Académie Royale: Hannah Williams

★★★★½

A History in Portraits

Published in 2015, this lavishly-illustrated book offers a engaging study of the Académie Royale, from its foundation in 1648 until its abolition in 1793 as part of the intellectual readjustments of the Revolution. While the Académie’s meetings and statutes are well-documented and have furnished much research over the years, Williams seeks to go beyond a simple chronological history of a great institution. Instead, she interrogates the Académie’s values and networks by reconstructing the lived experience of its members, as far as possible, through an examination of the Académie’s collection of official artists’ portraits. It’s an ambitious idea, but the book pulls it off remarkably well and is all the more appealing for its spirited accounts of machinations, alliances and rivalries in the corridors of the Louvre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The late 16th and 17th centuries saw a fundamental change in how artists saw themselves: they no longer wanted to be craftsmen, lumped in with the medieval guild system, but to present themselves as gentlemen, intellectuals, practitioners of the liberal arts. And that’s where artistic academies came in. The first, the Accademia di San Luca, was founded in Rome in 1577; the Académie Royale came some decades later, in 1648; and the Royal Academy in London was something of a late bloomer in 1768. The artists of the Académie Royale could reassure themselves that they were members of an exclusive body which was inspired by noble ideals of virtue, rather than by the vulgar exigencies of money. Their institution offered a training programme, an unparalleled support network and a structured hierarchy of grades through which to progress.

An artist would begin as a student, an étudiant, attending classes on geometry, perspective and anatomy, as well as life-drawing classes, and networking with existing académiciens to establish professional relationships. When he had made proof of his talents by competing for the grand prix, and when he had a suitable body of work to display, the étudiant would apply to be considered for an agrément. This was a ceremony in which he was introduced by an académicien sponsor and his works were examined by the assembled committee. Votes were cast anonymously to judge whether he was worthy of promotion; if so, then he was named agréé. Theoretically the agrément was a brief transitional stage (though some artists lingered in it for years), during which an artist would devote himself to preparing his morceau de réception: a demonstration of his talents in the particular genre he wished to focus on. When complete, the morceau would again be presented to the committee in a ceremony and, if deemed acceptable, the artist would be reçu and would take his place in the ranks as a full académicien. 

This book, naturally, focuses largely on the experiences of the would-be portrait painter. A portraitist would be traditionally required to paint, for his morceau, the portraits of two officiers of the Académie. The subjects were determined by the governing body. In this way, the student’s talents could easily be assessed by comparing portrait with its living subject but, as Williams explains, this requirement was more than a mere graduation test. It was a great honour to be chosen as the sitter for such a portrait, because it showed that one was distinguished and important enough to be immortalised as part of the  Académie’s history. The finished portraits, after all, remained in the Académie’s possession and helped the institution both to create a visual record of its membership and to refine its conception of itself.

I should stress that artists were required to choose their genre. There was no pretence of equality: an artist’s standing in the Académie would be governed by his specialisation. At the top of the tree were the history painters, who produced not only historical works but also religious pictures and allegories. Then came the portraitists; then the landscapists; then the genre painters; and finally the still-life painters. Sculptors and engravers were also admitted, the former given distinction alongside the history painters, the latter relegated to the lower ranks. Only history painters and sculptors were permitted to hold the highest positions in the Académie’s faculty and Williams points out this irony: that the young artists painting these portraits, so crucial to the Académie’s own self-fashioning, had virtually no chance of ever becoming the subject of one themselves.

The book is divided into two halves, the first focusing on the official portraits through the tradition of the morceau de réception. First Williams looks at the early history of the Académie and examines the gradual process by which institutional portraits became so central to its self-image. Then she examines the process from the point of view of the young artist commissioned to paint such a portrait; and finally examines how the finished portraits were displayed within the Académie and how these helped to emphasise the continuity between the Académie’s past and present. In the second half of the book, she turns her attention instead to unofficial portraiture – pictures painted of académiciens by académicienoutside the structure of the morceau de réception tradition, and what we can deduce from these about interpersonal relationships among the members. Williams makes the important point that the Académie is usually regarded as an institution, but it’s equally valid and perhaps more revealing to consider it as a community of people. And so she looks at portraits which throw light on different kinds of links within the Académie: family networks; friendships; and rivalries.

This is certainly an academic book, with an underpinning of anthropological theory, but it’s extremely accessible. Williams has transformed her admirable research in archives and memoirs into a vivid picture of Académie life, and her eye for telling anecdotes helps to bring these figures to life. Her account of the rivalry between Charles Lebrun and Pierre Mignard makes you look afresh at Mignard’s Self Portrait of c.1690, which shows the artist actively emulating and challenging his rival through his allusions to Nicolas de Largillière’s 1686 portrait of Lebrun. Personally, I very much enjoyed her examination of the friendship between Nicolas de Plattemontagne and Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, using one of the portrait drawings in the British Museum. And I was greatly taken with the plethora of illustrations, which do more than words ever can to stress the talent and commitment of the numerous aspiring académiciens. Look at the swagger of Joseph-Siffrèd Duplessis’s 1785 Portrait of Joseph-Marie Vien, with that startling pink waistcoat and robe; the grandeur of François Verdier’s silks in his 1703 portrait by Jean Ranc; or the warm informality in Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1783 Portrait of Augustin Pajou.

Williams has achieved the remarkable feat of taking this extraordinary resource, this collective portrait of an institution defined by its members, and teasing out the bonds that held the Académie together, transforming it into a lively, fresh and very absorbing story. This book is surely a must for anyone interested in the development of French art, or the artistic context of the 17th and 18th centuries. I know that, next time I go to Versailles or the Louvre, I’ll be seeking out the display of académiciens‘ portraits in order to admire these pictures in the flesh.

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