Impressionism for Beginners #2: Academies and the Values of Classical Art

This is a series of short articles offering a simple yet detailed overview of art movements – an attempt to make art history more “digestible.” The series begins with a look at Impressionism.

As previously mentioned, the Impressionists experimented with techniques that defied the conventions of Classical Art and that endure to this day as the cornerstones of Western civilization. In France, as in many other countries, Classical Art was championed by the artistic academies that controlled artistic production.

Briefly, the aesthetic practices of Classical Art are based on the antique canons formulated in Classical Antiquity (8th-century BC-6th century AD) as revised during the Renaissance era (1300-1600).

Sleeping Venus and Cupid. Nicolas Poussin. (1630). This is an example of a Classicist painting.

Classical Art favours harmony, balance and a strong sense of proportion. Furthermore, figures within these artworks are strongly defined and set in ordered compositions. Failure to comply with the fundamental values of Classical Art drastically decreased an artwork’s chance of being featured in an academy’s official exhibition, which, in France, were called Salons.

From the mid-17th century to the late 19th-century, the Royal Academies of Art in France and England – established in 1648 and 1768 respectively – had a virtual monopoly on public taste and official patronage of the arts. In addition to championing the aesthetics and practices of Classical Art, the Academy favoured artworks that represented subject matter pulled from religion, mythology and history.

Realism was an art movement that emerged in France in the 1840s, around the 1848 Revolution. Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet are among its most famous artists, and some of them would eventually transition to impressionistic styles.

Realists defied the Academy’s stance on subject matters by representing scenes from everyday life. However, because they mostly stuck to the aesthetic and practices of Classical Art, they could still be admitted to the Academy’s salons.

Despite this, Realism may be considered a rightful precursor to Impressionism because many of its artists challenged the conventions of Classical Art and the Romanticism of the previous generation, as well as the values championed by the official academies. Furthermore, as we will see later, it challenged the official modes of exhibitions of the Salons and tested new ways for artists to exhibit and sell their works.

The Gleaners. Jean-Francois Millet. (1857). This is a famous example of Realism.

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