An Introduction to 19th Century Academic European Paintings

Understanding the social and political setting
August 24, 2016 Updated: August 24, 2016

It is not possible to understand 19th century art without looking at the types of paintings exhibited at the Paris Salons in France and the Royal Academy Exhibitions in England.

The main form of art being produced by artists in the 19th century has, in the period since World War II, been grouped together as Academic (meaning from the Academy Schools like the Royal Academy Schools in England and Academy Julian in France), even though in their own day they thought of themselves differently and divided themselves into many movements that will be discussed in this series.

These academic works were by far the vast majority of what was being done at the time since, with very few exceptions, career artists studied at academy schools and/or ateliers that taught the skill-based techniques utilized in these types of paintings. They were codifying the ideas of freedom and liberty that emerged in the 18th century and in many cases were expressing freedom of speech, exposing the plight of the poor to call for social reform, venerating the lower classes, and in general, a love of humanity and the common man.

"Les résignés," 1901, by Henry-Jules-Jean Geoffroy (French, 1853–1924). Oil on canvas, 43 1/2 inches by 59 inches. (Musée d'Orsay)
“Les résignés,” 1901, by Henry-Jules-Jean Geoffroy (French, 1853–1924). Oil on canvas, 43 1/2 inches by 59 inches. (Musée d’Orsay)

"Uncared For," 1871, by Augustus Edwin Mulready (British, 1844–1904). Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 inches by 29 15/16 inches. Private collection. (Courtesy of Art Renewal Center)
“Uncared For,” 1871, by Augustus Edwin Mulready (British, 1844–1904). Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 inches by 29 15/16 inches. Private collection. (Courtesy of Art Renewal Center)

"The Night Alarm: The Advance," 1871, by Charles West Cope (British, 1811–1890). Oil on panel 58 inches by 39 1/4 inches. Royal Academy of Arts, London, England. (Courtesy of the Royal Academy)
“The Night Alarm: The Advance,” 1871, by Charles West Cope (British, 1811–1890). Oil on panel 58 inches by 39 1/4 inches. Royal Academy of Arts, London, England. (Courtesy of the Royal Academy)

In many art books throughout the twentieth century the academic paintings discussed in this series were often referred to as the art of the bourgeoisie. It is an elitist type of terminology used by writers emerging from the onset of modernism in the early twentieth century to insult the work of the Academic painters that the modernists were rebelling against. The term was embraced by the Modernist movement and remained dominant throughout the twentieth century in critical discourse. The term is still used among modernists today, though in the twenty-first century there is a growing body of scholars who have gained some distance from the Modernist movement of the twentieth century and recognize the term as invalid.

"The Balloon," 1887, by Julien Dupré (French, 1851–1910). Oil on canvas, 95 1/2 inches by 79 inches. Private Collection. (Courtesy of Art Renewal Center)
“The Balloon,” 1887, by Julien Dupré (French, 1851–1910). Oil on canvas, 95 1/2 inches by 79 inches. Private Collection. (Courtesy of Art Renewal Center)

In the 21st century we can see how this term is insulting to the common man because in this context, calling the art “bourgeoisie art” is stating that the newly growing middle class, since they had just emerged from poverty themselves, was uncultured and had bad taste. The term bourgeoisie art literally means middle class art.

Just as society shapes art, art helps shape a people and in the late 19th century academic art was predominant.

Ironically, the term as it is still used by modernists today has been interpreted to mean that the paintings of this period were only painted for those wealthy enough to afford them. For this reason, the term bourgeoisie is often misunderstood by students to mean the upper class, but in fact, when used to talk about nineteenth century paintings, it is meant as a direct attack on the middle class.

"I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott," 1915, by John William Waterhouse (British, 1849–1917). Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 inches by 29 1/8 inches.(Art Gallery of Ontario)
“I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott,” 1915, by John William Waterhouse (British, 1849–1917). Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 inches by 29 1/8 inches.(Art Gallery of Ontario)

The art referred to as the art of the bourgeoisie was not only collected by the middle class but also by the upper class and aristocracy. Although the lower class could not afford original paintings, many still purchased prints of these works and other forms of reproductions that existed at the time. The term also implies that the middle class was wealthy, when in fact they were only relatively wealthy when compared to the poor, but not wealthy when compared to the aristocracy.

Just as with any commerce, artists need to be able to sell their work to make a living and since the purchase of art is a luxury item, the originals tend to be purchased by those with extra money to spend. This is as true of realist-based work as it is for modernist work. This does not mean that the images created and disseminated to the people were not loved by the lower class every bit as much as the wealthy.

Art is created as a reflection of society. It inseminates and is inseminated by the world in which a people live and breathe. When one thinks of cultures throughout history, the images and thoughts that come to mind are of their paintings, sculptures, literature, music, architecture, clothing, and cuisine. Just as society shapes art, art helps shape a people and in the late 19th century academic art was predominant.   

The world of the Paris Salons and the types of works shown were liberalized in 1849 and there was a transformation in thinking among artists at this time.

Artists paint and sculpt to express themselves, to make statements, and to communicate thoughts, values and ideas to the population as a whole.   This series examines the most important and influential academic painters of the second half of the nineteenth century and the schools and movements in which these painters taught and emerged.

In the 1800s, political and social upheavals, which were inspired by the American and French revolutions, spread across Europe. Because of this, the art of the nineteenth century was very different in the first half than it was in the second.

The world of the Paris Salons and the types of works shown were liberalized in 1849 and there was a transformation in thinking among artists at this time. In England, there was the birth of the middle class that emerged from industrialization that had started at the end of the eighteenth century.

“Although the first decades of the nineteenth century were marked by wars, financial crises and social unrest, Britain’s industrial base continued to grow, fueled by the rapid expansion of international trade. Between 1809 and 1839 imports nearly doubled from £28.7 million to £52 million, while over the same period exports tripled, from £25.4 million to £76 million,”  the Victoria and Albert Museum website states.

The middle class in France also grew between 1815–1847 when “Improvements in transportation and communication, including extensive canal building, improvement of natural waterways, the introduction of steam navigation, the first railways and the electric telegraph facilitated the growth of both domestic and foreign commerce,” according to Rondo E. Cameron in the book “France and the Economic Development of Europe.”

Because of this strong economic and ideological shift, the figurative art from the first half of the century tended to focus more on history where as the later half focused on everyday life and popular fiction. With the newly acquired freedom to paint subjects other then historical, religious, portraiture, and the aristocracy there was an explosion of new subject mater.

Just as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and other masters of the past brought to life scenes from the bible, the later nineteenth century masters not only addressed the social concerns of the time, but were bringing to life scenes from the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the stories of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and ancient Greek and Roman subject matter. It is also important to remember that during the 1840s and ’50s, photography was in its infancy and the cinema half a century away. Paintings, drawings and etchings were created as the primary form of visual communication throughout the era.

This is part of an ongoing series: ept.ms/AcademicArt

Kara Lysandra Ross, the Chief Operating Officer for the Art Renewal Center (artrenewal.org), is an expert in 19th century European painting.

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