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What Is Academic Art?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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Academic art grew out of a highly structured European training method that produced art based on classical ideals. Artists at academies where educated in a specific, systematic way. Through the patronage of European aristocracy, art schools, known as academies, were established throughout Europe. Florence, Italy, was home to the first art academy, which opened in 1563 during the Renaissance. Art academies became even more influential in the 17th century with the opening of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Eventually, academic art was pushed aside in favor of modern art, but many of the methods in academic art are still used to educate artists even in 2011.

Academic art academies had strict training methods based on classical theory. Most academies focused on drawing as the basis for both painting and sculpture, and students practiced drawing casts of classical sculptures before they could move on to drawing a live model. Students could not begin to paint until they had proven themselves to be adept in drawing. The academies also emphasized the intellectual development of young artists by offering courses in history and philosophy.

Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici established the first academy in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance in 1563 under the guidance of Giorgio Vasari, an artist, architect and art historian. The school was called the Academy and Company for the Arts of Drawing. The Medici family formed its wealth through textiles and banking, and had a long-established history of art patronage, supporting artists like Leonardo di Vinci, and later Raphael and Michelangelo. At the Academy and Company for Arts of Drawing the study of anatomy was essential to helping students depict the human form in a realistic style, which was a hallmark of academic art. In order to gain a better understanding of perspective, students also studied geometry — the theory of creating a three-dimensional effects.

The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture opened in 1648. The intent of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was to elevate artists above the status of craftsmen, provide regularized training for artists, and promote classical Greek and Roman ideals in art. As its name implies, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture also gave the French monarchy increased control of the art production. Under the direction of Charles Le Brun, who took over as director in 1683, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture reached its peak.

The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was temporarily disbanded in 1793 during the French Revolution. It was later renamed the Academy of Painting and Sculpture. French art academies were still influential when a group of artists, the Impressionists, rebelled in the latter half of the 1800s against the strictures of classic realism.

While European academies were powerful between the 16th and 19th centuries, they came to be seen as outdated. The Impressionist method of painting was a major challenge to the academic art style, and eventually the modern art movement pushed academic art aside. Despite this change, in 2011 most art schools still use some of the teaching methods used in academic art. The importance of drawing is still emphasized in art schools, and life drawing is still taught. Both of these areas of study are considered to be important foundations for aspiring artists.

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Discussion Comments
By Fa5t3r — On Apr 07, 2014

@clintflint - I get your point, but I don't think you're right about the skill. If anything, painters these days get to practice a lot more than the painters from back when academic art was the standard, simply because paint is so much cheaper than it used to be.

Back then young artists would have to grind their own pigments and prime their own canvas. They would spend years learning how to paint because they didn't want to waste such precious resources. These days, they get to paint from kindergarten. In terms of time with brush in hand, that's a huge jump forward.

By clintflint — On Apr 07, 2014

@Iluviaporos - I agree to some extent but I actually think it's a shame that this path is hardly ever followed now. I've seen some of the great paintings made by masters who followed this method. They took years to complete sometimes and were made from the finest pigments and they are utterly gorgeous.

We have a lot of outstanding art these days as well, but very little that reflects the same time and skill that went into those great paintings.

These days a young artist is only going to be able to eat if they finish quickly and appeal to the public for sales. They aren't going to spend decades honing their skill and years on a single portrait.

By lluviaporos — On Apr 06, 2014

I'm glad this kind of art has been ousted as the best and only way to paint. I doubt we would have such a wide and vibrant variety of artists these days if it was still considered the norm for a successful artist.

I think it probably worked well back when artists were reliant on sponsorship for their work, rather than on sales. They had to be able to paint whatever was in style and do it perfectly, or they wouldn't be able to keep their sponsor. Painting back then was so very expensive it was out of reach of anyone without money backing them.

But now artists can forge their own path and be as creative as they wish and still have a chance to make a living from their work.

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