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Christian Michel’s L’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture

15 February 2018

Michel cover

No one who reads this blog is likely to take issue with the last sentence in this book:

But we can assert that any serious study of these arts [of painting and sculpture] must acknowledge the fundamental role played by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.

(except perhaps for the curious choice of capitalisation). Yet the inspiration for Christian Michel’s magnum opus – and magnum it is in every way – arises from the vast amount of literature which has grown up around this institution, much of it hostile. His concept is to present the unvarnished facts, rigorously drawn from primary sources, adopting strict impartiality, and remaining free of polemic – and he succeeds in doing so agreeably free from the jargon of the art history industry that has built so much on the foundations of this institution. (The same cannot be said even of the reviews which greeted the book’s first appearance in 2012: one lengthy discussion included words like “instantiation”.)

I first consulted the book when it came out, and you will find a few references to “Michel 2012” on my website: but (for reasons that will emerge below) rather fewer than I expected. I promised myself that I would read the book “properly” when I had time: but before that happened, a “revised and enlarged” translation has appeared, from Getty, which is handsomely produced and very well translated. The most obvious difference between the versions is the addition of a generous 73 colour plates to the 75 black and white figures within the text (there were just 77 figures, all black and white, in the original). This alone will make the 2018 version the edition of choice for most of us.

I’m not going to rehearse Michel’s themes for you: I shall leave that to proper reviews. But in essence the book – and indeed the author – is steeped in the voluminous writings about the Académie which are analysed here (and accompanied by the six volumes of Conférences which he has co-edited with Jacqueline Lichtenstein). They tell the story of an institution with which many of you will think you are already familiar, but the sheer volume even of primary sources, let alone the overwhelming expanse of secondary literature, creates a level of confusion which requires great skill to navigate. We all know that the Académie was founded by a group of artists gaining Louis XIV’s support with a view to proclaiming gloire for France. We probably know about the hierarchical structure – of directeurs, recteurs, professeurs, conseillers and ordinary members, and of the mechanisms of agrément and reception – but we have probably missed some obvious oddities. For example, unlike other academies (French or foreign) the ordinary members had no vote in many of the decisions: this created the tensions that are analysed with such precision throughout the book. We will know too about the hierarchies of genre – with history painting not merely at the top, but effectively dominating the whole structure in a way that was impossible say in England. Fundamentally the story is driven by the original founders’ requirement to put the Académie on a level above the craft practised by the much older rival trade guild (the Académie de Saint-Luc), and the key to this was turning painting into a liberal art. Practitioners had to be literate (indeed reading classical poetry was considered a better foundation than more obvious requirements) – hence the lengthy conférences.

At the heart of the book Michel considers several different topics: the hostile criticism the institution provoked; its monopolies, on teaching in particular; its role in defining “art”; how academicians made money (not, directly at least, from their membership); and how it fitted with similar institutions elsewhere. Emulation, the close cousin of rivalry, is seen as the driving force of progress, and Michel clearly (and in my view correctly) sees the product – the French School, if you like – as being the result of the very complicated machinery the Académie developed rather than the manifestation of a handful of individual talents. But prefacing all these sections is a part one, which sets out the history of the institution, its statutes and their evolution etc: this part occupies nearly half the book.

You might (and I suspect many of its new readers will) imagine that this is the definitive book on the Académie royale – as the Getty’s blurb on the back puts it, this is “the single most authoritative account” (correct), from which you might infer that it is a kind of handbook of the Académie. It is not (although it is indispensable, particularly to anyone doing a Ph.D. in a part of art history that includes the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries). But if you are tempted to buy it not to read through, but as a reference tool or source of basic facts, look at the author’s preface first to avoid disappointment:

My object is not social but art historical: I have tried to elucidate the relations between the Académie and artistic production. I have deliberately set aside anything that did not come within the ambit of the questions that I wished to ask. I have not attempted to retrace the careers of the academicians—their places of origin, the ages at which they were recruited, their longevity, and their political or financial success. Instead, I have simply cited examples where it seemed necessary.

