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…

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