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Academism (fr. academisme) is an art movement in painting and sculpture, which was based on ancient Greek aesthetics, the traditions of antiquity and the dogmatic imitation of classical art forms. Academic artists preferred naturalism, accuracy and technicality of creating, considering them more important than inspiration and creative approach to the subject.
Academism began to appear in the late 16th century, when educational institutions teaching drawing and painting according to the postulates of classical art began to appear in large European cultural centres. The style was based on knowledge of composition and perspective, the use of foreshortening, chiaroscuro, and brilliant proficiency in drawing. The academism paintings are distinguished by excellent technique, great attention to small details, idealization of the subjects.
Academic teaching was based on imitation of the great artists – Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rubens – and raised their principles and techniques to the level of the unshakable canons. “Not a single step away from the classics” — this is the essence of academism, preached by almost all the official art academies. Drawings and nude pictures, called the “academies”, became the basis of training. At first, students got acquainted with the principles of contour, light and shadow, copying classic engravings. Then they painted plaster casts of famous classical sculptures. After passing the exam, it was possible to start classes in which they drew from live models. And only after that it was possible to enter a workshop of an academician and learn to paint with a brush. Students spent a lot of time copying pictures of old masters adopting their methods.
European academism artists preferred subjects from mythology and ancient history, which allowed to manifest the beauty of the human body, the purity and impeccability of the subjects. The technical level of the paintings strove for virtuosity, whereas the artists were limited in their themes. Academism implied idealization and simplification of forms, thematic generalizations filled with “eternal”, abstract meanings and allegories, rejecting realistic art.
Being advanced schools of the theory and practice of art, Art Academies certainly played a positive role. However, conservatism and dogmatism, the restriction of artistic freedom, the narrow scope of subjects and formal means (composition, colour, technique) caused a strong reaction among progressive artists. In the second half of the 19th century, realism and romanticism began to penetrate into academism, the subjects became more dramatic, socially significant, the colour scheme became more saturated. New directions in painting appeared – impressionism, modernism, symbolism, surrealism.