Every day, we wake up and we hurry to our jobs or to school. We become part of a routine that seems to encapsulate us. In this series, we will take a moment from our hectic, fast-paced world, step outside of our routine, and imagine what life may have been like across cultures and eras.
The French Academy in the 19th-Century
The French Academy was one of the premier institutions for creating world-renown works of art. For centuries, the French Academy, having grown out of the guild systems, provided students with a very structured master-apprenticeship way of learning art. Aspiring artists would seek out a master artist from whom they could learn the artistic traditions.
In the 19th century, however, things began to change. After years of bloody revolution, the French Academy found itself under attack by a modern form of art: the “official,” more romantic art encouraged by the state.
This romantic art resisted the finished and polished look required by the academy in favor of originality expressed by a sketchy and loose approach to making art. Novel themes, including the stories of popular culture and emotional experiences, were also preferred over the traditional subjects of religion and history.
There was also a faction of artists who thought these two ways of creating could intermingle. For instance, the artists that were able to create finished works according to the academy’s standards could still create works of art that celebrated popular themes. These artists were called “juste milieu” or “happy medium” artists.
Despite the growing popularity of romantic art, there were still those interested in the academic approach to creating works of art, and the academic curriculum was still desired by many aspiring artists if only to win the coveted Prix-de-Rome prize.
With all of these competing theories on art, what would it be like to be a student during this time? What was a day like for a student who wanted to learn at the French Academy?
Using information from Albert Boime’s “The French Academy & French Painting in the Nineteenth Century,” we will try to imagine what it was like to be a student of the French Academy.
Imagining Student Life at the French Academy
We enter the door of the master’s studio for another day of artistic training. There are studies of old master paintings and drawings from the Louvre that adorn the studio walls, and we are immediately comforted by the familiar smells of charcoal dust, turpentine, and oil paint.
Some of the students are just beginning their training, so we see them ushered into a room reserved for beginning drawing, which consists of copying old etchings. They sharpen their pencils and diligently replicate each and every line of the etching as precisely as possible.
Only after we master lines do we progress to shading with hatch marks, which are a series of parallel lines used to create areas of darkness.
Some of the students are visibly frustrated by this approach and want more freedom to express themselves. We watch these students sometimes blend the lines with a paper stump and some have even transitioned to using charcoal to get smoother shading.
We leave this room to check in on the intermediate drawing students. These students are drawing from plaster casts and other solid objects. They are using the techniques they learned from copying the etchings and applying them to drawing the plaster cast from life.
Drawing from life introduces these students to the effects of light on objects in the real world. Drawing the plaster cast also familiarizes these students with the standards of beauty required by the old master artists. All of these students are effectively training their eye and their mind to recognize beauty provided by nature and beauty enacted by the mind.
Only after mastering the cast drawing are students permitted to draw from the human figure, which is happening in the adjacent room. The students are carefully trying to render the figure model in front of them. The master artist is currently in this room, and we see him correcting a student’s proportions by making subtle marks on the student’s drawing.
We, however, have begun the painting part of the curriculum, which can only be started after we show proficiency in drawing.
We sit down at our easels and prepare our palette of earth tones for the day. A model sits toward the corner of the room where the light will beautifully illuminate the features of her face.
As we prepare our palettes, we consider that some students are not here to paint today. Instead, they are at the Louvre copying the old masterpieces on site. Many of these copies are done for a patron who has paid the master. It’s also an opportunity to practice the controversial “fini” or polished finish traditional to the academic curriculum.
The master comes in and sits in front of us all to start our lesson with a demonstration. He mixes a red sauce and quickly brushes in the shadow side of the model’s head. Once this shape is correct, he produces a mosaic of thicker, opaque brush strokes for the light side of the head. We watch intently as he reproduces the model’s face and head.
After achieving a likeness, he stops and instructs us to do the same. He pushes the point that focusing too much on the details will cause the painting to become stiff and lose its life. We must maintain the energy of our first brushstrokes throughout the whole painting process.
We only have about a week to work with the model, but if we want to get good enough to enter and win the Prix-de-Rome — the prize that almost guarantees a middle-class career as a professional artist — we must work hard and diligently. We must not only impress our master who is one of the contest’s judges, but we must also impress masters of other studios.
Knowing this, we all focus to become the best we possibly can at our craft. We work diligently on our portraits, doing our best to mimic the master’s approach. In doing so, we not only attempt to ensure our futures, but we also develop a respect and love for the craft we’re learning and of those who learned it before us.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).