The author means exactly what he says. Absent are the simple reference tools you might expect in a handbook: no lists of academicians, or even officers, nor their dates. (The separation of these names into different indices in the 2012 edition was quite useful, although the Getty obviously decided it was too complicated. But a chronological table of officers, members and amateurs and their dates would be a sensible addition to the next edition.) Although these can usually be found elsewhere, one is never quite sure where to turn for completely reliable information, and it is disappointing that the initial section entitled “sources” refers only to the author’s inputs rather than alternative sources for further information. The table to the Procès-verbaux is hardly an up-to-date source, and one recent publication has been criticised for relying on such older sources for its extensive data (it is also in German and difficult to obtain, in English libraries at least). So when Michel continues his severe declaration–

Some readers may be surprised that I have given so little attention to the fourteen or fifteen women accepted members.[footnote] Though their talents (or kinship with academicians) afforded them the right to appear on the lists of members, they were not allowed to take part in meetings or to teach; until the Revolution, they played no role whatsoever in the functioning of the Académie.

we turn eagerly to his footnote (one of the widespread myths propagated on poor websites and books of similar intellectual rigour is that there were only four académiciennes), to find the perfectly correct explanation that Margaret Haverkamp was the “fifteenth” (although not of course chronologically) but was stripped of her membership when it was discovered that her morceau de réception had been painted by her teacher. But we are not given the names of the fourteen – indeed only I think four (Haverkamp the fifth) of them are actually named anywhere in the book (I told you the author meant what he said). One might turn perhaps to another recent account of the Académie by an author more interested in this subject (Hannah Williams: incidentally her book is much more accessible to the general reader, despite occasional lapses into academic jargon): there we do find a table with fourteen women artists. But Haverkamp is among them, leaving one scratching one’s head to find who is missing. (The answer I think is Dorothée Massé, veuve Godequin: see the Procès-verbaux for 23 novembre 1680.) Williams of course has Rosalba Carriera, but with the wrong date of birth; Michel gets that right, but gives the wrong year for her reception (1720, not 1721). Williams is excused from repeating “Marie”-Suzanne Giroust’s incorrect first name (it appears to be wrong everywhere: see the Dictionary), but Michel escapes this by not mentioning Giroust at all. In his terms that is the correct decision: but some readers will wonder why a book about the Académie has nothing to say about one of the most gifted portraitists of either sex in any medium.

All this of course follows from Michel’s project. History painting dominated not only the hierarchies – intellectual, of genres, as well as governmental, of rank and control – but also the literature, primary and secondary, and all academic research on the institution is inevitably dominated by it. There is after all more to be written about story pictures than about, say, portraits or still lifes: this is why there is so little about pastel in the book, and why the 150 or so illustrations include something that is far short of a representative cross-section of the art for whose creation the Académie royale can claim credit (just five of the 73 colour plates are portraits; I won’t even start a “nothing by …” list).

But even within the narrative Michel has set himself there are inevitably some omissions, perhaps because of the decision not to probe the social positions of those associated with the Académie, including the honorary members (who, I think we are not told, started as associés libres before progressing, more or less automatically, to honoraires amateurs). We are told they were all either wealthy financiers or persons from high society, which is not completely accurate, an exception being the abbé Pommyer. There is much discussion about the rivalry between the Académie royale and the Académie de Saint-Luc which as everyone knows led finally to the dissolution of the older body: the correspondence between Marigny and Cochin leading up to the selection of Pommyer was discussed in my article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 2001, and provides a fascinating insight into their tactics in the battle against the Saint-Luc: in short, Pommyer was appointed against stiff competition because they needed a magistrate at the Grand’chambre in the parlement de Paris to represent the interests of the Académie royale in this battle. That story surely belongs in the book.

