Painting in eighteenth-century France before the Revolution was centred on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which had been founded in 1648. The purpose of the Academy was to train the most important artists and to provide them with the raw materials for successful history painting, which was by far the most esteemed genre for an artist to practise.
Budding painters or sculptors would be apprenticed to a master, but much of their training would take place at the Academy where the drawing of the male human figure was at the core of the curriculum. Only after mastering the copying of drawings and engravings, and then casts of antique sculptures, would the student be allowed to progress to drawing the nude figure in the life class. The drawings they produced there were so associated with the Academy that they came to be known as ‘académies’.
The male human figure was regarded as the very foundation of painting and sculpture; it had to be mastered by any aspiring artist of the highest class. No female artists were admitted to the Academy and all models were male. This practice in itself went on to create problems for artists, who lacking the necessary training to portray the female form, were compelled to search out models, not always in the most respectable and salubrious settings. Classes were complemented by courses on anatomy, perspective, geometry, literature and history. The Academy’s training was learned and structured, and, although it was sometimes criticized for its rigour and its insistence on discipline and uniformity, it produced superb draughtsmen.
The Male Nude: Eighteenth-Century Drawings from the Paris Academy , by Emmanuelle Brugerolles with Georges Brunel and Camille Debrabant, (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2013)