French Academies in the Age of Enlightenment: An Interdisciplinary Research Network – by Émilie Roffidal and Anne Perrin Khelissa

The ACA-RES research program on Art Academies and their Networks in Pre-Industrial France was initiated in 2016. It is supported by the FRAMESPA Laboratory (UMR 5136), the Labex “Structuration des Mondes Sociaux” (SMS), and the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme et de la Société de Toulouse. The activities and resources of the ACA-RES research group are available on the Hypotheses web portal, where researchers publish texts, articles, and workshop reports. Awarded the “2019-Carte Blanche” by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA), ACA-RES also works in partnership with the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art (Paris), the Museums of Rouen, and around fifty individual contributors in Europe. Within the team, particular attention is given to dialogue between different generations of researchers; Masters’ students, doctoral candidates, and post-docs regularly join the team for applied research internships or occasional assignments. For more information about the project, please contact [email protected] or get in touch directly with Anne Perrin Khelissa or Émilie Roffidal.

From 1740 to 1805, an unprecedented number of new academies and schools of drawing were created across France. About fifty institutions were founded in the kingdom’s major cities, with others established in more remote areas (such as Pau, Annecy, and Niort), creating a complex and dense network throughout the country. They implemented various training programs (both foundational and advanced) and also became places of sociability for the artists, craftsmen, scientists, entrepreneurs, and politicians involved in regional development. The guiding principle was to create spaces for high quality artistic production that could then be sold widely, including overseas, in America, North Africa, and Asia.

What was the precise role of art academies in French urban and regional development during the eighteenth century? How did their function relate to the cultural context of the Enlightenment? What place did they hold within social networks and interactions during this period? Seeking answers to these questions will deepen our understanding of how such institutions contributed to the success of luxury and semi-luxury industries, while also allowing us to explore this evolution in terms of “modernity” and “progress”.

In order to better understand the activities and impact of these provincial art academies, it is necessary to reconstruct the personal and institutional links that led to their creation and animated their life. This research looks at three key areas:

  • the building of an artistic “milieu” through affiliations between academies in France and in Europe;
  • their connections with literary and scientific academies, with learned societies, military and civil engineering schools, etc.;
  • and their interactions with craftsmen and manufacturers, mainly in the luxury and semi-luxury industries.

While these are the three principle lines of inquiry, the project also considers possible connections with other types of circles, such as political or religious affiliations and societies of freemasons.

Research Background: Academies in Context

Art academies have long been of interest to researchers. Canonical studies include Nikolaus Pevsner’s Academies of Art, Past and Present[1] and Daniel Roche’s Le siècle des Lumières en province. Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680-1789.[2] More recently, publications by Reed Benhamou[3] and Agnès Lahalle[4] have contributed to shaping the field. These works have tended to focus on pedagogical projects, on theoretical discourses and on members’ trajectories. In regional history, researchers have sought to understand more fully relationships between provincial cities and the capital city. There have also been monographs on academies, but this monographic approach has yet to undermine the perception that the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris was pre-eminent and dominated its sister academies elsewhere in France. If Parisian institutions continue to benefit from recent studies[5], current doctoral work[6] and exhibitions[7] reveal that there is also a revival of interest in the rest of France.

The ACA-RES program provides an extensive bibliographical survey of French art academies. This bibliography, collected with Zotero, consists of 1,115 indexed items. It is freely available to researchers on the Hypotheses web portal of the program. In addition, around 50 books or articles have been digitized to form a digital library of resources.

ACA-RES: Research Activities and Open-Access Resources

Archival Materials

A documentary survey seemed necessary in order to demonstrate the place of regional academies in the national landscape. However archival collections needed to be indexed and examined in depth. Since 2016, ACA-RES has been undertaking a systematic survey of collections dispersed between municipal archives, departmental archives, old municipal library collections, and specific National Archives collections, covering nearly 170 documentation centers. Many new documents and small unexploited archival sources have been found. Among the key activities to date: the “Provincial Academies” collection in the French National Archives has been fully digitized, indexed and made freely accessible in Nakalona format (the Huma-Num TGIR software package); the archives of the Lyon academy have been collected, including the full digitizing and indexing of 494 documents (2097 digital photographs); and the same work is underway for the archives of the academies of Lille, Marseille, Valence, Mâcon, Nantes, and Montpellier.