What is less clear is whether the structure Michel has adopted (and which I sense evolved over many years) is an optimal framework for handling so much material. Apart from anything else, it leads to much repetition – some avoidable (for example two sections list the academies formed elsewhere in Europe, on pp. 107 and 319ff, where a cross reference would have sufficed – and including Dresden or Copenhagen in the index would have saved this reviewer’s time in locating the earlier occurrence), some I suspect not. Perhaps a few examples are in order, particularly since some relate to my struggle to extract from the book the facts I know are there. We have, to take a simple one, the interesting story told by Miger of Alexis Loir’s embarrassment at finding the portraits he’d promised a client rejected from the salon. It’s told on p. 90 and again on p. 304 (this by the way is of Alexis III, not the homonym to which the indexer assigned the second version of the story): the respective footnotes (on pp. 364 and 380) are absolutely identical, suggesting a cut-and-paste at some gestation that one might hope had been picked up in this new edition. I mention it because it is quickly fixed for the next edition, which I hope will follow soon – perhaps with a little more liberality in the appendices.

While we’re on Loir, another minute error should be noted: one of the very few references to – indeed the only real discussion of – pastel occurs on p. 91 (“strictures on pastellists” is a good example of a legend that is only indirectly pinned down in the official documents), where it is noted that Loir had to wait 33 years after his agrément before he was reçu. This could helpfully be expanded to reconcile with the various discussions on what happened when agréés failed to deliver reception pieces within the allotted time: the very long period allowed in this case seems completely at variance with the other discussions. (Partly this is because an institution like the Académie doesn’t in fact obey the neat rules that art historians, or even lexicographers, would like to describe.) But it is not correct (p. 91) that Loir “had to present an oil portrait as his reception piece.” In fact, true to his passion he was allowed to deliver the wonderful pastel of Clément Belle now in the Louvre, while two sculptures he has delivered in 1746 were also taken into account in lieu of the second reception piece.

The question of which artists were admitted and which were not, and why, is of course one of the areas to which the lexicographer is going to give considerable attention. The discussion of Liotard (who, despite never being admitted, receives more references than any pastellist but Loir, La Tour and Coypel – the last of these being there for a different reason) is not entirely satisfactory: the Académie, we are told, “rejected Liotard despite his court patronage (in or around 1748) because it considered his work mediocre”. True, but there is no mention of the fact that Liotard had been in Paris before (alloué, not apprenti, to Jean-Baptiste Massé) and had competed for the Grand Prix in 1732. No candidate was deemed worthy of the first prize that year; Parrocel was awarded a second, but Liotard got nothing (and so was not recorded in the Procès-verbaux, which is why no one had noticed before my new research here). For the Académie, 16 years later, to accept a painter it had so comprehensively rejected (when he had then left Paris in resentment instead of showing his commitment to the French School by trying again) would have represented an additional hurdle.

Liotard’s admission also crops up in relation to two other questions to which one might want a handbook to turn to for definitive accounts. One of these is the discussion of whether Protestants could join. This is split between several locations, none of which appears to be indexed (pp. 2, 13, 49, 284, 350, I think, although I may have missed some). The general message is that there was no religious issue, unlike at the Catholic Académie de Saint-Luc. But there is no mention of the case of Lundberg, where his admission was blocked for this reason (or at least Largillierre felt the need for instruction from the contrôleur général – letter read 28 janvier 1741 – and admission only took place after royal directive: “le Roi étant informé du mérite du sr Lundberg…quoique de la Religion prétendue réformée”. In fact Michel doesn’t mention Lundberg at all. Other sources (e.g. Vitet) take the opposite position on this: like Lundberg, the Protestants Boit, Schmidt, Rouquet and Roslin all required specific royal command for admission.

Another of the vexed questions for which art historians crave a clear answer concerns the use of the term peintre du roi (this is indexed, under painter/sculptor to the king, but a cross-reference from peintre, where I had looked, would be helpful). Again the discussion is conducted in several un-cross-referenced sections, none giving the complete picture. Michel cites as evidence that this had been relaxed the statement by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin (not indexed; it’s on p. 99) that “Je pris alors le titre de Dessinateur du Roi, que personne ne me contesta” but doesn’t provide a date. I think this is noted in Saint-Aubin’s memoirs and refers to the time of his marriage, in 1751, although the title does not appear in the Minutier central version of the marriage contract. (By contrast the first time Liotard used the title peintre du roi was as witness to a marriage, before he had it printed in the livret of the Académie de Saint-Luc, where he appeared as “Peintre ordinaire du Roi” in 1751; as “peintre du roi” in 1752; but dropped the title from the 1753 livret.) And indeed the range of practices in these documents d’état civil, as well as in court cases (mostly prosecuted by the Académie de Saint-Luc) reveal a range of practices and inconsistencies which I suspect can’t be resolved by looking at the sources to which Michel has restricted himself. No doubt in informal contexts abuses occurred; but a search of the documents indexed in the Minutier central suggests otherwise: the unfamiliar names are largely those of employees at the Bâtimens du roi, the Gobelins and similar institutions which carried on an old tradition of royal warrants.

