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Academies Of Western Art

  Towards the end of the 16th century, groups of European painters and sculptors, dissatisfied with the venality and artisanal aspects of the guild system, joined together into academies of art which sought to promote the intellectual and creative aspects of producing art over that of their craft-based predecessors. The aim was to capitalize on the rising status of the artist as the exponent of a liberal art. The first artists\' academy (as opposed to the gathering of dilettanti, antiquarians and amateurs also called academies), was established in 1563 in Florence by the artist and historiographer Giorgio Vasari under the patronage of Cosimo de\'Medici and with Michelangelo at its head. Other cities soon followed Florence\'s example, a notable case being Rome, where the Academy of St Luke was founded in 1593 with Frederico Zuccaro as its president. In France, the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded in 1648 around the ambitious and politically astute Charles Le Brun, who enlisted the royal support which was to make this academy the envy of Europe. In the 18th century, academies were established in, among other cities, Berlin (1696), Bologna (1709), Dresden (1750) and London (1768).

Wherever possible, the academies attempted to distance their own work from that of the guilds. They affected to despise the guilds as corrupt and self-seeking, and claimed that they stifled enterprise, freedom of choice and the rational order of creating art into precepts and rules open to the exercise of the intellect. To counter these perceived failings, the academy schools taught their students ‘fine art’—which meant, primarily, not the practice of painting or sculpture but the theoretical aspects of anatomy, history and geometry. Students were taught drawing but not painting, as drawing was seen to be further removed from the manual application of paint reminiscent of the guilds.

Under state control for the most part, academies institutionalized art through competitions, exhibitions, lectures, discussions and treatises. The purpose of all this activity, which ultimately militated against the progress of the fine arts, was to show that painting and sculpture were worthy candidates for inclusion among the liberal arts. To the same end only history painting was regarded as an appropriate genre for the academic painter to practise. Thus a circular justification, that academic art needed an academy to defend its interests, while the academy would claim its raison d\'être was to provide a fertile environment to train history painters, led academic painters into sterile, self-absorbed practices little suited to the needs of a changing environment.

By the 19th century the academies were regarded as anachronistic. Certainly they had no answer to the challenge of Romanticism, which held that an artist had nothing to learn from rules. In the face of this heresy, the academies reacted by using whatever influence they had to oppose innovation. The result was that in the course of the 19th century the academies declined from a position of considerable respect (in the 18th century, the French Academy welcomed almost all major, contemporary painters) to a position a century later where no significant artist deigned to accept nomination to the academy. In this climate, the academics were seen as offering little more than a certain kind of technical training, but none of the theoretical or intellectual leadership by which they had set such store two centuries earlier. MG PD



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