French painters in Italy and drawings after the Antique in the beginning of the 19th century

Louis Marchesano

Because it still seems necessary for young people of your profession to spend some time in Rome in order to form their taste and style from the originals and the greatest masters of antiquity … and the last centuries…His Majesty has resolved to send [to Rome] a certain number [of students]…under the tutelage of an excellent master who can direct them in their studies and give them the good taste and style of the ancients, and who will  point out to them, in the works they will copy, those beauties, secret and almost inimitable,  that escape the attention of the majority.

(Jean-Baptiste Colbert to Nicolas Poussin, 1664.)

Under the aegis of the French Crown that wanted to transform Paris into an artistic capital, the French Academy in Rome was established in 1666 to accommodate what had already been a well-established practice amongst artists: improving their skills, taste, and knowledge by copying and absorbing the city’s artistic riches. Imitation and emulation remained the bedrock of artistic pedagogy well into the modern period and it was within this context that French artists were committed to ancient monuments. Painters and architects made their way to Rome as pensionnaires, winners of the coveted Prix de Rome; those who did not win this state-sponsored stipend often found support to travel through other means. The competition for the Rome prize was administered in Paris by the official art academies (and after the Revolution by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts) that considered the academy in Rome a satellite school where France’s most promising artists could complete a curriculum of advanced training grounded in imitation.

Over the course of 3 to 5 years, students were meant to study a canon of the fine arts within a program of instruction. While the program evolved over the following centuries, what remained constant was the curiosity of artists who wandered the city and filled their sketchbooks with a wide range of objects, including antiquities-- many of which had little to do with the approved canon. They explored and exchanged ideas about marble figures and ruined buildings with a freedom that only a sketchbook could accommodate. Sculptors and painters such as Antoine-Léonard Dupasquier (1748-1832)(see manuscript) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) (see manuscript), drew entire marble figures, recorded details such as a sandals or chairs, and teased out a particularly interesting gestures and expressions, often manipulating and changing what they saw in order to improve upon the work of their ancient counterparts. Architects such as Marie-Joseph Peyre (1730-1788) (see manuscript) and Jules-Frédéric Bouchet (1799-1860) obsessed over the details and textures of architectural fragments, made measured drawings of buildings and reconstructed them on paper, and recorded the effect of light, shadow, and perspective on a viewer’s perception of an edifice and its proportions. Some of these travelers returned to Paris and published what they discovered so that the new generation of French artists could trace and draw the remains of Rome long before they travelled to the Eternal City.