The Villa Medici and the Academy of Fine Arts
Beneath the high ceilings of his room and studio at the Villa Medici in Rome, Léon Pallière rests nonchalantly. A student of fine arts, he had studied painting at the Paris Academy before arriving in Rome for his education, as a “retired” from the French Academy. In 1817, when the intimate portrait of him was painted by Jean Alaux, the young man had just completed his five-year internship and was preparing to return to France to begin his artistic career. In the photo, the room opens up to a wide view and is filled with all sorts of everyday objects. He witnessed the indelible experience of his expat life intertwined with art, history and the ethereal allure of the Eternal City.
For young artists working in France in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Rome was the ultimate destination, the perfect training ground to immerse themselves in the relics of antiquity and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was its reputation as an artistic center. During the Middle Ages, the crumbling ruins of the ancient capital came to represent its cultural stagnation and are said to have induced a “bad air” that stunted its artistic development. It was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that artists began to recognize the achievements of the ancients and seriously study their sculptural and architectural relics.
Although originally imitative, these Renaissance innovators drew on antiquity for an artistic essence that helped them create works that, in turn, celebrated their new era. In the post-Renaissance era, ancient remains were considered classic, but so were contemporary works of art by masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Annibale Carracci and Nicolas Poussin. Rome, which had a wealth of ancient and contemporary classical art, thus began to attract budding artists from all over Europe.
Coming from a line of legendary painters, the young Pallière was particularly privileged to have won the “Prix de Rome” – a prestigious government scholarship which allowed him to follow five years of uninterrupted study at the French Academy in Rome. . Created in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV, the prize had marked the start of stellar careers – those of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who owed much of their success to the first Roman sojourn.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte moved the academy to the beautiful and serene Villa Medici, a Renaissance palace and garden that has housed the institution ever since. Each year, Parisian students fiercely competed for this singular opportunity, but only one was selected in each discipline. The triumphant painter, sculptor and architect will then embark on the two-month journey to the Eternal City, where he will continue his rigorous training and relentless progress. After all, the success of youth was only the beginning of an arduous path, where one was judged not only against one’s peers, but also against the heavy tradition that had repeatedly caused great artistic blooms.
Indeed, the books, sculptures and drawings depicted in Pallière’s portrait betray the hard work of the young man. Today, however, few non-specialists in French painting would have heard his name. Winner of the Prix de Rome in 1812, Pallière graduated and then painted an altarpiece for a French church in Rome before dying shortly afterwards. A fellow student, François-Édouard Picot, winner the following year, went on to a successful career painting historical and mythological scenes, but he is best remembered as an educator – the teacher of academic artists such as Gustave Moreau , Alexandre Cabanel , and Guillaume Bouguereau. Jean Alaux, boarding companion in Rome and author of the portrait of Pallière, ended up directing the Villa Medici under the mandate of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
With the exception of the Neoclassical Ingres and the Symbolist Moreau, the reputation of these successful painters was mostly overshadowed by the advent of Impressionist and Modernist art, which sought to break with the rigorous training and prescriptive rules of the academy. But these so-called limits – whether in the accurate depiction of the human figure or in the skillful rendering of space in perspective – were in fact nothing more than the fundamental elements in the construction of a visual narrative.
These building blocks allow the composition of bodies and objects in an image, which is capable of endless expressions of stories and feelings. Although requiring years of painstaking study, the art academy succeeded in developing a sophisticated system of pedagogy, which transmitted the achievements of the Renaissance from Italy to France and beyond. For artists today, this academic tradition may well serve not as a constraint but as a productive source of inspiration.