The Académie’s Document Box & Funeral Book

Institutional ‘Things’:

Towards a Material History of the Académie Royale

Katie Scott and Hannah Williams

Art historians often seem to forget that the Académie Royale was a place: in the early modern period, a set of apartments in the Palais du Louvre on the right bank of the Seine. More usually scholars invoke the name of the Académie to refer to a summary of art theoretical principles or educational strategies. Thus the documents and written records that remain in the Académie’s archives have proven invaluable sources for histories that explore what academicians thought about art, and how art was taught during this period. But what of the material ‘things’ that have survived from its spaces? What might be revealed from a material history that considers the Académie as an environment, a series of rooms filled with objects, from fundamental things (the art works produced by its members), to the bureaucratic ephemera of institutional life (ledgers, lamps, quills, and ink pots)?

In this presentation, each speaker will examine a different object that once formed part of the material culture of the Académie: one, the leather casket in which were kept the institution’s statutes and regulations, and official letters; the other, a set of printed funeral billets, which served as invitations to the memorial services for dead academicians. Through studies that pay close attention to the materiality of these objects, and also to their value as historical traces of institutional life, this presentation makes a move towards a material history of the Académie Royale. Using these objects to understand customs and conventions of professional life, daily rituals and special ceremonies, and the roles of individuals within the collective, this two-part paper takes a look behind the scenes to reconstruct the everyday experience of artists in eighteenth-century Paris, while providing an alternative approach to the history of the institution at the centre of their professional world.

This paper will be presented in the following session at the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference on 31 March 2012:

Art’s Insiders: New Histories of Europe’s Academies

Organised by: Keren Hammerschlag and Hannah Williams

For centuries, institutions like the Royal Academy in London, the Académie Royale (later the Académie des Beaux Arts) in Paris, and the Accademia di San Luca in
Rome were the epicentres of European art practice, theory and education. For artists, having the letters ‘RA’ after their name, or the opportunity to show works at the Salons or the Summer Exhibitions promised elevated social standing and commercial success. As institutions, Academies developed principles and ideals that dominated artistic production throughout the period. In art history, however, the ‘Academy’ has been variously recast as staid, kitsch and archaic. According to critics, ‘academic’ art represents the inert centre against which avant-garde innovation and originality was pitted. But in their time, Europe’s Academies were anything but static or homogenous. Established by groups of artists resisting under-developed or conservative attitudes to art, these communities often began as innovative alternatives; they were home to radical new approaches, and became sites of heated debate in response to political, theoretical and social shifts. This session seeks a re-evaluation of art’s insiders. What did it mean to be at the centre of these powerful institutions? And how can we effectively revisit the Academy without falling into the trap of reviving dead, white, male, bourgeois artists? We invite proposals for papers that take a new look at the ‘Academy’ and academicians in the period 1600 to 1900. In particular we invite papers informed by sociological, anthropological and cultural theory approaches, which take objects as their focus.