woman who represented Peace, Painting, The Nation or some other abstract concept, though sometimes it was a horse that represented War or a hooded skeleton that represented Death. The system was based on the concept of Platonic ideals. 

Plato wrote that the ideal is the ultimate imaginary form of something on which all inherently flawed real-life versions are built. Platonic spaghetti, for instance, is that perfect ideal spaghetti in your mind; the real spaghetti you cook will never live up to it. Therefore in Academic art, when they show a woman holding a paintbrush meant to represent the Platonic ideal of Painting, she isn't a realistic warts-and-all portrayal. She is the most idealized and generic woman possible, holding the most generic possible paintbrush; bonus points if her clothes are from an unspecific era or Greek, her pose is unrealistic or even defying physics, and her environment is stagey or anachronistic. The whole point is that she isn't a realistic individual in the real world. The more flawless the woman, the more flawless the concept. Furthermore the 18th century viewer would know that she is the allegory of Painting because of her gold chain, green clothes and black hair; such details of each common allegory had been standardized since Baroque times, though artists didn't always include every detail by the book. The artist and viewer were expected to have a thorough education in allegorical conventions as well as mythology, history and art history. Allegorical art (usually history painting) was intellectual art for smart people.

Nowadays we'd see an Academic allegorical portrayal and ask, "whoa, why is her spine like that?" or "why isn't she gripping the brush tightly enough to actually hold it," or "why is her boob hanging out?" These unrealistic things were all meant to clue the viewer in to the fact that she's an allegory, not a real lady. The flawlessness of the woman's beauty can also throw us for a loop because beauty standards then were very different from today, and even then they varied by time and place. They might vary still more depending on whether the artist's patron preferred a particular type of body. 

Artists might also refer to ancient Greek ideals of beauty, which followed a mathematic formula right down to the length and width of the toes. The ancient Greeks were usually sculpting gods and goddesses, so they used "perfect physical beauty" to convey the idea of the supernatural. Nor was any ancient Greek goddess just a slip of a thing, physically; the Goddess was meant to be powerful and plentiful and her body reflected that in skeletal breadth and fleshiness. Those ideas certainly affected the Academic practice of allegory. While in 18th and 19th century portraiture you often see dainty women with impossibly dainty rib cages and big bobble heads, in history painting the allegorical women usually adhered more closely to Greek standards.

Despite these high-minded ideas, art was still a business that was subject to the waxing and waning of fashions. The flawless allegorical woman naturally blended with the more earthbound requests of patrons and nobility, resulting in so countless portrayals of Venus and allegories of Vanity or Beauty who looked suspiciously like someone's naked mistress. By 1790 Versailles looked like it had an unchecked infestation of cherubs. Idealism became a pervasive element of Academic art no matter the subject; they just felt it made a better painting. Ingres, for example, was disgusted by anatomy (even though he was more than capable of painting anatomically realistic figures); he preferred to paint stylized people. 

"This Year Venuses Again... Always Venuses!" a cartoon by Honoré Daumier, 1864, depicting two annoyed ladies at a Salon exhibit. (image via).

The opposite of idealism was called "realism." Nowadays most people use the term to mean something looks photo-realistic, but in most of art history it means not idealizing things. Realists painted real people, warts and all, doing real things in the real world. The Impressionists, for example, were realists, showing normal people doing everyday things with no allegorical pretense at all-- a person rowing a boat was just that. Other realists included social agendas, creating unflinching looks at poverty, suffering and the uglier side of life, while others swore allegiance to modernity. 

Degas, for instance, was a promising young student in the Academic style who won the Prix de Rome and then decided he wanted to find "the movement of the Greeks" in the modern world instead of in history painting. Manet was another realist whose famous Olympia was extremely shocking-- not because she was more naked or sexy than Academic nudes (she was actually posed  less overtly than many arch-backed Venuses of the time), but because she was too realistic. She was short with realistic proportions, wearing a modern necklace, and looking the viewer dead in the eye instead of existing in some fantasy land where she can't see you. 

