|The nearly forty French drawings of male nude figures on view at the Wallace Collection were drawn between the late seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries. Lent by France’s equivalent of the Royal Academy, the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, many of the extraordinary drawings are by artists represented in the Wallace Collection, such as Rigaud, Boucher, Nattier, Carle van Loo, Gros and Jean-Baptiste Isabey.|
The Hertfords did not collect many academic or historical works, for which these drawings were the basis, though the 4th Marquess did acquire an outstanding group of paintings by Boucher.
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. 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 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)!
The Academy’s training was learned and structured, and, although it was sometimes criticized for its rigour and insistence on discipline and uniformity, it produced superb draughtsmen. Some of the artists featured became painting Masters of their generation, focusing on historical and allegorical pictures. Others utilised their training in a variety of artistic fields, including Bachelier, who went on to assume the role of Director of Design and Decoration at the Sèvres porcelain factory, influencing many of the pieces exhibited in the Wallace Collection.
As a descendant of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the Ėcole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts owns an incomparable collection of these académies which have come down to it directly from the Academy’s teaching classes.
The Wallace Collection Website
Please click here for an overview of the exhibition 'Masculine / Masculine: The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day' on view at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris until 2 January 2014.