Most art produced during the nineteenth-century was anchored in the ideologies set forth by well-established academies, despite a changing artistic climate where many artists challenged the relevance of such a rigid system of teaching, promotion, and patronage. The newest exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Academic Splendor: Nineteenth-Century Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art, features more than forty paintings and sculptures made during a period that sought to balance deep-rooted artistic traditions while creating new ones.
One of the most important art academies of the modern period had existed in France, under different names and form, since 1648, with periodic exhibitions starting in 1667. Within its confines, the Académie des Beaux-Arts rigorously trained artists to uphold the principles of ideal beauty displayed in Classical and Renaissance art. It ran the premier art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts, as well as its outpost in
Rome, the Académie de France. More significantly, it controlled the official exhibition known as the “Salon.” The name stems from the Salon Carré (Square Room) in the Louvre, where members of the Academy had exhibited works commissioned by the French state on an annual and sometimes biannual basis since 1737.
After the French Revolution of 1789, the Salon was opened to all artists but remained tightly controlled by the Academy through a government-nominated jury. The floor-to-ceiling display of thousands of paintings and works on paper, along with monumental and intimate sculptures, became a must-see event. By the 1840s, the Salon would welcome nearly one million visitors in its six-week run. The honors, medals, and prize money awarded gave ambitious artists a stab at fame, not to mention crucial access to public and private commissions. Despite its success, the Salon, and especially the selection process, was perceived as abusive and biased. Following the rejection of an unusually high number of paintings in 1863 (3,000 out of the 5,000 submitted), Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1852 to 1870) authorized a Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) to display the previously
excluded works. The growing presence of independent venues such as commercial art galleries or the studios of famed photographer Nadar (1820 – 1910), where the first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, started to undermine the exclusivity of the official Salon. Internal struggles among Salon organizers and the government ultimately forced the state to relinquish control of the prestigious exhibition to the Société des Artistes Français in 1881.
Today, some of the best known artists to emerge from the
Academy system include Alexandre Cabanel (1823 – 1889), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904), and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905). Stylistically, they created works of art with a highly polished finish, embellished with figures — children, peasants, angels, nudes — presented in an idealized way. Visitors to the Cummer exhibition will be able to admire a version of Cabanel’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus. His seductive and elegant depiction of the mythological beauty languishingly resting on waves and surrounded by putti, prompted Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III (r. 1852 – 1870), to purchase it after it was shown at the 1863 Salon. The exhibition also features Gérôme’s Working in Marble, or The Artist Sculpting Tanagra, which portrays the artist in his studio, meticulously finishing the plaster model of his famous 1890 statue Tanagra (now in the Musée d’Orsay). Inspired by his desire for realism, and by the idea that classical sculpture was originally vividly colored, we see Gérôme delicately tinting the skin, hair, lips, and nipples of his marble Tyche, a diety who represented the personification of the ancient Greek city, Tanagra.
Themes were always carefully chosen in accordance with the Academy’s highest ranked categories. At the top was “history painting,” which included classical, religious, allegorical, and mythological subjects. Because of their morally uplifting messages, the state, church, and aristocracy favored such compositions. Portraiture, genre scenes, landscapes, and still-lifes followed in the academic hierarchy. However, “the grand tradition of history painting progressively started to lose ground to genre pictures and landscapes,” as pointed out by exhibition curator, Alia Nour, curator at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York.