The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1863. (image via). This is idealized Academic style: no visible brushstrokes, a physically impossible scenario (reclining on water, flying babies), mythological characters, a stagey artificial composition, a classically proportioned woman lit by soft directional studio lighting, and a vague allusion to the Renaissance masters. They were really into tall women back then with long fleshy limbs, breasts shaped like meringues and slightly small heads for their bodies. Characters in Jane Austen novels (1810s) always felt bad about themselves because they weren't tall enough.

Olympia, by Édouard Manet, 1863. (image via). This is realist, not Academic style or idealized. She's probably meant to be a prostitute (the black cat and accessories would have tipped off Victorian viewers; "Olympia" was also a common pseudonym for prostitutes to use as well as being an insolent reference to the Academic obsession with Greek mythology). This painting was famously shocking. People usually attribute that to her being a prostitute, but that isn't true. If she'd been a Mary Magdalene or a character from classical Greek mythology or ancient history who was prostitute or mistress, that would've been totally fine. If she'd had the standard classical body shape, softly shaded from one direction like studio lighting, fainting away or gazing into a mirror, even looking over one shoulder at the viewer so as to passively beckon him into her fantasy world, it also would've been fine. The problem was her realism and modernity. She's short with teardrop breasts and a wide Parisian face, demonstrating that the Academic ideal has no power to define "beauty." She's in modern Paris, where Black people exist just because (in Academic art they never painted Black people without a narrative reason, like being one of the Three Kings of Orient visiting Jesus, or as part of the mise-en-scène to place Cleopatra in ancient Egypt, or to allegorically represent Africa; Black people didn't just randomly show up, living their lives). To underscore the departure from tradition, Manet used a lighting style that created an outline effect, which criticized even the hallowed drawing methods of the Académie. Manet and his Olympia both made the Victorian gentleman viewer feel inadequate: she intimidated instead of putting on a coquettish show, confronting the viewer/john with sex like "I don't have all day," while Manet made the viewer feel inadequate by rendering all his fine traditions and allegorical knowledge irrelevant, trampling all over the boundaries of his comfort zone of "once upon a time." 

When we see artistic details that challenged Academic tradition, it can be hard not to think "yeah but... it's just a shadow? So what, why were they losing their minds?" But when you remember the history of the Académie it's easier to understand why these things were truly threatening. Artists used the Académie to social climb from craftsmen to gentleman-intellectuals, while nobility used the Académie to control the arts. It upheld a classist society and created an identity that placed modernity neatly into history, with noble purpose and a common goal. Breaking with tradition was an upset to elitism, monarchy and tradition. Nowadays we see Impressionism as prosaic, but back then it posed a nihilistic threat.

Color vs. Line

Since the Académie was in charge of art it became the obvious battleground for defining art and determining its future. There were two big ideological camps: the poussinistes (fans of Poussin) versus the rubenistes (fans of Rubens), which in the 1800s evolved into the Neoclassicists versus the Romantics. 

The Poussinistes and Neoclassicists esteemed drawing, line and form over color. They wanted to create figures so beautifully shaded and crisply defined that they could be statues ready to be plucked right off the canvas. Their figures had weight, balance and completion, often at the expense of implied movement. This stiff, highly finished style naturally lent itself to the calm rational ideals of Neoclassicism. Color was also an afterthought, and it belonged within the lines of the form. Color was best in one simple tone shaded from light to dark. If you've ever seen old black and white photos that have been hand-colored, poussiniste paintings had that quality. "Line" usually meant crisp edge, "form" meant smooth shading. Examples of poussinistes were David and Ingres. 

My Eyes Are Up Here, by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Just kidding! This is called Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. (image via). You can see the even weight distribution and musculature, small head and statuesque profile typical of Greek-inspired Academic figures. Ingres often played fast and loose with anatomy to make figures more idealized, but this example is fairly natural looking. Notice also that the background looks flat like a stage set. You can tell from the shadows that Oedipus was drawn in the studio and then placed outdoors, a common Academic practice. They knew how to paint people under different lighting conditions, because the Dutch and Flemish masters of the 1600s had had a field day with lighting effects. But the soft full shading of the studio was part of the idealization process. Remember, drawing came before painting. Concept came before reality. Notice also how Oedipus's skin is just light and dark shades of tan and the rocks are light and dark ochre. Form came first, color second. Ingres hated the work of Rubens.

