Stylizing the Figure
The Rise and Fall of Academies
A Brief Exposition by L. Caruana
In 1563 the first ‘Academy’ was founded in Florence. Its name, the Accademia des Designo placed greater emphasis on drawing and design (designo) rather than painting (dipingere or colori), which remained the task of the masters in their studios.
The statutes of the Florentine Accademia show that their aims, rather than painting as such, was “the setting of a standard, bodied forth by masterworks.” (1) And, what is more, “the definition of a stytlistic norm, the ‘correct’ style of modern Florence to which all the young artists were expected to conform.” (2) Hence, transmitting a linear ‘style’ – the Classical style – seemed to be the foremost aim and ambition of the earliest academy.
By the late 1500’s, academies had sprung up in all the major courts of Italy. The most important were the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, and the private school of the Carracci brothers in Bologna called the Accademia de’ Carracci.
For the first time, instructional engravings emerged (Odoardo Fialetti’s True Method and Order for Drawing All Parts and Members of the Human Body – 1608), demonstrating, step by step, how to draw an eye in the Classical manner.
The French School
In 1648, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (later called the Académie des Beaux-Arts) was founded by royal charter – and for the next two hundred years, ‘The French School’ would dominate the teaching of painting. Now, the contrast between the academy and the studios became even more pronounced.
In the statutes of 1655, “the academy was given a monopoly on life drawing,” so that, by ordinance of the king, “posing the model anywhere else [was] expressly forbidden.” On the other hand, “the academy was never conceived as a replacement for the workshop [i.e. master’s studio]. A student learned neither to paint nor to model [i.e. sculpt] in the academy but did so, rather, in the workshop or studio of his master, with whom he still lived as before the age of the academy.” (3) Hence, painting itself remained the domain of the master’s studio.
The statutes of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris stressed that “the core of the drawing course was to be the life class supervised by the twelve man governing board, each responsible for posing the model for one month.” (4) These twelve men, who were in fact twelve masters, each with their own studio, sent their best students to the academy for two hours a day to study drawing. The masters’ task of posing of the model reflected how le modèle vivante was regarded as ‘the core’ of the Academy’s teaching. Indeed, in later years the drawing of a nude was simply referred to as an académie.
What characterized the French School of painting, or ‘Academic painting’ as a whole, was its emphasis on the figure, and specifically the complex relationship of multiple figures to the composition as a whole. This emphasis on figuration and composition lasted from the 1600’s to the late 1800’s, from Poussin and Le Brun through David and Ingres to Bouguereau and Moreau (the ‘last’ of the academy painters). Respecting the academic tradition, all these French artists looked back to the art of the Italian Renaissance as their model and ideal.
Stylizing the Figure
Basing its Cursus Studiorum on the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, the French Academy taught students how to draw the figure, first from statues, casts and master drawings (later ‘engravings’), then from the live model (5). Hence, the student already had a firm grounding in the human figure before approaching the live nude.
Indeed, once students completed a drawing from the nude model, they were expected to redraw it “with the antique in view.” (6) The drawing from life, to be made complete, had to be drawn once more and idealized, “giving the figure the character of a particular ancient statue.” (7) As such, the long years of copying from statues and casts was to not only facilitate the skill of drawing, but to learn the ‘Classical style’ of representation: the unique lines that bridged the nose, shaped the lips and curved the eyes.
Following an edict already laid down in the first Accademia des Designo in Florence, each academy established a collection of ‘master works’, the noblest and most ideal models of the Classical style. The Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris spared no expense in making life-sized casts of the Laocoön or the Farnese Hercules in Rome and transporting them back to France. (8). Eventually the Musée du Louvre, as Europe’s first public art museum, opened in 1793.
The most beautiful examples of the Classical style were set up in the academies as models, a valued collection of copies which constituted ‘the Canon’ for students to study, copy and emulate. So skilled were these students in the Classical style, that they could draw the complete human figure from memory, and then refer to the live model afterward as a kind of confirmation for all that they had designed.
We see this, for example, in Moreau’s preparatory drawings for his paintings, where he makes drawings from life, and even photographs – after having designed the figure, drawing it from memory and imagination.
‘The Canon’ of the Classical style, the beautiful ‘ideals’ which students copied and learned from, were a specific series of Antique statues. With new archaeological discoveries, this Canon was amended over the course of its three hundred year existence.
According to Vasari, the Canon consisted of “the Laocoön, the [Farnese] Hercules, the great torso of Belvedere, as well as the Venus [de Medici], the Cleopatra [actually Sleeping Ariadne], the Apollo [Belvedere] and countless others.” (9) Copies of these specific statues were found in all the major academies, which amended the Canon to include the Venus de Milo, the Vatican Antinous, the Borghese Gladiator, The Dying Gladiator (or Gaul) and the Barberini Drunken Faun. (10)
The Academy in Decline
After the French Revolution of 1789, the Académie des Beaux-Arts was abolished by law, particularly through the machinations of its greatest opponent, the painter David. When reconstituted in 1795, the Académie des Beaux-Arts became an administrative institution, while the newly-formed Ecole des Beaux-Arts was responsible for teaching. As before, the masters’ studios (ateliers) provided the real training in painting, while the Ecole directed the competitions (concours) and the Académie organized the exhibitions (les salons). (11)
Each faculty member of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts ran his own large studio, a commercial enterprise that took on students and produced paintings from the master’s designs. The studio’s best students were trained to compete for the concours of the Ecole. By the 1800’s, nude models were posed in the masters’ studios. During the reforms of 1863, the masters’ studios were moved into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the lowly form of ‘painting’ was finally taught at the academies. It is worth remembering that academies only started to teach ‘painting’ in the last half of the 19th century.
But, the death knoll of the academic system had already been sounded. As taste in painting changed, the academies found themselves teaching styles that were no longer relevant. ‘Figuration’ became obsolete, with its complex demands of anatomy, style, pose and proportion. As the late 19th century took its first cautious steps towards abstraction, the figure lost its Classical unity and coherence.
At the same time, another inheritance from the Renaissance – the art of composition – experienced a renaissance all its own. All through the 20th century, purely Abstract and Formalist painters like Malevitch or Mondrian pursued composition in the absence of figuration. Their researches were profound, and advanced the study of composition in manifold new directions. But, this advance was only gained at the loss of the other Renaissance inheritance – figuration.
And so it falls to us today, as Visionary artists, to rediscover figuration, combine it with composition, and to finally revive the lost art of stylization through the teachings of the academy.