The French Academy


The seventeenth century was the century in which the modern idea of “nation” or of a modern “state” came into being. For the next two centuries, the modern nation was formed under the dominance of one individual, a King–the many Georges, as in England, or a Empress, Catherine, as in Russia. But the most magnificent and the most cunning and canny of them all was Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. It was he who put paid, once and for all, any lingering power of the Medieval lords. It was he who understood that a “nation” was more than territory or borders and that a country was a state of mind, gathered together under the will of one person who would create and construct the “image” of a nature that reflected the personality of its leader. Louis XIV, on his better days, was a “benevolent despot,” on his bad days, and there were many of those, a frightening ruler who maintained totalitarian control over even his most insignificant subjects.

Louis XIV chivvied the hereditary nobility out of their ancient strongholds and corralled them into Versailles where the King cooped them with artificial “honors” which included serving him in trivial and personal ways at his Levée and Couchée. From the moment the King was awakened, the Levée to the moment of his Couchée, his retirement for the night, each moment of his day was carefully choreographed and witnessed only by the privileged few. The more private the activity, the more honored the entourage. Once great lords and powerful nobles vied for the odd benefit of watching the King wash his face. Just as Louis XIV surrounded himself with an array of servile courtiers, just as he created himself as the Sun King, the rays of his control stretched widely, encompassing the arts, the main platform for advertising the King, France and the main propaganda arm for a nation determined to dominate militarily, politically and artistically.

Everything in Versailles was a work of art–not just the palace itself–but also the rituals inside its elegant walls. By ten in the evening Grand Public Supper or Grand Couvert an affair of twenty to thirty dishes was attended by the royal family and certain nobles, accompanied by elaborate performances to entertain during the hour and a half daily event. These ceremonies were not trivial nor were they were for pleasure: they were an integral part of the shaping of a monarchy. A French pastry served beautifully on a French dish was as important as the King’s robes or as the grounds of the château–every detail contributed to the aura of control and to the command of spectacle. The artist became an important partner in the enterprise of Making the Monarch. As Peter Burke recounted in The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1994), the man in charge of artistic quality and artistic execution was Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Working with a report from Jean Chapelain, Colbert devised a plan in 1662 “for preserving the splendor of the king’s enterprises.” As Burke noted is extremely interesting to have this documentary evidence of a grand design so early in the history of Louis’ personal rule and in the career of Colbert as a royal counsellor. The plan was put into practice in the next decade, when we can observe the ‘organization of culture’ in the sense of the construction of a system of official organizations with mobilized artists, writers and scholars in the service of the King.

Over the next few years, numerous “académies” of “Danse,” “Peinture et de Sculpture,” “Sciences,” “Architecture,” “Musique,” and so on. Even tapestries and other forms of “crafts,” such as Gobelins founded in 1663 were under Royal control.  All of these academies were founded for he purpose of glorying the King and the State and the importance of the visual arts as propaganda is signified by the fact that Charles le Brun not only founded the Académie Royale de Peintue in 1648 but also directed Gobelins and was also was in charge of decorating the King’s palaces. The King of France was the main patron, not only for the French artists but also sough the services of artists from other nations, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did a famous bust of the Sun King in 1665. There was no concept of “artistic freedom” in this environment. All the artists and their production were under supervision and control. As Burke pointed out it was “the king’s image” not artists’ creativity that was the main concern of small committees who made sure, under a system we call “peer review” that all text and objects of any kind, large or small, fulfilled the stated purpose: the glorification of the Sun King.

As in all things, other nations were mindful of the ways in which Louis XIV seized control of the arts in France and noted that the centralized command stretched to all crevices of the territory. The French Academy was established in 1648 for the purpose not just of controlling art in terms of its content but also in terms of its quality and extended to a network of provincial schools in Rouen, Marseilles, Dijon, and Tours. The careful encouragement of excellence in the arts was intended to establish a hegemony in the arts and crafts as part of a program to extend the power of France in the arts. By the French Revolution toppled this “Royal” Academy, replacing it in 1795 with the Institut, France had become the international center for the arts, a position the country would maintain well into the twentieth century. The Royal aspect of the Academy died on the scaffold of the guillotine along with many of its members. The revolutionaries declared elite arts and letters to be of no use to the new nation but by 1795, the value of arts was reiterated and in August in the Third Year of the Brumarie, Year IV, “a National Institute, charged with the collection of discoveries, with the improvement of the arts and sciences.” An up and coming young military hero named Napoléon Bonaparte was made a member of the Institute where, no doubt, he learned of the importance of the arts in supporting a regime.

