Royal Academy in England: Classicism and Conservatism

 Although the Royal Academy in England was established one hundred years later than the Royal Academy in France, England’s academic system was part on an ongoing rivalry for dominance between the two nations.  By the late Eighteenth Century, when the Royal Academy was established by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1768, the idea of national identity was being formed.  Along with colonial and military power and economic power, artistic achievement was also becoming part of a nation’s demonstration of superiority.  The Royal Academy in France was founded for the purpose of creating a cultural hegemony over Europe, and, regardless of aesthetic shifts and political changes, the French reigned supreme over the English in the decorative arts, fashion, and the fine arts until the 1960s when the Beatles and Mary Quant finally took down the French.

Sir Joshua Reynolds was president of the Royal Academy until his death in 1792 and for over fifty years, his discussion of art and aesthetics, Discourses, (1769 – 90) was the main source for understanding art in England.  Sir Joshua was succeeded by the American, Benjamin West, who remained loyal to King George III. The purpose of the Academy was the same as its counterpart in France: to maintain the quality of training in order to improve the status of the arts and crafts. Sir Joshua set up the hierarchy of painting with history painting on top and genre and still life painting at the bottom.  Although Reynolds referred to the “cold painter of portraits,” portraiture enjoyed greater prestige in England than in France, not the least because Reynolds was a portrait painter, along with his colleague Thomas Gainsborough. In another deviation from the French, the Royal Academy’s founding members included two women, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser.  However, it would be 150 years before another woman would be allowed to cross the Academy’s portals.

Following the French example, the English set up free exhibitions of paintings in order to encourage an English school of painting.   The need to have a specifically “English” art was, of course, a challenge to the French who transcended the idea of a national school so great was their complete dominance in the arts.  The Louvre Museum was instituted, first, to give the new “citizens” of the French Republic access to art, and second, to display the treasure trove of Napoléon’s loot for the public.  In contrast, the National Academy in England was specifically begun to encourage an “English” school of painting.  The National Gallery was founded in 1824, based upon the collection of paintings owned by John Julius Angerston.   For decades the collection of the National Gallery grew from large bequests from other collectors, such as Joseph Mallord William Turner and Sir Robert Peel, with Charles Eastlake augmenting the private collections with acquisitions from Europe.  In 1897, thanks to Henry Tate, the Gallery moved to its permanent location at Trafalgar Square.

Sir Joshua Reynolds followed the French example by using classicism as the norm in the Royal Academy.   Classicism, in this late Baroque or Rococo period, was based upon the Italian grand manner art, or gusto grande, based upon the art of Raphael (spelled “Raffaelle” in the time of Reynolds).  Although based in nature, classicism refined, idealized and transcended nature.  Like at the French Academy, the role of high art was to elevate and educate the viewer as to the proper moral state of mind. Young men would be educated in the Academy to produce this classically styled art by older masters.  The “directors,” who would guide the “boys,” as he called them, away from “negligence,” “frivolous pursuits,” “corruption” (from foreign sources), “sloth” and towards “diligence” and “scrupulous exactness.”

The educational program included, not so much copying directly from the masters, but learning from models from the Italian and Flemish schools.  Like their French counterparts, the English students of the Academy were sent to Italy where they could study Italian grand manner art in situ.  Once they were established as painters, the artists would show at exhibitions where their “Diploma” work, destined to become part of the Academy’s collection, would be shown.  The artist then rose through the ranks to an Associate Royal Academician to a Royal Academician, a status where fame fortune and knighthood could be obtained.

In many ways the seven Discourses of Reynolds were based upon the Academy’s collection of drawings of Raphael—mentioned over and over—as examples for the students to study.  For Sir Joshua true Beauty was based upon “a correct and perfect design,” which subordinates “minuteness” and “smallness” and ornamentation.  The “grand manner” of Reynolds aimed to treat the high-minded content in a generalized (or universal) fashion, with details subordinated.  Reynolds discussed “genius” and “taste,” but not with the notion of artistic freedom or contemporary life but within the realm of antiquity and Renaissance artists.  He recommended Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorraine, both classicists, as artists who continued the grand manner.  Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the ideas of Sir Joshua Reynolds dominated the English art scene and academic art in Great Britain was always based upon classicism.  Only the writings of the art critic, John Ruskin, who published Modern Painters (1843 – 1860), which reflected the “modern” and the inevitable changes in art were capable of challenging the first President of the Royal Academy.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

3 + 3 =