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Prix de Rome

Prix de Rome

Prix de Rome

Term applied to the premier student prize awarded by the successive state-sponsored academies in Paris. The successful painter, sculptor or architect was able to study at the Académie de France in Rome for three to five years. The Prix de Rome originated in two competitions for drawing held in 1663 at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture to stimulate rivalry between pupils and thereby invigorate the Académie's ailing teaching system. In 1664 Jean-Baptiste Colbert overhauled the Académie's statutes. Article XXIV stipulated that an annual prize was to be awarded for representations of 'the heroic actions of the King': the initial 'Prix Royal' was won by Pierre Mosnier with Jason Capturing the Golden Fleece (Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.), in which Louis XIV is shown as Jason.

There was no connection between the prize and the city of Rome until 1666, when the 'Académie de France à Rome' was established so that students might study approved examples of Classical and Renaissance art and produce high-quality copies of paintings and sculpture to be sent back to France to decorate the royal palaces. Thus, copying was from the start a major part of a pensionnaire's duties. The Grand Prix de Rome Architecture, which provided similar opportunities, was founded in 1720 by the Académie Royale d'Architecture. Provision was made for six painters, four sculptors and two architects to stay in Rome, although the inferior status of sculpture is indicated by the failure to appoint a single sculptor as Director of the Académie de France. During the 19th century, by which time responsibility had passed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, numbers were increased to 20. The prizes continued to be awarded until 1968.

Under the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the fortunes of the Prix went through various stages: a glorious era that lasted until Colbert's death in 1683, a period of stagnation and decline until the mid-18th century and a revival during the Neo-classical age. From 1674 subjects for the Prix were always taken from the Bible or ancient history, and the title 'Prix Royal' ceased. The status of the Prix became closely linked to official attitudes to history painting. As Chancellor of the Académie (1663-90), Charles LeBrun exercised considerable influence over the conduct of the competition. In 1674 a preliminary trial, consisting of a study from a male model, was introduced to weed out weaker competitors. The finalists, numbering ten at most, then had ten weeks to complete their works, which had to measure 1.14×1.46 m each. Each competitor had a small competition cell (loge) that would ensure secrecy and prevent cheating. Except for such minor adjustments as the introduction in 1768 of another preliminary test, a painted sketch of a historical subject known as an académie, the operation of the Prix changed little over the next hundred years. During this time the prize became known as 'le Grand Prix' or 'le Prix de Rome'. Conditions for its award reached their lowest point during the first two decades of the 18th century. In 1701 all entries were declared too weak, and the award was temporarily suspended. Lack of funds caused the competition to be cancelled in 1706-8, 1714 and 1718-20. This decline can be linked to a change in academic doctrine and a belief that it was unnecessary for the winner to work in Rome. A corresponding decline in the status of history painting had ramifications that were felt in the teaching system.

Changes in official policy through the Direction des Bâtiments du Roi led to the rejuvenation of history painting and of the Prix after 1750. State patronage was now ensured for the tremendous expenses involved in history painting, encouraging young artists to compete. From the late 1760s to the French Revolution almost every notable Neo-classical painter in France won the Prix: François-André Vincent (1768), Joseph-Benoît Suvée (1771), David (1774), Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1776), Jean-Germain Drouais (1784) and Anne-Louis Girodet (1789). Of these, Drouais' success was the most spectacular and critically acclaimed. David and his followers played a major role in the history of the Prix. He encouraged his pupils to compete, and this resulted in fierce rivalry among them, culminating in 1787, when François-Xavier Fabre denounced Girodet for cheating. A year earlier, the Académie had annulled the Prix, detecting a 'similarity of styles' among the entries. The 'style' in question was undoubtedly that learnt from David.

When the Académie was abolished in 1793, the Prix was not totally eradicated. It was at first transformed into a travel scholarship and was then reinstated in 1797, after the Institut de France and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts had replaced the Académie and its school. Owing to political uncertainties, however, trips to Rome were not guaranteed. David's pupils again assumed dominance: Fulchran-Jean Harriet won the prize in 1798, Ingres in 1801 and Joseph-Denis Odevaere in 1804. In fact, from 1784 until about 1820 most winners were pupils from the studios of David, Regnault or Vincent: Antoine-Jean Gros and Girodet had studied with David, Pierre Guérin with Regnault and later François-Edouard Picot with Vincent and David. Under the Institut, entry for the Prix was open to unmarried Frenchmen under the age of 30. Each candidate had first to paint a trial sketch and then an académie, after which eight or ten students were selected to pass into the final competition. They were set a historical subject and had 72 days to complete their picture. In 1816 another prize for painting was inaugurated, this time for historical landscape. It was first awarded in 1817, then only once every four years until 1863.

Developments in the framework of French art influenced the status of the Prix. Certain artists-Delacroix for example-did not bother to compete, and many critics questioned the relevance of such a prize. By 1840 the system of competition based on the categories of Classical, mythological and biblical subjects was somewhat dated, and in 1863 Viollet-Le-Duc observed that the quality of the painted entries was getting weaker and that all semblance of originality had been lost. Despite these shortcomings, the Prix was still a key stage in the development of the careers of almost every major academic artist and was an important proving ground for such future artistes pompiers as Alexandre Cabanel, who won second place in 1845, and William Bouguereau, who won in 1850. Gradually, the Prix was viewed as an irrelevant anachronism. In the 20th century the winning entries were conservative, owing in part to their subject-matter. As late as 1933 and 1934, Susanna and the Elders and Ulysses and Calypso were being set. It was not until 1961 that an abstract painting won the prize: the Marriage of Heaven and Earth (Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.) by Joel Moulin (b 1935). By then, the Prix was thought to have outlived its usefulness, although it continued to exist until 1968, when André Malraux, Minister of State for Cultural Affairs, finally abolished it.

The 'golden age' of the Prix de Rome was undoubtedly that of the late 18th century and early 19th, a time when history painting was encouraged and an elaborate and competitive studio system was in operation. At its best, the Prix stimulated emulation and rivalry among gifted and precocious pupils whose training had been geared to winning this honour. But with shifts in the dynamics of patronage and taste, the days of the Prix were numbered.

A. Lemaistre: L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts dessinée et racontée par un élève (Paris, 1889)
C. Saunier: Les Grands Prix (Paris, 1896)
Les Cinquante Derniers Premiers Grands Prix de Rome (exh. cat., Antibes, Mus. Picasso, 1977)
D. D. Egbert: The Beaux-Arts Tradition in French Architecture, Illustrated by the Grands Prix de Rome (Princeton, 1980)
A. M. Wagner: 'Learning to Sculpt in the Nineteenth Century: An Introduction', The Romantics to Rodin: French Nineteenth Century Sculpture (exh. cat., ed. H. W. Janson and P. Fusco; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A., 1980), pp. 9-20
P. Grunchec: Les Concours des Prix de Rome de 1797 à 1863, 2 vols (Paris, 1983-9)
S. Lee: Jacques-Louis David and the Prix de Rome (diss., U. Reading, 1984)
The Grand Prix de Rome: Paintings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, 1797-1863 (exh. cat. by P. Grunchec, Washington, DC, N. Acad. Des.; Richmond, VA, Mus. F.A.; Indianapolis, IN, Mus. A.; and elsewhere; 1984-5)