Meanwhile, other major cities followed the lead of the French. In London, the Royal Academy was established in 1768. By 1790, over one hundred academies of art or public schools of art were flourishing: Vienna (remodeled) 1770, Dresden 1762, Berlin 1786, Copenhagen 1754, Stockholm 1768, St. Petersburg 1757, Madrid 1752, Dusseldorf 1767, Frankfort 1779, Munich 1770, Genoa 1752, Naples 1756, Mexico 1785 and Philadelphia 1791/1805. The increased importance of academic training in the arts coincided with these cultural centers taking part in the development of each modern nation state, and the ambitious governments’ growing awareness of the usefulness of art in an international contest for prestige.


Sébastien Leclerc’s 1698 engraving L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts.

By the end of the Eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style was the official style of “Academic art,” regardless of country. This “official” style of the academy was based upon the foundations of classical art and art theory, as expressed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture (1755). According to Winckelmann, contemporary art should not copy Greek art but to should imitate the Greeks in their “noble grandeur and calm simplicity,” by attempting to think about art as they did.  This new frame of mind or mental state was hostile to that of the Rococo and put Antiquity forward as the only model to be followed.  “It is easier to discover the beauty of Greek statues than the beauty of nature,” Winckelmann stated, “imitating them will teach us how to become wise without loss of time.”

The selection, if one could call it that, of classicism as an official style of so many nations was not just an accident or a coincidence. The association with ancient history gave classicism a veneer of prestige and a sense of origin and an aura of power. So for the Americans, an evocation of order and harmony through architecture was well suited to a fledgling nation. For the French, a reiteration of origins and of roots in the antique lent the roughly born county an air of legitimacy, for the British, the dream of empire was a tantalizing one. Winckelmann’s well-meaning volume of art history led to a formulaic copying by artists of classical models.  The academic learned response to the designated “ideal” beauty became a dictum to be followed but as much for political as well as artistic purposes. Requiring artists to reproduce ancient art was a way of keeping the aspirations under control and by rewarding them based on the accuracy of their imitations guaranteed that the needs of the State would be well served.

Copying a pre-given object/objective led to the academic stress on drawing (disegno) because the pure outline was more faithful to the image.  Unlike fleeting, conditional and changeable color, drawing sought the essential and distilled the form into purity, a purity, which would have a moral character.  The moral character of art was definitively addressed by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who stated that art, and only art, could lift the human being up from his/her natural state into a moral state.  Art alone produces harmony between our sensual instincts and formality and between life and order. Still, there were problems with teaching art, for speaking prophetically, Schiller asked in 1783, “Do you expect enthusiasm where the spirit of the academies rule?”

When he came into Imperial power, Napoléon reorganized the Institut in 1803 and increased its membership. The members were given exclusive rights and unprecedented power to admit and honor works shown in the Salons or public exhibitions of the visual arts. Napoléon’s gift of control to a handful of individuals was part of his plan to ensure total dominance of art now yoked to his propaganda machine. The Salon, in its modern form, now showed the works of all artists, deemed worth of admission, not just the members of the Academy.  The Institut also awarded the Grand Prix de Rome to Beaux-Arts students (males only).  When Napoléon fell from power in 1814, the Restoration government sought to reestablish the historical link between the old Royal Academy and the Institut, which also managed to control the École de Beaux-Arts, even though the two bodies were theoretically separate.

For the rest of the century, the Academy sought to continue the basic foundational purpose of the Louis XIV–the state would be the main patron for the artists and could, therefore could keep art in check and guide artistic production for the purposes of the ruling class. The connections between the Academy, the École, and the government varied with the ruler in power who could intervene or not in the affairs of the art world. Nevertheless, the Academy exercised a great deal of power over the world of French art, and by extension, over all other serious art worlds, for French art had established an hegemony in Europe in the seventeenth century and was determined to maintain its monopoly on the quality of the visual and literary arts.  The forty members of the Academy held fourteen chairs in painting, eight in sculpture and in architecture, four in engraving and six in music and controlled the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the contents of the annual Salon exhibitions until the mid 1860s when the fortress that was the Academy began to crack.

Also read: “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”  

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.
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  1. […] read: “The French Academy” and “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: […]