Another theme which baffles many of us is how to reconcile the Académie’s monopoly on painting and teaching with the situation of artists who hadn’t yet or never made it to membership. As Michel reminds us the Académie itself expected its applicants to come with a developed competence. The topic is central to the book, and covered in numerous places which I won’t attempt to summarise. But I’m not sure there is a complete answer to these mysteries. For so many artists we know virtually nothing about how they earned their living between the end of their apprentissage and their joining either Académie. And I’m not sure that we will find the answer by study, however attentive, of written sources such as those on which this formidable book is based. Facts in the real world were often untidier than statutes would have us believe.

Technical note to publisher

The Getty are to be congratulated in the production values in issuing this book at the same price (more or less) as the original Swiss publication. The translation is fluent and accurate, and the decisions on how to handle titles, capitals etc. generally wise (I would personally prefer to use French capitalisation for French institutions, so Académie royale etc.). But the author has expanded his introductory note to justify two changes with which I disagree, and both I submit are based on category confusions as I have discussed in my recent post. I don’t know whether Michel saw that, but he obviously embraces his new choices with the zeal of a convert. Thus he now prints Delatour throughout instead of the standard de La Tour (with which he was content in 2012), on the basis that the painter signed his name Delatour. Actually how he signed is best rendered in print as De_la_Tour, invariably with a capital T; and how we now print that is purely a matter of publisher’s convention. It matters (a bit more than other choices, like Boullongne, which I like) because D and L are far apart in the index and library, and most of the La Tour research is under L. I note also that Michel doesn’t apply his dictum say to “Adélaïde Labille-Guyard” who always (as far as I know, and certainly on all her signed pastels) spelt her first husband’s name with an i, as do the standard monographs on her. Or to “Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun” who, as Joseph Baillio constantly reminds us, never used a hyphen and always spelt her husband’s name in two words. Indeed Vigée Le Brun’s preferred forename was Louise, not Élisabeth; and her husband is easier found and distinguished from homonyms as Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, not Jean-Baptiste Lebrun.

That takes us to the second part of Michel’s conversion, regarding the hyphenation of forenames, also discussed in my blog post. In 2012 he adopted the perfectly sensible option of not hyphenating any (except Jean-Baptiste), just as you will find in contemporary manuscript sources (equally simple is the option of hyphenating all forenames, just as you will find in standard printed genealogies of the day). Now he has been converted to the policy of hyphenating what he identifies as prénoms composés: so Charles-Nicolas Cochin but Charles Antoine Coypel. The danger is, as I have written, this is imposing modern French legislative concepts (e.g. imposing a limit of one hyphen for each person) to a period where there is no basis for ascertaining the right answer. If you disagree, close Michel and write down the names of 20 académiciens with more than one forename (not Jean-Baptiste, but names like Jacques-Antoine Beaufort). Make your own choice of hyphenation. Do it again tomorrow, and compare. Do it once more, allowing reference to all sources you like (Getty ULAN, Bénézit, recent volumes in Arthéna etc.), and compare the results with Michel’s choices (for they are nothing more than that). This exercise will have consumed dozens of hours of the desk editor’s time (I know because I used to be one), although the Getty staff are to be congratulated on achieving a pretty good level of internal consistency (but I don’t know, and have no means of finding out, whether Jean Guillaume Moitte is correct on p. 274 or should be hyphenated, as on p. 105, and the index entry for Le Tellier on p. 408 contains both versions).


As for the practicalities of obtaining consensus to specific choices of forenames as prénoms composés, here are some examples taken from the new Michel and two recent monographs issued by Arthéna:

Prenoms c


From → Art history

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