Under the high ceilings of his room and studio in the Villa Medici in Rome, Léon Pallière rested casually. He was a fine arts student who had studied painting at the Paris Academy before coming to Rome for his education – as a ‘retiree’ of the French Academy. When the intimate portrait was painted in 1817, the young man was at the end of his five-year scholarship and about to return to France to begin his artistic career. In the picture, the room opens up to a wide view and is filled with all sorts of everyday objects that testify to the indelible experience of his life abroad intertwined with art, history and the breezy allure of the Eternal City.
For young artists working in France in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Rome was the ultimate destination, the ideal training ground to immerse yourself in the relics of antiquity and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was its reputation as an artistic hub. During the Middle Ages, the crumbling ruins of the old capital represented its cultural stagnation and were believed to create a “bad air” that delayed its artistic development. Only in the 15th and 16th centuries did artists begin to recognize the achievements of the ancients and seriously study their sculptural and architectural relics.
Initially imitative, these innovators drew from the “Renaissance” of antiquity an artistic essence that helped them create works that in turn celebrated their own new epoch. In the post-Renaissance period, ancient remains were valued as classical works, as well as works of art by masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Annibale Carracci and Nicolas Poussin. Rome, which boasted a wealth of ancient and classical art, thus began to attract emerging artists from across Europe.
Descending from a line of legendary painters, the young Pallière was particularly privileged to win the ‘Rome Prize’ – a prestigious government grant which enabled five years of undisturbed study at the French Academy in Rome. Established in 1663 under the reign of Louis XIV, the Wandering Prize marked the beginning of some distinguished careers – Boucher and Fragonard, David and Ingres, who owed much of their achievement to the early Roman sojourn.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte moved the Academy to the beautiful and tranquil Villa Medici, a Renaissance palace and garden that has housed the institution ever since. Each year, students in Paris competed fiercely for this unique opportunity, but only one was chosen from each discipline. The triumphant painter, sculptor, and architect would then embark on the two-month journey to the Eternal City, where they would continue their rigorous training and relentless advancement. Because the youthful success was only the beginning of a tedious path, on which one not only allowed oneself to be measured against one’s peers, but also against the important tradition, which had repeatedly produced great artistic flowering.
Indeed, the books, sculptures and drawings depicted in Pallière’s portrait betray the hard work of the aspiring young man. Today, however, few non-specialists in French painting may have heard his name. Winner of the 1812 prize, Pallière graduated and then painted an altarpiece for a French church in Rome before dying shortly thereafter. A fellow student, François-Édouard Picot, winner the following year, later had a successful career painting historical and mythological scenes, but he is best remembered as an educator, teaching academic artists such as Gustave Moreau, Alexandre Cabanel, and William Bouguereau . Jean Alaux, a fellow pensioner in Rome and author of Pallière’s portrait, eventually directed the Villa Medici after the tenure of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
With the exception of the Neoclassical Ingres and the Symbolist Moreau, the reputation of these successful painters was largely eclipsed by the emergence of Impressionist and Modernist art, which struggled to break away from the rigorous training and prescribed rules of the Academy. But these so-called “constraints” – whether it be the accurate representation of the human figure or the skillful rendering of perspective space – were in reality nothing more than the basic building blocks in building a visual narrative.
These building blocks allow the composition of bodies and objects in an image that can express myriad stories and feelings. Through arduous years of study, the art academy managed to develop an elaborate pedagogical system that transmitted the achievements of the Renaissance from Italy to France and beyond. For contemporary artists, this academic tradition might well serve not as a constraint but as a productive source of inspiration.