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Visions of the Grand Prize

Paris–Rome–Athens: Travels in Greece by French Architects in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 420 pp., $45.00 (paper)

The Grand Prix de Rome: Paintings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts 1797–1863

by Philippe Grunchec
International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington, DC, 160 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Le Grand Prix de Peinture: Les concours des Prix de Rome de 1797 à 1863 the US by the National Academy of Design)

by Philippe Grunchec
Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris (distributed in, 446 pp., $55.00 (paper)

When we think of the history of European art in the nineteenth century we are thinking almost exclusively of what happened in Paris. Goya had no worthy successor in Spain; Italian painting of the period is known only to specialists; Germany and the Low Countries are a blank page, and England’s Constable, Turner, and the enervate pre-Raphaelites cannot challenge the brilliance of the French makers and shakers—from David, Ingres, and Delacroix through Manet and Rodin to the Impressionists and the creative explosion of the nineteenth century fin de siècle and the beginning of the twentieth. And yet it was precisely in Paris that throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, painting, sculpture, and architecture were taught to men selected for their talent and supported by the state in an institution which for rigid didacticism, bureaucratic inflexibility, and sheer hide-bound conservatism can have had few rivals in the history of the arts.

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts was from the beginning of its long career an official artistic instrument of the modern state; it was the creation of Richelieu, Colbert, and Louis XIV. The Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture was founded in 1648; the Académie Royale d’Architecture in 1671; in 1793 they were both suspended by the revolutionary Convention, only to be reconstituted and combined under the First Empire in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The school carried on its recruitment and training uninterrupted except by administrative reform under the Second Empire in 1863, until its radical reconstitution in the aftermath of les évènements de mai, the student insurrection of 1968.

A fascinating glimpse at some of the products of these two centuries of academic art has recently been offered to the public in Paris, Athens, and the United States by two extraordinary traveling exhibitions. Paris–Rome–Athens closed in New York in March of this year; it was presented in this country by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Grand Prix de Rome was brought here by the International Exhibitions Foundation and is currently on view at Baltimore, Maryland, on its way to Phoenix, Palm Beach, San Antonio, and New Orleans. Both exhibitions, in spite of the difference in their titles, are devoted to the work of those students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts who won the highest honor and award it offered, the Grand Prix de Rome.

Rome, with its classical ruins and its wealth of Renaissance painting, was a mecca for both architects and painters. The French Academy in Rome, to which the winners of the Grand Prix were to be sent, had been founded at the suggestion of Colbert in 1666 for the cultivation of “good taste and the manners of the Ancients” in the arts. But it was not until after the reorganization of the Paris academies as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1797 that winners of the competitions in architecture and painting went regularly to Rome, with a government stipend, to spend from three to five years at the Villa Médicis, the building on the Pincio so lovingly recorded in the sketches of Ingres, who was a young Prix de Rome winner there in 1801 and served as director from 1834–1840.

The competition for the Prix de Rome was only the final hurdle of a long series of concours the student at the Paris Beaux-Arts had to face. Not everyone made it that far; the early competitions were elimination events. For both painters and architects there was the “perspective contest”; after that architects had to prepare sketches for prescribed building projects, first small units and then large complexes. The painters, meanwhile, entered the “expression contest” (Concours de la tête d’expression) with female models, and set subjects such as La Mélancholie, Le Dédain, La Terreur, and then the torso (demi-figure peinte) with male models, and, finally, a sort of dry run for the main event, an oil sketch (esquisse peinte) on a mythological or historical subject.

The finalists, restricted by elimination to eight (later ten), had still a few laps to go but their main concern was the peinture historique, a subject announced by the judges that might be historical (antique Greco-Roman or Biblical) or mythological (Greco-Roman). “The death of Cato of Utica” was the subject set for 1797. In 1801 it was “Achilles receives the embassy from Agamemnon”; the winner was Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, twenty-one years old. “The death of Demosthenes” was proposed for 1805, and for 1815 “Briseis weeps for Patroclus.” In 1827 the subject for the contest was “Coriolanus and the Volscian King” (repeated in 1859). In 1832 Flandrin’s version of “Theseus recognized by his father” was given the prize. For the years 1836–1839 Biblical subjects held the field but by 1844 the candidates were back in Greco-Roman antiquity—“Cincinnatus receives the envoys of the Senate.” They were there again in 1851 with “Pericles at the deathbed of his son.”

The candidate’s picture had to be completed over a period of seventy-two days during which he was separated from his fellow painters in his curtained loge at the Ecole; the final products were varnished and then displayed to the public, the newspaper critics, and finally the judges. After the winner was declared, the paintings were, most of them (a total of over two hundred), stored in the Ecole, where they lay, gathering dust, until they were disinterred for this show.

This exhibition,” as Jacques Thuillier of the Collège de France points out in his introduction to the catalog, “is unlike any other. Usually an exhibition…is…an anthology of works carefully chosen from among those most characteristic of a famous painter. In this case there is a complete series of paintings painted by young men in the course of becoming artists….” Furthermore, as Philippe Grunchec puts it in the foreword to his detailed discussion of the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the paintings, we are “faced with a selection of works which…we did not make but which was made for us by the 19th-century board of examiners….” What we can discover in it, to quote Thuillier again, is “the image of an institution.”