A Relational Database

In an effort to explore links between individuals and institutions, a database has been created in FilemakerPro, with the help of computer scientists belonging to the IRIT laboratory in Toulouse. This database includes two main kinds of entry: “Individuals” (e.g. members of academies, artists, factory directors, etc.), and “Establishments” (e.g. drawing schools, academies, and manufactories).

The completion of the database makes it possible to visualize networks and to carry out searches by keyword. Some initial results have already been generated, highlighting centers and nodes, as well as important axes linking Marseille-Montpellier-Toulouse, for example, and stretching as far as Italy and Spain.

Creating this database has already helped advance our methodological reflections concerning the notion of networks: an essential framework for sociologists that has been widely adopted by historians, and increasingly also by art historians. An article summarizing this research is forthcoming in the INHA journal, Perspective.

Brainstorming and Dynamic Interchange

The ACA-RES program has organized several events to facilitate an exchange of ideas around key issues. The first workshop, organized at the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art in Paris on November 8 and 9, 2016, explored the genesis of academic institutions. The emphasis was on the articulation between individual actions and collective aspirations, and between local histories and educational movements on a national scale. The second workshop, organized at the Maison de la Recherche at the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès on November 9 and 10, 2017, was entitled “Artists’ mobility, institutional dynamics: mapping exchanges.” Most recently, our third workshop was held at the Hôtel des Sociétés Savantes in Rouen on November 9 and 10, 2017, in partnership with Rouen museums, under the title: “Linking the arts, fine arts and sciences: between interaction and distance.”

ACA-RES also disseminates the results of its work on an ongoing basis, through reports, minutes of meetings, seminars and study days, and historical papers relating to each city being investigated. These communications are available online through the “work in progress” portal, which also accommodates the responses of readers and contributors through comments. All this research and documentation (available through the Hypotheses portal) will be re-examined during the Synthesis Conference being co-organized with INHA next year. One session of the conference will be dedicated specifically to regional academies abroad, for instance in England, Germany, Italy or Spain. We are currently in the process of organizing this session and welcome proposals for papers from Journal18 readers.

Émilie Roffidal is chargée de recherche at the CNRS, and Anne Perrin Khelissa is maître de conférences in Art History at the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Lesley Miller and Alice Minter for assistance with the translation of this text.

[1] Nikolaus Pevsner, Academies of Art, Past and Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940, re-ed. 2014).

[2] Daniel Roche, Le siècle des Lumières en province. Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680-1789, 2 vols. (Paris: Éd. de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales, 1978, re-ed. 1989).

[3] Reed Benhamou, “Art et utilité: les écoles de dessin de Grenoble et de Poitiers,” Dix-huitième siècle, 23 (1991), 421-434; Reed Benhamou, “L’éducation artistique en province: modèles parisiens,” in Le Progrès des arts réunis, 1763-1815:mythe culturel, des origines de la Révolution à la fin de l’Empire?, eds. Daniel Rabreau, Bruno Tollon (Bordeaux: CERCAM, 1992), 91-99.

[4] Agnès Lahalle, Les écoles de dessin au XVIIIe siècle: entre arts libéraux et arts mécaniques (Rennes: PUR, 2006).

[5] Reed Benhamou, Regulating the Académie: Art, Rules and Power in Ancien Régime France (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009); Christian Michel, L’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture: la naissance de l’École française (Genève: Droz, 2012); Hannah Williams, Académie Royale: A History in Portraits (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

[6] For example Marjorie Guillin, “‘L’anéantissement des arts en province?’: l’Académie royale de peinture, sculpture et architecture de Toulouse au XVIIIe siècle (1751-1793)” (PhD dissertation, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, 2013); Nelly Vi-Tong, “Les académies de l’école de dessin de Dijon : Représenter le corps humain au temps des Lumières” (PhD dissertation, Université de Bourgogne, in progress).

[7] Marseille au XVIIIe siècle: les années de l’Académie de peinture et de sculpture 1753-1793, ed. Claude Badet (Paris: Somogy éditions d’art, 2016); Le musée avant le musée: la Société des beaux-arts de Montpellier, 1779-1787, eds. Michel Hilaire, Pierre Stépanoff (Gand: Snoeck, 2017).

Cite this note as: Émilie Roffidal and Anne Perrin Khelissa, “French Academies in the Age of Enlightenment: An Interdisciplinary Research Network,” Journal18 (February 2019),

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