Saturday, July 11

Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea - Art and politics

Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, c. 1890 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, c. 1890 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

"The Royal Academy The Royal Academy in France, founded in 1648 (there was also one in England) was an arm of the monarchy. The kings of France, and the ruling parties, always recognized that controlling what art looked like and what it was about was a way of controlling or changing the opinions of others. This is one of the primary reasons that art was always seen as so politically charged—if you went against the rules of art, you were a rebel against the government. The Royal Academy essentially controlled teaching art (it ran the Ecole des Beaux Arts—the School of Fine Arts), and the exhibiting of art (by running exhibitions every year or two called the "salon"). For much of its history, the Royal Academy (made up of members appointed for life—so you can imagine their average age) promoted art that was based on ancient Greek and Roman art, and the art of the Renaissance. These were upheld as the single definition of beauty that all artists must follow.

Hierarchy of Subjects In addition, the Academy created a hierarchy of subjects, with history painting as the most elevated subject, and still-life and portraits as the lowest. History paintings (which included noble historic moments, ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and biblical subjects) were held to be the highest because they depicted heroic figures and subjects in scenes where the composition was invented by the artist. Still-life painting and portraits were held to be the lowest because there was no invention in that case by the artist, who was, in this view, simply painting what was in front of them. Genre scenes, or paintings of every day life, were also a lowly subject because they did not offer the heroic and noble.

Prix de Rome The Royal Academy sponsored a rigorous yearly competition, the Prix de Rome. The winning artist got time to study at the French Academy in Rome. In the last half of the nineteenth century, the art that was favored by the academy and by the public was a watered-down version of history painting—quaint, sentimental images with a clear narrative and a studied realism.


Gerome's Pygmalion and Galatea is a good example of academic art in the last half of the nineteenth century. The subject is taken from Ovid. The sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation, and the goddess Venus makes the sculpted figure come to life"

I took it from Smarthistory and you can read more here. I believe that artists being able to do the art they want is quite an achievement and a result of the obstinateness of many artists. I thank every one of them.

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