The apostolic succession of academic art

Artistic influences from Perugino to Manet are made clear

In his previous book, Missing Masterpieces (2003), Gert-Rudolf Flick investigated 24 case histories; lost works of art from the 15th to the late-19th centuries. In Masters and Pupils he covers more or less the same period, turning his attention

to 18 artists who, in an “apostolic succession”, carried the torch of the academic tradition in Western art. Of the artists selected by the author, six are Italian and 12 are French, indicating the central role played in the present narrative by members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, founded in Paris in 1648. However, as Dr Flick demonstrates, the passing of the academic baton from Italy to France actually took place some years earlier through the agency of Giovanni Lanfranco, who in Rome influenced the Lyons painter, Horace Le Blanc. Whether, however, Le Blanc was Lanfranco’s “pupil”, in the strict sense of the word, is—as Dr Flick concedes—conjecture.

In the first two chapters of this absorbing and erudite book, Dr Flick considers the relationship between one of the most famous masters, Perugino, and his most celebrated pupil, Raphael. According to Giorgio Vasari, one of Perugino’s problems was his desire for financial gain, and his consequent practice of churning out too many pictures at the expense of quality (a familiar story). Yet, as Dr Flick points out, it was this need that led Perugino to make extensive use of “pattern-books” and to collaborate closely with pupils, assistants and other masters—a key aspect of the burgeoning academic tradition. And while Raphael was Perugino’s finest pupil, he was also the best of a considerable bunch.

The day-to-day business of the Renaissance workshop inevitably takes centre stage in Dr Flick’s account of the relations between Perugino and Raphael, as the author picks his way expertly through the minefield of attribution that bedevils the subject. In the earlier chapters, and as the book progresses, Rome continues to occupy centre stage in the narrative. Yet, as Dr Flick reveals in illuminating and original chapters on Perino del Vaga and Prospero Fontana, the role of Genoa as a catalyst for academic art is also a vital piece of the jigsaw. Far better known, and examined by Dr Flick in the fifth chapter, is the seminal place occupied by Bologna, the location of the academy founded in the 1580s by the Carraccis, including Agostino and Ludovico who had both trained under Fontana. And while the story of the Carraccis is well known, the material is given a fresh slant here, particularly in the discussion of the relative personalities of Agostino and Annibale; the former plodding and pedantic, the latter impetuous and impatient. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Dr Flick’s book is its ability to synthesise existing material in a questioning manner, while at the same time uncovering new avenues for exploration. Thus, while Perugino and Raphael, Vien and David, and Couture and Manet are celebrated masters and pupils, we encounter along the way less familiar members of the academic family such as Louis de Boullogne and Louis Galloche, an understanding of whose role is vital in the development of the French pedagogical tradition.

The tone of this beautifully produced and well researched volume is serious yet never solemn; thus, for example, Joseph-Marie Vien’s domestic antique subjects Burning Incense on a Tripod and Woman Getting out of a Bath, are described as “Chardin and Boucher ‘in translation’”. The meatiest chapter, certainly in terms of characterisation, is that devoted to Jacques-Louis David, “the monstre sacré” of French art, who, as Vien remarked, when honoured by his egregious pupil: “My friends, I only half opened the door, David pushed it in.” And how? In 1793 he abolished the Académie, while his own studio became synonymous with the French “school”. Yet, while David could be controlling and divisive, Dr Flick concludes that he also adopted a “remarkably tolerant and helpful attitude towards his students”—of whom there were around 400. Even so, while the academic tradition lingered on well into the 19th century, its authority was by now irredeemably undermined, as the gradual demise of Couture and his beleaguered attempts to revive a national school of art demonstrate. Manet spent six fraught years under Couture’s tutelage where his inability to toe the line resulted in his master’s rebuke: “If you aspire to be the head of a school, start one, but not here.” And, in a sense he did—even though he scarcely had a single pupil.

Martin Postle

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