Academic Art Movement

During the 1800s

How to identify academic art?

1. Idealized life in a pastoral landscape, similar to that found in Rococo art, makes a comeback. But paintings don’t feature aristocrats anymore, only members from the poor, lower classes. Look for beautiful, barefoot peasant girls, brimming with youth and innocence, e.g. The Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

2. Artists attempted to synthesize Neoclassicism and Romanticism: dramatic scenes, as was portrayed in Romantic paintings, featuring Greco-Roman (classical) mythology, e.g. Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel.

Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel

3. Mythical themes and characters from the Rococo era were revived, including cherubs (winged, chubby male toddlers), e.g. L’Amour et Psyché, enfants (in English, Cupid and Psyche as Children) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

L'Amour et Psyché, enfants (in English, Cupid and Psyche as Children) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

How academic art got its name?

Academic art, or Academism, refers to the art style of those who were trained and influenced by the strict standards of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts). Being a cultural superpower throughout the 19th century, the French rigorous training model, along with its high standards, was imitated in art schools and universities across Europe.

What gave rise to academic art?

The French aristocracy was always in control of the prestigious art academies and exhibitions. They survived the political turbulence of the French Revolution (1789), and although their privileges were never fully restored, they still dominated the cultural institutions into the 1800s. In order to demonstrate that art was a highly intellectual process, the Académie des Beaux- introduced stringent standards to be followed, which was meant to separate artists from craftsmen. From their perspective, gentlemen who create “great art” were welcome but the “riff-raff” who seem to treat it like manual labor were not. The Academy was not open to the masses. A semi-educated bohemian with a talent having a stab at painting couldn’t get enrolled. Only a few privileged students with the right connections, such as renowned art professors, could join. Academic art was criticized as bourgeois art for the bourgeois society.

Salon de Paris had been the official art exhibition of the French academy since 1725, and also the greatest annual art event in the world. By the early nineteenth century, the French academy and its salon, unlike all other formal and informal salons, were extremely powerful. If you were a serious artist you couldn’t ignore them. Having one’s paintings displayed at the Paris Salon to a huge audience, in the world’s art capital, was a dream to most artists. It was like an opportunity for a struggling musician, dreaming of modest success in the music industry, to be finally signed by a top record label. Once your name is known through that art gallery, you gain significant fame and possibly a long profitable career. Most artists chose to be on the side of the Academy. Unfortunately that meant that artists would have to conform to officially-approved standards of the conservative academy, which in turn shaped the artistic norms and dictated everything from colors and composition, to subject matter.

Academic art synthesized both Neoclassicism and Romanticism, adopting features from both, in addition to themes and characters from the Rococo era. Ironically, all the art movements behind its inspiration – Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Rococo – were all once rebellious and unconventional styles, but by then they has been incorporated into the traditional (i.e. academic) style. While industrialization was spreading across European cities and affecting the lives of millions of people, academic art ignored that and instead depicted mythical themes or idyllic rural life. Unlike Rococo paintings, you won’t find aristocrats being playful, the poor or lower classes were shown living in an idealized, exotic world. To its critics, the art style was disconnected from the real life, which sparked a debate whether there’s an obligation for artists to be interested in the hardships of common people. The debate sowed the seeds for the future rise of the Realist art movement, rejecting the idealism of academic art.

In retrospect, most paintings are considered kitschy due to their repetitive themes – they seemed as if they were mass-produced. The subject matter which looks “too beautiful,” indicates they were created mainly for the marketplace. It was ridiculed for its insipid and predictable clichés. It was also resented by artists of the following generations for having been an elitist art form, similar to Rococo art, supported by only the bourgeois establishment. The 20th century wasn’t kinder either: recent art scholars regarded it as cheesy and boring, and only fit for reproduction on calendars and postcards. It was kept out of textbooks and encyclopaedias. Academism, and its best known painters, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, were rarely mentioned. Not surprisingly, that continued into the digital era, where only a few websites explain in detail academic art, as if it never existed.

Art schools around Europe, in cities such as Rome, Vienna and Berlin, copied the French model. The Royal Academy of London was among the most prominent academies. They played a positive role in educating students, but, as always the case, their dogma and conservatism resulted in restricted artistic freedom. No longer were the Church or governments moulding the public taste, it was the art schools. Progressive artists who didn’t submit to the rules of the “art authority” were excluded from their galleries, such as the Impressionist artists. Similarly, in London, the Pre-Raphaelite movement would later shun all art academies.

NOTE: A recurring theme on this website is a concluding paragraph titled “Rebels of a New Generation” for each art style. There won’t be such paragraph here because the above art style is an exception, for reasons explained above. Academic artists, by definition, are anything but “rebellious.”