The founding of the French Academy in Rome in 1666 as a branch of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris signaled the seminal importance of the classical tradition in the Academy’s program of art education. Its significance was underscored by the establishment of the Prix de Rome in 1674, an award given to the most promising painters, sculptors, and (after 1720) architects, for a period of three to five years of study in Rome. In its early history, the Academy was housed at several locations, until its installation in 1725 at the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso, where it remained until 1802 (presently located at the Villa Medici). The curriculum emphasized direct contact with antique art, as captured in a painting by Giovanni Panini of 1757 entitled Ancient Rome (52.63.1), in which students sketch the Dying Gladiator amidst the greatest monuments of classical antiquity, including the Farnese Hercules and the Laocoön. Panini taught perspective at the Academy, where the curriculum also included anatomy and life drawing. Additionally, students—or pensioners, as they were called—were required to execute copies of paintings and sculptures as part of their training and in response to commissions from the French king, the Academy’s patron.
The classical ideal propagated at the Academy was complemented by the influence of contemporary art in Rome and the city’s thriving artistic community. The Baroque dynamism of Bernini’s sculpture informed the style of a generation of artists that included the sculptor Nicolas Coustou, a pensioner from 1683 to 1687. As a testament to Bernini’s enduring influence, his sculptures—including Apollo and Daphne and the Fountain of the Four Rivers—populate Panini’s 1757 Modern Rome (52.63.2), the companion piece to his view of ancient Rome. Alternatively, Piranesi’s etched vedutes, or views, of Rome (126.96.36.199(29)), the earliest of which were published in 1745, resonated into the 1780s among students of both painting and architecture and significantly contributed to the development of Neoclassicism. Piranesi’s imagery, which fuses topography, archaeology, and fantasy, informs the landscape caprices of Hubert Robert, who met Piranesi two years after his arrival in Rome in 1754; the dramatic lighting contrasts and unusual compositional angles in Robert’s imaginary views of classical ruins reflect Piranesi’s vision.
Rome—its monuments and its topography—also served as inspiration. Charles Joseph Natoire, who assumed the directorship of the Academy in 1751, encouraged the informal study of landscape; during his tenure, both Robert and Fragonard, who arrived as a pensioner in 1756, benefited from his plein-air excursions, executing landscape studies of sites in Rome and its environs, including Tivoli. Natoire himself produced a body of picturesque landscape drawings (65.65).
Natoire was succeeded in 1776 by Joseph Marie Vien, who was accompanied by his pupil, Jacques Louis David, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1774. Although he executed the requisite drawings after antique sculptures (63.92.1), David was drawn to seventeenth-century art, developing a style that fused classical rigor with Baroque drama, as embodied in the austere grandeur of his Oath of the Horatii (Musée du Louvre, Paris), a work that David returned to Rome to paint in 1784.
In the political turmoil following the Revolution of 1789, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was abolished in 1793 by decree of the National Convention—an act ardently advocated by David—and the Prix de Rome was suspended until 1797. Ironically, the subsequent history of the Academy’s Roman counterpart would be shaped largely by David’s students, culminating in 1834 with the appointment of Ingres as director of the French Academy in Rome.