Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72, oil on canvas, Royal Collection.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the foundation of official academies of art secured for the artist surer claims to intellectual recognition. These academies changed the status of the artist in many ways, but particularly by creating a new system for training, with the effect of professionalising the practice of art and rationalising its study. Artists were ‘educated’ rather than ‘trained’ by following a rigourous curriculum of study based on learned theories of art which encouraged artists to model themselves on the ‘great masters’ of antiquity and the Renaissance.
A painting by Johan Zoffany of The Academicians of the Royal Academy in 1772 provides portraits of one such collection of learned men; Sir Joshua Reynolds, author of Discourses on Art and the first President of the Royal Academy, is recognisable in the centre by his prominent ear trumpet. But the painting is also intended to convey the ‘ideal’ of the academic artist. The Academicians are shown in casual, confident poses, dressed as gentlemen of rank, participating in discussion of the nude. They are in the life-room of the Royal Academy, surrounded by classical casts and life models. Within academic curriculum the study of the naked human form was the most privileged course, and the nude was considered to be the basis for the supreme achievements of great artists. The Academicians are presented as learned and at ease with their learning. They are men of reason. Thus Zoffany’s painting can be seen as both a portrait and an idealised depiction. It is about eighteenth-century notions of the nature of the artist and the manner in which art should be pursued and practised.
There were, however, two female members of the Royal Academy, Mary Moser (1744-1819) and Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). But they could not be accommodated in this image. In the interests of historical accuracy Moser and Kauffman could not be entirely excluded from an official group portrait of the Academicians, but they could not be included in a group discussing the nude model. Women were not allowed by the Academy to study in the life-class and this prohibition may have been so strong that Zoffany could not, even in a painting, show women Academicians in the same room as naked male models. It is nevertheless strange that Zoffany indicated their membership only by murky, uninformative and almost unrecognisable portraits on the right-hand wall. He did not even depict their faces with the same scrupulous care that enables us to identify all of their male colleagues.
Although their membership is recorded in this way it is highly significant that women artists could only be present as pictures within a picture and that their features were so differently portrayed that they could be easily mistaken for part of the studio furniture, on a par with the casts and models amongst which the educated gentlemen of the Academy stand or lounge. RP GP
The above article is taken from Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock‘s ground-breaking Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. Re-issued this month, this updated edition offers a radical challenge to a women-free Art History.