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The Oxford Companion to Western Art

Marc Jordan


An ‘academy’, or more properly ‘academy figure’, is a drawn, painted, or modelled study from life of the posed human figure. The beginnings of the academy figure may be traced back to the revival of life drawing in 15th-century Italy. What distinguishes it from pure life drawing, however, which can be an informal pursuit by the artist of an unposed or unaware model, is its formal and institutionalized character, with the model set, often in the stance of a classical statue and with appropriate accessories, as an exercise by a master for a group of pupils. Not suprisingly the ‘academy’ reached its apogee in 18th- and 19th-century France where it was regarded as an essential preparation for a career as a history painter and regularly set and judged as a student essay at the Académie Royale and the École des Beaux-Arts (see both under Paris), with notable examples being painted by David, Géricault, and Delacroix in their student days. This period also saw the publication of books of engravings of academy figures for the use of students who did not have access to the life class of an art school. Most galleries of old masters contain examples of these finely observed, dramatically lit, and handsome male and female figures. Some artists, notably Rembrandt, used the genre as a vehicle for ironic commentary on the discrepancies between the ideals of classical art and the faulty human clay of which we are made.

Marc Jordan


Bignamini, I., and Postle, M., The Artist's Model: Its Role in British Art from Lely to Etty, exhib. cat. 1991 (London, Kenwood House).Find this resource:

    Roland-Michel, M., Le Dessin français au XVIIIe siècle (1987).Find this resource: