The Art Academies, also known as Academic Classicism, was created in Italy in the XVI century and controlled the Europe’s art world for over two centuries. As it takes the place of the medieval learning system, the Academic way of teaching spread all throughout Europe. Studying in these institutions turned into a secure path for professional artists to follow, for this gave them more opportunities to participate in contests and art exhibitions.
Students would have to pass an admission test to prove they are qualified to get in an Art Academy. After being admitted, the apprentice spent years studying and copying works of Classic artists, as to absorb their techniques. The teaching methods emphasized the intellectual side of the artistic production, for they aimed to elevate artists from mere craftsmen or artisans, which were considered to do only manual labor and not art.
At the beginning of their studies, pupils must start drawing using etching prints as a reference. Later, they pass to models in gesso sculptures and lastly, to live models. The artists working under this regime had to obey to a hierarchy of acceptable topics, being that historical subjects, like Biblical and Classical stories, where the most valued, followed by portraits and landscapes, and lastly, still-life paintings. The most successful students earned the title of Academic Artist.
In 1816, begins the most renowned art academy in Europe, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, or the Academy of Fine Arts. This institution is a result of the junction of Paris’ Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, along with two other art schools. The Academy of Fine Arts would have an annual exhibition in the Paris Salon, where only the most outstanding sculptures and paintings would be accepted, not to mention, they had to follow the conventional style of the Academic Art. To be considered successful, an artist would not only have to be approved into the Paris Salon but would also be expected to win many contests. The most prestigious award was the Prix de Rome, and the winner would have the chance to study art in Rome for up to five years.
The Academic Artists followed theories from the Neo-Classicists, as they would systematize the classic qualities, like shapes and composition, to create new work with a new interpretation. Even though students would study by copying works of art to learn the methods of Classic artists, the intention was not to produce replicas or imitations but to take the Neo-classical essence to create new art. The artists also valued some concepts of the Romanticism as well. They looked at the need for each artist to have an individualized and subjective imagination, so they were able to express their own emotions on their work. The most prominent artists of this period that elevated the Academic art to its finest were William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Alexandre Cabanel, and Thomas Couture.
Bouguereau realized some of the most influential works following the standards of Academic Art, like the Birth of Venus. This painting shows Venus, Roman goddess of love and beauty, emerging from a shell and surrounded by Tritons, sea nymphs, and cherubs – who were usually represented as chubby male babies with wings, as a sign of respect for the Italian Renaissance art. Bouguereau was able to beautifully reproduce the technique of academic painting with a carefully satin-like finish, intense color, and non-visible brush strokes. He was able to make flawless skin that looks almost like porcelain. This work pays homage to Botticelli’s Venus, as well as Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, and Venus Anadyomène, by Ingres. Like many artists at the time, Bouguereau used a Classic mythological theme as a pretext to portray a beautifully voluptuous and idealized female nude. He was praised by his fellow traditional artists, but loathed by the newer generations.
Cabanel also followed a mythological narrative in Phaedra, where the central figure is illuminated and featured with radiant skin, compared to the other two figures. He portrays the story of Phaedra after she declares her love for Hippolyte. Gérôme has a different approach to the mythological theme in Pygmalion and Galatea, as he depicts Pygmalions’ wish coming true, that is, having a wife as beautiful as his art.
In 1848, because of the revolutions and industrialization taking place in Europe, many changes were appearing in social conditions and artists start to question the authority of the Academic Art. This began with the British Pre-Raphaelites that were against the conservatism and unbendable structure of the academies and their control over the consumers of art. Even though the Art Academy was criticized, there is no denying of its substantial impact on Western art.