Learning art in Rome… à la française

Can art be taught? Certainly. The larger question is, can it be learnt? And if so, how?


Charles-Joseph Natoire, Life class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (detail), 1746, The Courtauld Institute, London

From at least 1298, when Philip IV sponsored a court artist’s study-tour of Italy, French monarchs and ministers believed art was best learned by reproducing the frescoes, paintings, statuary and Roman ruins found beyond the Alps. While the origins of Philip’s respect for Italy are unclear, not so that of the Valois kings who profited aesthetically from sixty-five years of warfare on the peninsula (1494-1559) and issued invitations to Italian masters upon their return. Perhaps inspired by their work, French artists and architects made their separate ways to Florence and Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some with government support, others on their own. Whether they selected a mentor or allowed curiosity to lead them, their experiences were necessarily uneven, but the glories of French Renaissance and Classical art and architecture leave no doubt that they did indeed ‘learn’.


Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

Individual artists continued to study Italian masterworks throughout the Ancien Régime, but in so far as official France was concerned, structured curricula replaced independent study – even in Rome itself. In Charles-Joseph Natoire and the Académie de France in Rome: a re-evaluation I discuss how Jean-Baptiste Colbert instituted advanced training in the papal city for a select group of young men who had been awarded Grands Prix by the Académies royales de peinture et de sculpture (1648-1793) and Architecture (1671-1793).

For some twenty years, Grands Prix painters and sculptors were further prepared for Rome through the government-sponsored programme at the Ecole royale des élèves protégés in Paris (1751-1774). Each step in the educational programme decreased students’ control over their art, for financial support brought obligation. Even if, from 1676 onward, the Académie de peinture reviewed portfolios to determine who had to compete for that year’s Grand Prix, students were still at liberty to conceptualise and develop the topics assigned. As the king’s protégés, however, they copied artwork held in the Louvre and, in general, chafed under the rules Colbert had developed for the pensionnaires of the Académie de France in Rome (1666-1793), whose goal was to form artists ‘capable of serving the king well’. Colbert interpreted this literally.


In its early years, the Académie de France functioned more like a boot camp than an art school, as students reproduced ‘everything beautiful’ in the city and Colbert dispatched cargo ships from Marseilles to collect work intended to enhance the halls and gardens of the king’s multiple properties. That need eventually diminished: in 1742, Philibert Orry, who then directed the Bâtiments du roi, served notice that no more copies of antique statuary were required. The pensionnaires were still not free to explore their own interests, however. In 1752, Bâtiments director Marigny, told Natoire that students’ ‘real business’ was to copy the work of the great masters and do this ‘without ceasing’.

Did students learn from these experiences? Certainly, all were competent and many became successful, as Bourbon France defined that success: admitted to the royal academies, exhibiting at the Salons and working for French and European courts. Looking back, though, only the autonomous Jacques-Louis David has proved as influential as certain seventeenth-century painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun, whose independent study in Rome transformed the Ecole française.

– Reed Benhamou, Indiana University

Further reading:

Reed Benhamou, Regulating the Académie: art, rules and power in ancien régime France, ISBN 978-0-7294-0972-8 (SVEC 2009:08)

Rococo rivalries: Germany v. France

As an American who studies European art, I must confess to a particular fascination with how European societies characterize each other. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and politically charged allegiances inflect all aspects of European culture. In eighteenth-century studies, we encounter this most commonly in the appreciation and animosities exchanged between Britain and France. My recent research on the Rococo took me to explore a different yet equally charged rivalry – that of Germany and France.


The palace of Amalienburg. Photo: M. Yonan.

Bolstered by the art of Oppenord, Meissonnier, Watteau, and Boucher to name just a few, the Rococo’s place in French art history is secure. Harder to explain has been its popularity in Germany. German patrons built hundreds of richly decorated palaces outfitted with gorgeous rococo interiors, and the Germans went a step further by incorporating rococo ornament into religious edifices, something encountered only rarely in France. Both can be seen in Catholic Munich, where the urge to adopt rococo forms occurred early and eagerly. The palaces of Nymphenburg, Amalienburg, and Schleissheim, all in or near that city, contain room after room of beautifully ornamented rococo art. Travel a short distance outside Munich and you will encounter rococo pilgrimage churches, perhaps the most famous of which is the stunningly beautiful Wieskirche. But it is just one of hundreds. In short, the Germans loved the Rococo. A colleague once even described Bavaria to me as ‘Rococo Paradise’, so abundant is the style in that region.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

In my contribution to the volume Rococo echo: art, theory, and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, ‘The Uncomfortable Frenchness of the German Rococo’, I explore specifically how German writers dealt with the problem of the Rococo’s French origins, and how that Frenchness became a thorn in the side of German art history for almost three hundred years.

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

German writers have struggled to explain the abundance of the Rococo in their homeland, and as nineteenth-century scholars began to write Germany’s national art history, they found the Rococo highly problematic, since it could not be easily characterized as German. And you might guess what happened: some rather creative attempts to explain (or explain away!) the Rococo’s Frenchness. When commenting on rococo southern German palaces, writers such as Cornelius Gurlitt and Hermann Bauer argued that the style was really German. In contrast, an earlier writer, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein, complained that as a whimsical foreign import the Rococo was alien to the German character and therefore damaging to serious German art. Gottfried Semper tried to claim that it was the Germans who had invented rococo art, not the French, and thereby Germanized its origins. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and even military themes abounded. Writing this essay reminded me of how subversive Rococo art really is, and how much it challenges simple categorization, be it about quality, technique, subject matter, or national identity.

– Michael Yonan, University of Missouri