French Academic painting was a movement that begin in the 1500s and lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century. This period was characterized by a renewed interest in Neoclassicism combined with Romanticism. Many paintings during this period depict idealized people in natural settings that resemble ancient Greek gardens or something of the like as artists looked back to classical art and depictions of the nude. There were many academies across the world, and the education artists received at the Academy in France led to the creation of many artworks of similar subject matter and technique as the learning was passed down from teacher to student. Cot was one such student whose style and technique is largely attributed to his multiple teachers such as Bouguereau and Fragonard. Academic painting became one of the faces of modern art in France during this time. This movement reached beyond art and into poetry as Charles Boudelaire wrote “The Painter of Modern Life” in 1863, which became a sort of manifesto for modernism and contributed to the modern element of French Academic painting.
When looking at different French Academic paintings, there are several commonalities such as the natural setting, the use of palette and value, and the subject matter. Some paintings depicted idealized, romantic, couples sharing intimacy and infused with emotion, which showed the infusion of modern French society into the works. Other paintings depicted scenes from Greek mythology that were also idealized, clearly showing the interest in classicism during this time. These paintings show both parts of French Academic art and express the underlying pattern of paintings during this time despite the differences seen in each artwork through each unique artist. They combine the neoclassical and romantic subject matter with the modern infusion of psychological depth and emotion that is the foundation of French Academic art.
Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Swing, 1767, Oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, London, UK
Although this painting technically falls within the Rococo style, Fragonard did attend the French Academy and he was one of Cot’s most influential teachers. There is a direct parallel between the subject matter of this painting, and the young couple sitting on a swing in Springtime. It seems to be set in a Greek garden similar to the one that Cot painted and it also possess that romantic appeal made through nature that is typical of academic painting. The Swing depicts the tension between lovers as a young woman is in the presence of both her husband and her lover. The woman’s flirtatious gesture towards her lover shows the same blatant sexual freedom among young people that is common to paintings during this time.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Lidylle, 1850, Oil on canvas, Private Collection
Bouguereau was another one of Cot’s influential teachers and elements of his works can be found in Cot’s work. The young couple in this painting once again sit in a Greek garden and wear the loose and flowing clothing of the classical period. They are clearly lovers and they have their arms around each other similar to the pose of the couple on the swing in Cot’s Springtime. French modernism is infused in this painting through the facial expressions of the couple as they stare intently into each others eyes. The young woman is intently teasing her lover in a coquettish way with a piece of straw and this flirtatious behavior adds the modern twist to this otherwise neoclassical and romantic painting.
Pierre-Auguste Cot, Springtime, 1873, Oil on Canvas, MET 2012.575
Cot depicts a young couple on a swing in an a romantic setting of greenery and flowering plants. The scene is idealized and the couple appears to be two youth in a classical Greek garden sharing an intimate moment. Cot follows the common subject matter of the French Academy while staying true to the modern culture as well. The two people stare into each others faces and the girl has a coy expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the boy’s neck. Her youthful figure is put on display beneath a flowing sheer garment and the portrayal of her body points to sensuality that brought the newness to this otherwise classical subject matter. This scene suggests frivolous young love that is not innocent, but rather intriguing.
Alexandre Cabanel, Echo, 1874, Oil on canvas, MET 65.258.1
Cabanel portrays the Greek nymph Echo as a partial nude lounging elegantly against a wall of rock behind her. The subject matter is clearly classical as well as the story behind the painting, and the woman is painted in the smooth and idealized form of Academic art. Cabanel adds a darker element to this romantic setting with gloomy tones as well as the look of uncertainty and helplessness on the nymph’s face as she is isolated from the man that she loves. This painting evokes feelings of loss and loneliness, which is very different from the vibrant youth in many other French Academic paintings. Despite her isolation, Echo’s sexuality is open and she has had the time with her lover cut short at a young age.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Young Greeks Encouraging Cocks to Fight, 1846, Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
In this Academic painting, Gérôme sticks to the classical and romantic themes as he portrays a young, nude couple watching a cock fight in a garden. Although the couple is the center of the painting, the boy and the girl direct their attention towards the cocks and not towards each other. This painting focuses on youth who are caught up in trivial entertainment with no concern other than the fear of boredom rather than the typical pair of lovers consumed with passion for each other. The boy and girl are once again idealized and Gérôme uses this subject matter to comment on the carelessness of youth.
Leon Bonnat, Roman Girl at a Fountain, 1875, Oil on canvas, MET 87.15.137
The young girl in this portrait is turned away from us and instead lifts up her head to catch water falling from the fountain. This painting looks different from many Academic paintings as the young girl is fully clothed and the scene is less focused on nature and romanticism. This is still a classical subject matter, but Bonnat uses the sexuality this young girl to comment on the role of women in society. Young girls and women were responsible for drawing water for their families and this particular subject expresses Bonnat’s belief that there are set roles for women in society, even in modern society in France. He uses the neoclassical style to convey a message that is relevant in modern France.