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)

Sculptors in the Paris Académie’s mould, and how to (mis)understand them

For some decades now an incongruous mix of tourists and Italian schoolchildren have been milling around the once quiet interior of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In the eighteenth century this was the place where a group of young French artists frequently attended mass. An almost imperceptible remnant of this once thriving artistic community survives: on a pillar separating two side chapels is a funerary stele erected in honour of Nicolas Vleughels who, between 1724 and his death in 1737, served a lively term as the king’s appointee to the French royal artists’ residence in Rome, the Académie de France.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele, San Luigi dei Francesi,  Rome.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

The memorial was funded by Vleughels’s young widow and art dealer, Thérèse Gosset, and its carving fell to Michel-Ange Slodtz who, years before, had arrived as a young man and student at Vleughels’s ‘maison d’étude’. Whilst Slodtz studied with Vleughels and achieved acclaim in Rome, both at the Academy and as an independent master, others, such as François Boucher and Edmé Bouchardon returned to Paris to gain membership of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture while enjoying unparalleled international renown.

Nowadays, the remote world of academism and eighteenth-century drawing instruction could appear as a construct of an intolerant era, catering to the representational concerns of Court and the ruling elite by demanding that promising and impressionable young artists bend to the authority of a set of preordained models and rules of art. This is, however, an oversimplified view, and one that I explore in my recently published book, The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

macsotay-bookcoverIf the statutes of the Academy were unmistakably a microcosm of ancien régime polity, governed by title, hierarchy and order, the Academy’s internal workings, either in Paris or Rome, tell a different story. Members of the Academy re-examined the position of artists inside their own practices, making on-the-spot criticisms of aspiring candidates’ works and projects but looking, much as in contemporary conversation, to strike a balance between an ideal of sound judgement and moments of wit and sociable self-indulgence. As this academic method matured, sculpture grew sensuous and graceful, both vital and conventional without deciding either for originality or against it. Vleughels, above all, was a resourceful man at the dawn of a modern age. He dispatched his best sculptor to carve a portrait bust of the Pope, persuaded his students to stage a Molière play during Carnival and, above all, fired their passion for experimentation with the dramatic and unfamiliar. Vleughels’s belief in discipline, balanced by an eye for things fashionable, clearly inspired their respect and friendship.

Half a century on, such cynical liberty irked French revolutionaries. After 1790 public service was to replace the intimate social exercises that constituted, paradoxically, a stage where artists could rehearse the drama of their ‘emancipated’ lives. The image of the self-serving clique, which revealed a reality never far behind collaborative bonhomie, was from then on a perpetual public affront. But this criticism either flagrantly missed the point about the potential vibrancy of the body of artists and art-lovers, or had no use for it.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele (detail).

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele (detail).

One can imagine how critics of the Academy might have responded to Slodtz’s monument (now sadly eclipsed by the adjacent Caravaggio altarpieces depicting the life of St Matthew) at the San Luigi dei Francesi:  they would have seen an inflated, wig-wearing petit maître. On the other hand, looking more carefully at the stele and the way the conspiratorial infant, outfitted with palette and trampling a bundle of reversed torches in the tradition of Eros Tanathos, sneaks his way around the wan physiognomy of the mentor, the monument seems to act as a metaphor of the energetic community Vleughels created. Slodtz, for his part, went on to produce a series of tomb monuments of unparalleled audacity, owing his promising start in no small measure to Vleughels’s evident flair for teaching.

–Tomas Macsotay