Antiquities True & False
Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion
Imagine a prestigious, hard-to-get-into art school full of fiercely competitive students who regard making art as a career choice as much as a creative necessity. Their course of study is designed to foster correct thinking, according to the dictates of the leaders of the institution. A single aesthetic dominates. Concept is deemed to be as important as execution, but technical skill is highly prized. Drawing is valued, as is evidence of time and labor expended on making works; sleek finish is admired. The most ambitious students concentrate on mastering modish techniques and exploring well-sanctioned "strategies" whose long-term goal is to assure them of lucrative careers within the art establishment.
Today's Yale, the School of Visual Arts, the Rhode Island School of Design, or even Columbia? No--the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, as it was from its foundation in 1648 as the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (the name changed after the French Revolution) until its transformation during "the academic reforms of 1968."
Well into the nineteenth century, the most powerful and successful artists in France were products of this most eminent of art schools. Whether it was called the Academie Royale or the Ecole Nationale Superieure, the exhaustive program of training was intended to turn the most gifted and ambitious candidates into history painters (and sculptors), adept at staging instructive narrative dramas from the mythological, biblical, and historical past, enacted by groups of large-scale figures. (Less accomplished and less able students were doomed to become portrait or genre painters, or, worse yet, specialists in landscape or still life.) The fundamental aim of the curriculum was mastery of the conventions of Greco-Roman art, bolstered by study of the few later painters whom the Academy judged to reflect adequately such mastery in their own work. (A perhaps apocryphal but plausible story has one nineteenth-century instructor telling his students that "the history of art is easy; there are the Greeks, there is Raphael, there is M. Ingres, and there is me"; I suspect Poussin figured in the equation somewhere, as well.)
Years of learning to draw from casts of classical statues and from nude models posed to look as much like classical statues as possible culminated in the exhausting competition for the Grand Prix--reconceived as the Prix de Rome between the Revolution and the upheavals of 1968. Candidates for the Grand Prix were given a single day, working in isolation in loges, to produce preliminary sketches that demonstrated their responses to the often incredibly obscure themes from the classical past set by their instructors. Survivors of the first round of eliminations then retreated to their loges to develop a finished work in seventy-two days. After the transformation of the Grand Prix competition to the struggle for the Prix de Rome, aspirants had to survive three rounds of preliminary winnowing and were given three months to produce their competition piece, still working in isolation. It was worth the effort. Winners were entitled to five years subsidized residency at the Academie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome. There, they were expected to spend their time absorbing everything they could about the splendors of antiquity and a certain amount of approved High Renaissance art, mainly Raphael. They were expected, too, to pay some attention to the Roman campagna itself, to insure the accuracy of the backgrounds of their historical dramas.
Prix de Rome winners were more or less set for life on the path to well-compensated, secure official careers; the closest present-day equivalent would be being taken on by Gagosian or Mary Boone straight out of art school or having work bought by one of the influential collectors who sit on the boards of important museums. But to cement their positions, returning prize winners usually wished to become members of the Academy. …