Discover artist Hobbema’s most famous painting, the definition of academicism, and how a celebrated 19th-century artist has been ignored for decades.
Q. Which 17th-century painter took a position as a wine gauger with the Amsterdam customs and excise?
A. Meindert Hobbema
Dutch Baroque painter Hobbema (1638-1709) was a master of landscapes depicting woods, hedges, mills, and pools. In fact he painted these favorite subjects of his – particularly water-mills and trees around a pond – over and over again. Hobbema has been a popular artist in England, and his influence seems to appear in Gainsborough’s early landscapes.
In 1668 he married the kitchen-maid of an Amsterdam burgomaster (similar to a mayor) and became one of the wine-gaugers of the Amsterdam octroi, a form of customs and excise officer (similar to a tax collector). The post was well-paid and he held it to the end of his life. After his appointment, he seems to have painted only in his spare time. His most famous work, “The Avenue at Middelharnis” (1689), currently at the National Gallery in London, dates from this timeframe.
Q. Which 17th-century painter was appointed Director of the Gobelins factory in 1663?
A. Charles Le Brun
In 1663, French theorist and painter Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was head of the Gobelins factory where the Royal tapestries were created and later became director of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) in Paris. Here he laid the basis of the study of academic art, or “official” art, and became the absolute master of 17th-century French art.
Le Brun based his theory of painting on artistic principles that were meant to guarantee accuracy and to ensure that the message, the emotions, and the expressions portrayed in the artwork were immediately recognizable to the public. Students of academicism studied these principles over and over to ensure their subjects were correctly rendered. Le Brun also devoted much time to the study and meaning of symbols; including symbols enabled him to add subtle elements and meaning to his carefully composed paintings. For example, in an altarpiece created for King Louis XIV, a grizzled old man represents Winter, a laurel wreath symbolizes victory, and a personification of Peace holds a laurel wreath and a horn of plenty. Viewers with similar understanding of symbols could easily conceive of the painting’s meaning.
Academic art, or “Academicism,” produced artwork under the influence of European universities. These artists practiced in the styles of Neoclassicism (inspired by western classical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome) and Romanticism (a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature in art) in an attempt to synthesize the two distinct styles. The work is best captured in the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In his time, Bouguereau was a celebrated and highly commercially successful artist. He produced 826 paintings in all. His subject matter portrays children and realistic domestic scenes, as well as scenes from the classics and mythology, rendered with tenderness and sentimentality. He is known for a use of rich colors. His technical skill is unsurpassed.
Especially as modern art took over our culture’s sensibilities, academicism has been ridiculed for its portrayal of idealism, its insistence on high standards of technical skill and beauty, its adherence to traditions, and its depiction of sentimental subjects. Since the 1960s, for example, Bouguereau has been totally ignored in art history classes and is not mentioned in encyclopedia.
Lately academic art has gained a resurgence of interest in the ateliers. Interestingly, it has never fallen out of favor with the public.
- Bailey, Colin J. The Art Quiz Book: 2000+ Questions on Painters and Paintings. Station Press: Scotland, 1995.
- Grove Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press, 2006.