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Moving Up in the World
In the world today, most successful artists are what we would term "upper middle-class." A few "stars" are probably well above that. Two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, even a successful artist tended to live a very modest existence in what we would call lower-class neighbourhoods. Most supported a family of five or more in two or three rooms over the "store" so to speak, eking out a living as best they could doing what the could. Even a successful portrait painter would find himself also painting signs for the local gentry or decorating furniture for the local cabinet maker just to make ends meet. And often, his "digs" were so crude he was forced to do his "important" work in the homes of his clients. The status of the painter in society may have moved up somewhat from the just-another-craftsman level of pre-Renaissance times, but economically they were usually pretty much amongst the downtrodden.

One thing changed all that--national art academies. Once official, state-sanctioned and supported art academies became prominent, those who successfully exhibited in their salons began to milk the prestige for all it was worth. This was especially the case in London and Paris. By mid-century, so-called "Academic Artists" were quite upwardly mobile. London's Lord Leighton had a mansion in fashionable Holland Park designed by the prominent English architect, George Aitchison, with an exotic Arab vestibule; while Randolph Caldecott's home featured a Moorish-style studio with rich Persian tiles and a mosaic fountain. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's home had two studios, one in a Pompeiian style for himself and a second, decorated in heavy German panelling, for his wife. In Paris, Ernest Meissonier had built for himself a luxurious Neo-Renaissance palace. For all their straightjacketing, stratifying, decadent ills, the national art academies had the positive effect of lifting the status of their artists to undreamed-of heights within just a few decades.

And what did these Academic artist trade for their new-found prosperity? Some might say, quite literally their souls. Prizes in a Salon show often brought Royal patronage, but such patronage was limited to grandiose portraits, propagandising history painting, sanitised mythological works, and religious paintings so vapid that they would today be considered "Sunday School" illustrations. Above all, there would be female nudes, dozens of them, sometimes in the same painting. By the end of the century, the Pompiers had very nearly elevated such work to a cult status. Any story, religious, allegorical, or mythological scene that could in any way logically contain a female nude was pounced upon like dogs on a bone, then played to the hilt. But always it had to be of high moral character. In 1878, for example, the Academic painter, Henri Gervex, painted a scene from the poem, Rolla, by Alfred de Musset, in which he depicted Maria, a young prostitute, lying out naked on her bed, her clothes in a pile beside her while at a window, Rolla, a dashing but desperate bon-vivant, contemplates suicide. Even for an Academic Salon show in which there were probably more nudes than clothed figures, this was too much. The painting was banned for its moral deprivation. Gervex, though an "academically correct" artist, had gone too far.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 June 1999

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