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This spring, the Dahesh Museum of Art will present Becoming An Artist: The Academy in 19th-Century France at Syracuse University's Palitz Gallery, Lubin House in New York City, 11 East 61st Street off Fifth Avenue. This will be the second exhibition designed specifically for the Palitz Gallery as part of the partnership between Syracuse University and the Dahesh Museum of Art, and the third exhibition since the collaboration was initiated over a year ago.
Becoming An Artist features a remarkable selection of 28 works drawn from the Dahesh Museum of Art's distinguished collection, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by well-known academic masters: William Adolphe Bouguereau, Paul Delaroche, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, as well as their lesser-known but equally popular contemporaries.
The exhibition, organized by Ms. Alia Nour, the Museum's Assistant Curator, explores the technical and intellectual training offered by the internationally famous Paris art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, the teaching arm of the Academie Française (French Academy). The flowering and international influence of the French Academy and the École des Beaux-Arts in the 19th century made Paris the artistic capital of the Western World, and aspiring artists flocked there. Those artists elected to the Academy virtually ruled the French art world, and acceptance at the École was a crucial step to a successful career.
The exhibition highlights the rigorous, broad-based curriculum that attracted students from France and abroad; the competitions that rewarded excellence; the hierarchy of preferred subject matter; and the unexpected variety of artistic expression generated by this exacting system.
According to J. David Farmer, Director of Exhibitions, Dahesh Museum of Art: "The recent resurgence of figurative art among younger artists and the proliferation of classically-inspired ateliers and sketch classes across the country herald a new appreciation for the skill of drawing. The rigor of academic training creates artists of astonishing technical ability. We owe it to ourselves to understand the education they received and passed on, as we move forward in educating artists today."
Domenic Iacono, Director of the SU Art Galleries, comments: "Drawing has long been thought of as an essential part of fine arts instruction, and quality draughtsmanship a hallmark of great figure painting and sculpture. At Syracuse, the studio arts programs have developed a foundation curriculum for students that incorporates the best of these traditions."
The École's Curriculum
The École's curriculum was designed to polish an artist's skills, which would then be continuously judged. Students were educated in the art of drawing, painting, sculpture, engraving, and architecture. To elevate the artist's status beyond that of mere artisan, the École added studies in history, aesthetics, and theory. All-important juried exhibitions, like the Annual salon organized by the French Academy, provided students and established artists with critical attention, and the possibility of patronage.
Prix de Rome
Competition among artists was encouraged to demonstrate skill and to identify students with the potential for a successful career. The focal point of the educational process was the Prix de Rome, the most sought-after prize, which brought honor, glory, and a full scholarship to study at the French Academy in Rome for 3 to 5 years. After many smaller competitions, finalists for this prize were confined to their studios for 72 days to produce a finished painting on a prescribed subject, which was then judged by the faculty.
Drawing in Stages
Drawing was central to the academic approach to art education. First, students were asked to copy from a two-dimensional masterwork, like Michelangelo's Angel Blowing a Trumpet, seen here as a lithograph from Charles Bargue's and Jean-Léon Gérôme's Drawing Manual. The next year, students drew from plaster casts, depicting a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface, a more challenging exercise that required the technical skills of adding depth and volume. The successful student was then allowed to draw from a live model. Female Nude, a sheet from Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin in graphite with watercolor wash, is a typical study. Such life drawings as these could also be the basis for more finished compositions, like Léon Bonnat's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.
Only after proving proficiency in drawing would a student be allowed to paint, either in the private studio of a faculty member or in studios run by the École.
From History Painting to Genre
The academic training program prescribed a hierarchy of subjects, with the highest being history painting, encompassing classical, religious, allegorical, and mythological themes, such as Oedipus and the Sphinx by François-Xavier Fabre and Merovingians Attacking a Wild Dog by Evariste Vital Luminais. Genre scenes, depicting ordinary events from daily life such as Léon-Augustin Lhermitte's Three Washerwomen, were assigned the lowest rung of the hierarchy, despite a growing middle class market for such images. The monumental Water Girl was painted by the winner of the 1850 Prix de Rome, William Adolphe Bouguereau. It exemplifies two dominant features of academic painting - the highly polished surface, called a licked finish, and classical echoes of Greek and Roman statuary. These features elevated its status from mere genre painting.
Many art institutions like New York's National Academy of Design and the Art Students League adapted the model offered by the French and offered Americans a new standard for art education in the 19th century and beyond. That categories such as history painting and genre scenes have endured in the work of contemporary artists demonstrates the living legacy of the École and French Academy
Becoming An Artist: The Academy in 19th-Century France is the third exhibition organized by the Dahesh Museum of Art in its collaborative partnership with Syracuse University Art Galleries. Napoleon on the Nile, the first exhibition of this initiative, opened last fall on the University campus, where faculty developed educational programming around Napoleon's failed colonial endeavor. In New York City last spring, In Pursuit of the Exotic opened at the Palitz Gallery in Syracuse University's Lubin House. The exhibition was the inspiration for a standing-room-only evening of poetry and prose with the Poetry Society of America, featuring prize-winning poets Richard Howard and Rosanna Warren. Given the shared educational goals of each institution, as well as the public's enthusiastic response, more exhibitions are planned for the future.
Becoming An Artist: The Academy in 19th-Century France will be on view at The Palitz Gallery from Monday to Saturday 11-6, beginning February 26, 2010. Admission is free. For more information, call Lubin House (212) 826-0320 or visit daheshmuseum.org and lubinhouse.syr.edu.
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