Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 27, 2010
Reed Benhamou Regulating the Académie: Art, Rules and Power in "ancien régime" France Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009. 308 pp. Paper $100.00 (9780729409728)

Few institutions have influenced the course of European art or the writing of art history as decisively as the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Its pulse animated the visual extravagance of Versailles, the popularity of public art exhibitions, the emergence of art criticism, and the codification of an approach to arts instruction that persists to this day. The Academy’s legacy extends even to the enduring assumption that a centralized system of arts administration distinguishes a functioning nation-state. It is no surprise, then, that the Academy should cast a strong shadow in so many histories of post-Renaissance European art. Yet, for all this, art historians rarely allow the Academy to assume more than a vaguely adumbrated role as a monolithic force bent on enforcing conservative artistic values and practices. To be sure, some scholars have succeeded in bringing to life the Academy’s complex institutional operation. Thomas Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), for instance, exemplify the capacity for subtle institutional analysis to yield compelling art-historical interpretations. Reed Benhamou’s Regulating the Académie: Art, Rules and Power in ancien régime France offers both a prompt and an aid to scholars who seek to engage in a similarly careful study of the French Royal Academy. Drawing from archival as well as published sources, Benhamou has crafted a satisfyingly detailed account of the administrative history of the Academy.

Extracting a documentary history of the Academy from the archives of the ancien régime has always posed a challenge, because relevant sources are dispersed across myriad collections. Financial records of the king’s household, minutes taken at Academy meetings, official correspondence and government decrees along with memoirs, private letters between academicians, and published Salon criticism all shed light on the institution’s history. Attempts to surmount this archival atomization were first undertaken in the nineteenth century by a handful of French librarians and historians, including Anatole de Montaiglon, Jules Guiffrey, and Sigismund Lacroix, who prepared compilations of documents related to the fine arts. Modern researchers have depended on the volumes of procès verbaux and official correspondence prepared by these scholars. For the most part, though, commentary on the primary sources was limited in these publications to brief introductions and explanatory footnotes. Benhamou’s book offers the first narrative summary in English of the history contained in these documents.

Distilling thousands of documents into a cohesive story of the Royal Academy from its founding in 1648 to its dissolution in 1793 is no easy feat, but Benhamou succeeds in delivering a crisp account of the institution’s history in a well-paced ninety-two pages. Though relying mostly on the original archival sources, she clarifies and enriches her portrayal of the Academy’s evolution by appealing to various published and unpublished supporting documents. Some of these supplementary texts, like the compilations mentioned above, are marshaled in support of Benhamou’s suppositions regarding Academy politics. Local color is provided through quotations from correspondence as well as from the published journal of the irrepressible engraver and academician Johann-Georg Wille, who recorded, for instance, the bitter disputes that erupted at Academy meetings in the years leading to its suppression. Not denoted in the official minutes, these heated exchanges would otherwise be absent from the historical record. And it is precisely these moments of conflict that most interest Benhamou.

The narrative thread that guides Benhamou’s essay emphasizes continual evolution; the Academy that she delineates is far from the static institution toward which many art-historical texts gesture. From its start, Benhamou emphasizes, the Academy emerged as “a result of rebellion” (4). A handful of painters who enjoyed special patronage from the nobility chafed at their continued subjection to oversight by the Guild of Saint Luke (Maîtrise), which they perceived in conflict not only with their elevated aesthetic aims but also with their financial interests. By right, the guild could determine whether or not an artist might accept a commission. Even more galling to some was the guild’s authority to order an artwork destroyed if it did not conform to its standards, a mechanism for quality control that, by the seventeenth century, may have retained its relevance for makers of armaments or locks, but hardly seemed appropriate for those who perceived themselves as engaged in a liberal rather than mechanical art.

Royal intervention succeeded in establishing the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture) in 1648, but the struggle with the guild only intensified. An uneasy merger of the two bodies, effected in 1652 and intended to shore up the fledgling Academy’s financial situation, only deepened the mutual disdain. Benhamou enlivens what might appear to be merely administrative records by drawing forth the implicit dramatic content of official documents, which, when read closely, reveal a continual exchange of subtle slights along with frank insults. In one amusing ploy, the academicians, like impatient school masters, resort to long-winded lectures in an effort to gain control of the organization: “In May 1653 . . . [the academicians] instituted conferences on art theory and criticism, thinking to either educate the maîtres or bore them into leaving. The tactic was at least a partial success. The more powerful (and contentious) guildsmen stopped attending assemblies” (8–9). The academicians eventually succeeded in securing greater financial support from the crown, thus enabling them to sever their partnership with the guild in 1664 when a new set of statutes for the governance of the Academy came into effect.

For Benhamou, revisions to the statutes, which were undertaken frequently during the Academy’s 129-year history, give evidence of the institution’s dynamism, recording moments of alternating liberalization and retrenchment around questions of pedagogy, sinecure, artistic autonomy, and the status of women members. This internal struggle reached a crescendo in 1791. With the Revolution at full throttle, the Academy found itself responding to France’s new political order in a way that mirrored the fragmentation of the rest of the country. Far from assuming a cohesive stance, members coalesced around different conceptions of the Revolution’s significance for the institution. Some maintained that the king’s authority remained supreme, making it impossible to modify the Academy’s statutes without Louis XVI’s express permission. Others embraced the tenets outlined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Revolution’s guiding document, and advocated reorganizing the Academy along its principle of individual equality. A more radical group saw no possibility of rehabilitating a fundamentally hierarchical organization, arguing instead on behalf of the Academy’s dissolution. Benhamou notes that this part of the Academy’s history has been well rehearsed in relation to the career of Jacques-Louis David, who ultimately orchestrated its abolition in 1793. Rather than restate this flattened account of the Academy’s end, she reorients her narrative so that it gives equal play to the determined but doomed efforts of Royalist and moderate academicians to preserve the institution.

The second—and larger—part of Benhamou’s book comprises nine appendices in which the various iterations of the Academy’s statutes are reproduced. From the original 1648 decree by the Council of State authorizing the formation of the Academy through the three competing plans for reorganization drafted by the main post-Revolutionary factions in the 1790s, Regulating the Académie brings these texts together for the first time. This, along with Benhamou’s judicious summary of the history of the organization and her excellent bibliography, make this volume an essential addition to the library of any scholar of seventeenth- through nineteenth-century French art. Students, too, will find the documents and insightful commentary invaluable, though the presentation of all historical documents and quotations in French only will limit its accessibility to some extent. The book’s lean index will also curb its use as a handy reference; missing are citations of terms such as “Guild of Saint Luke” or “Maîtrise” (the index includes “Communauté de Saint-Luc,” though Benhamou never uses this appellation in her text) along with names of academicians discussed in Benhamou’s text like François-André Vincent, Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. These, of course, are minor quibbles and should not detract from the welcome appearance of Regulating the Académie.

Elizabeth C. Mansfield
Professor and Head, Department of Art History, Penn State