The Rubenistes, meanwhile, valued color, expressive brushwork, and movement. They wanted dancers to really look like they were dancing and clouds to really look like they were sparkling, so they sacrificed crisp edges and finished brushwork for expressive movement and complex blending of colors. This style naturally lent itself to the whimsical Rococo era, and then to the intense emotions and violent passions of the later Romantics. Examples of Rubenistes included Fragonard and Vigée Le Brun; Romantics included Delacroix and Courbet. 

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. (image via). This history painting is unusual for the Académie in that the event was so recent (the French Revolution forty years prior) and the corpses and civilians are unusually realist; their clothes are near-contemporary and they are more awkward than idealized in death. However his Liberty provides an excellent example of allegory. She's timeless, sculpturally beautiful, and dressed unrealistically. The brushwork has been kept loose, especially in the clouds of smoke but also in the folds of the fabric. The child is silhouetted but not sharply outlined. No one's body is particularly well lit or well composed from head to toe, but the composition taken all together creates the impression of excitement, adrenaline and forward movement. This composition, while not especially colorful, shows how colors are more complex, composed of layers of contrasting shades (the blue and orange smoke especially) that help the color come alive.

The line vs. color debate also took the form of claiming that drawing was superior to painting, that drawing was an intellectual exercise while painting was more craftsmanlike and superficial. The painting side pointed out how empty a painting would be without any emotional response and that color and brushwork instinctively stirred emotion. They also believed it could allow more people to enjoy art, not only the educated and intellectually inclined. The drawing side seemed to get the upper hand, though. This helps to explain why, when the painterly Impressionists came along who cared more about the placement and color of a hay bale than about the yearnings of anyone's soul, they managed to enrage both sides. 

Another lively debate was between those who learned from nature versus those who learned from older paintings. The Nature side eventually was fullfilled by the Barbizon school beginning in the early-mid 1800s. They were among the first plein aire painters (i.e. they painted outdoors, or sketched outdoors and finished up in the studio). They often kept colors fresh and brushstrokes loose, but were far more restrained than the later Impressionists. They usually painted landscapes but often depicted people in rural genre scenes as well. Rarely did they venture into history painting but they created heroic rural scenes that were monumental in novel ways, usually to great acclaim. The Barbizon school were respected and accepted but weren't part of the Académie. 

Of course not everyone took a side; many brave souls even spoke up to point out that most great art involves both line and color. Many artists took inspiration from both sides, the best example being Bouguereau, the last great superstar of the Academic era. 

Psyche, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1895. (image via). Bouguereau said line and color were the same thing. He used crisp outlines and full shading but also complex colors which seemed to sparkle. The skin here isn't just light and dark tan, the purple isn't flat. He blended his brushstrokes to create impeccable detail for every feather and ruffle, but allowed his painterliness to show through, using airy landscapes and flowing fabrics to create movement. He also took the best of what the Barbizon school had to offer; his outdoor figures really look like they're bathed in natural light (though this particular painting doesn't show his best lighting effects). He was one hell of an incredible painter with a natural sophistication and ease to his style; unfortunately his subject-matter was a cautionary tale of what happens when you blend empty eroticism with saccharine pretentiousness. Still, like Christopher Nolan movies or the British Royal Family, it isn't so much the content of Bouguereau's work that annoys me so much as its fans. Ugh, Victorians. 

The Genre Hierarchy

The final weird and wonderful thing you need to know about Academic art is that they ranked the genres from best to worst, smart to stupid. History painting was best, then genre painting, then portraiture, then landscape, then still life. History paintings were sometimes monumental and could be ancient Greek scenes (real or mythological), Biblical scenes, ancient events or allegorical depictions of ideas (so, an image of Peace doting on France or Sculpture inspiring a sculptor would count as history painting). It was the most respected and well-payed. 'Genre painting,' by the way, means slice of life scenes. It could be a shepherdess in a field, lovers flirting by a fence, a maid carrying a jug, nuns nursing the sick.  