This is not to deny that the canvases are, many of them, splendid in their own right. Ingres’s Homeric scene, a panorama of male nudity, and Flandrin’s Theseus Recognized by his Father, against a background of the Acropolis and what was then thought to be the temple of Theseus, as well as Boulanger’s Recognition of Ulysses by Eurycleia, where Penelope gazes out of the window with her spiky crown looking like the model for the Statue of Liberty, are all dramatically effective compositions and their colors, discreetly restored, brilliant. But the institutional stamp is on every one of these canvases. They are compositions designed to please a professional jury which, to judge by the comments of contemporary critics (Grunchec supplies a liberal selection) was notoriously opposed to originality of any kind. The critics were not entirely wrong; Géricault, Delacroix, Moreau, and Degas, Grunchec tells us, “pulled out of the competition for the Prix de Rome at one level or another.”

What the jury was looking for, in fact, was evidence that the student had fully mastered the technical aspects of the training offered by the Ecole and so was a fit candidate for the demanding schedule of work that would be imposed on him at the Villa Médicis in Rome, where he would be expected to proceed along the same antiquarian lines. There the painters would work their way up to the fourth-year project: “a picture…with several life-size figures; the subject drawn either from mythology, literature or ancient history, sacred or profane….” The architects were expected to produce, in their final year, detailed plans of an ancient building in Italy or Sicily, and later in Greece, and also a restauration, a large-scale recreation of the building as it must have been in its original state.

This obsession with classical antiquity was not confined to the academy; it was characteristic of the age. As disgust with the cynicism and corruption of the ancien régime began to find expression in the arts and literature, the classical models of virtue and in particular of republican virtue, especially those available to the general public through the much translated Lives of Plutarch, served, not for the first or the last time in Western history, as a medium of expression for new ideas. “These subjects were used…as a means of exploring values in the political and social realm. Ultimately the same artists would paint in heroic guise with equally compelling implications such contemporary events as the Oath of the Tennis Court or the Death of Marat…. These heroic aspects of contemporary life became so closely identified with the achievements of antiquity that the two were at times interchangeable.”1

This was especially true of the revolutionary years, when one orator after another—Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just—cited Greek and Roman precedents for revolutionary action and the heroes of Plutarch as models of moral conduct. “La France,” as Jean Cocteau put it, “était plutarquisée.” The composition subjects for 1799 were “The oath of Brutus after the death of Lucretia” and “Manlius Torquatus condemns his son to death.” These are typical clichés of republican imagery. Later, under the restored Bourbon monarch, such resonance was avoided: the subject in 1816 was “Oenone refuses to help Paris”; in 1817 “Castor and Pollux rescue Helen”; in 1818 “Philemon and Baucis,” and so on for the next fifty years or more: mythological and Biblical themes predominate. Sometimes the subjects, like “Zenobia found by shepherds on the banks of the Araxes” (1850), have an exotic flavor that recalls the titles of Anthony Powell’s Mr. Deacon—By the Will of Diocletian, The Boyhood of Cyrus—and his characterization of his own paintings, in words drawn from Whitman, as “the rhythmic myths of the Greeks and the strong legends of the Romans.”

There is another feature of these Beaux-Arts paintings that brings Mr. Deacon to mind: the almost complete absence of female nudes. Mr. Deacon rigidly excluded the female form, draped or undraped, from his canvases; even his sphinxes and chimeras possessed “solely male attributes.” The Beaux-Arts painters, though they revel in male nudity, are not so exclusive. But their women stay resolutely clothed. Even bare breasts are a rarity (and the ladies seldom display more than one). That this is not due to the taste and temper of the age is clear from glance at nonacademic painting of the period. Regnault’s Judgment of Paris (1812), for example, and David’s Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824) are crowded with luscious female nudes.2 There is no reason to think, either, that the Prix de Rome winners shared Mr. Deacon’s special sexual tastes. In fact, the reason why these canvases display so much male flesh3 but keep the female form divine under close wraps is the conviction on the part of the Ecole’s authorities that the students were indeed perfectly normal. The art critic in the Journal des Debats, discussing the results of the 1821 contest (subject Samson and Delilah), and remarking that everyone availed himself of a fine opportunity to paint a nude hero surprised in his sleep, went on to complain: “No doubt the same could have been said of Delilah if a prudent policy of the schools did not prohibit the use of female models in the pupil’s loges; they had to be content, for Delilah, with a draped dummy.”

  1. 1

    Frederick J. Cummings in French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution (Wayne State University Press, 1975), p. 32.

  2. 2

    French Painting 1774-1830, p. 221 and p. 279. The David is in Brussels, the Regnault in Detroit.

  3. 3

    Even so, full frontal nudity is fairly rare. Usually the male member is discreetly wound in a coil of ribbon coming from nowhere in particular or covered by the tip of a scabbard slung (apparently for this precise purpose) improbably high on the chest. In Flandrin’s Theseus Recognized by His Father the young hero stands behind a table laid for a feast, but the critic in the Journal des artistes was not pleased. He took pains to “point out” that “the plateful of roast ribs used to hide Theseus’ private parts is a rather ludicrous idea….”

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