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David, 1798 (image via). While some history paintings were relatively simple, many others (like this one) were monumental paintings with complex compositions and lots of drama. This depicts a chaotic event in Roman mythology when two neighboring cities are at war and the women, caught in the middle between fathers and husbands, beg the men to stop fighting. David painted this as an obvious call for France's people to come together when regimes changed violently after the Revolution. History paintings often were masked commentary on current events. David had previously tried to create a non-ancient history painting of current events as they unfolded (the beginning of the French Revolution), but by the time he got halfway done the situation had completely reversed itself. That's partially why painters so often used ancient history as commentary on current events. It also helped them avoid too much backlash; they could always claim, at the end of the day, that it had nothing to do with current politics. Here you can see that each figure is fully posed and beautifully lit; each could stand alone as its own painting. David has arranged them in a line like figures in an ancient Roman frieze. David was a Neoclassicist and the drama in this painting comes from its crisply delineated poses and intellectual references rather than expressive brushwork or complex color.

Women were typically discouraged from history painting specifically, not only because they weren't supposed to study anatomy (but they often did anyway) but because it was considered presumptuous for a woman to teach an intellectual lesson and unfeminine to be so ambitious. Some women did it anyway of course but they more often found willing clients in portraiture and still life, thus creating a cycle of disrespect, wherein the genre was respected less because it was practiced by ladies, and was practiced by ladies because it was less respected. Women sometimes broke the glass ceiling through sheer audacity and talent, but more often they found a way to do genre painting and history painting by focusing on maternal and moralistic themes-- winning support by "staying in their lane" where they could realize ambitious projects but still find willing patrons. 


Nowadays we expect realism in art and media, but we still use the Academic tradition of the Platonic Ideal as expressed via heavy fantasy. Perfume ads, for example, use impossibly beautiful people in timeless fantasy scenarios to express the abstract idea of scent. Conceptual allegory, meanwhile, has become the purview of political cartoonists. They usually label the concept that the figure represents (like a clown car labeled "Trump's Approach to the Refugee Crisis" with the emergent clowns labeled "Private Prison Industry," "GOP Re-election Strategy" and "The NRA.") But we don't need labels for common modern allegorical figures; we recognize 'Patriotism,' 'the Democratic Party,' 'Old-Fashioned Ideals of Femininity' and 'the Mainstream Media,' among many others. Meanwhile memes that replicate the same group of figures with ever-changing labels like "my brain" vs "my ability to manage my time" could be considered an incredibly lazy modern version of Academic allegory; they get popular when they hit on an abstract universal feeling in a novel way and manage to express some otherwise embarrassing, forbidden or peculiar concepts.

After the advent of modernism, Academic style fell ever further into disrepute. Critics lined up to devalue it and antiestablishmentarians like the Dadaists held it in contempt. However avant-garde artists still took inspiration from Academic art. Many of the leading modernists of the 1910s and 20s had themselves studied in the Academic system. Countless modernists were inspired by Ingres. Abstract artists admired his flattening of the picture plane while surrealists admired his eerie and erotic stylization. Delacroix and Courbet continued to inspire.  

In the 1950s mega-critic Clement Greenberg declared all Academic painting to be kitsch (gasp!). But it's making a comeback in roundabout ways. Academic drawing and painting techniques are becoming popular again, visually dazzling a public which has spent the last century secretly resenting abstract art. Other contemporary painters still use allegory but there's no central standard; in today's multicultural, pluralistic world everyone is expected to invent it on their own using unusual symbols loaded with personal significance like they're Joseph freaking Beuys. On one had that's nice because it isn't so rigid and it opens space for discovery, but on the other it can be baffling as a viewer. Artists will say things in interviews like, "oh yes, I became fascinated by the character of the clown who is turned into a two-headed ox from [obscure Italian opera] so I used him to explore the way we recontextualize post-Colonialism through the lens of modern Dutch genderqueer identity." Which is... interesting but I never would have figured that out just from looking at the painting. I don't want to return to the era of Academic rigidity, but it would be nice sometimes to understand without reading the long text on the wall.





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