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Interchanges between Paris and Rome after 1600
The 17th century saw significant artistic change in France. Rome remained Europe’s artistic centre. French painters moved there, studying and copying the art of antiquity and the Renaissance. Many of these painters, such as Simon Vouet, returned to Paris, while Nicolas Poussin and others remained and became Rome’s leading artists, and others, such as Sébastien Bourdon, moved on to establish careers elsewhere.
A style commonly called French Classicism developed through the interchanges between Rome, Paris and other centres. Poussin is considered one of the originators of Classicism, a style that merged the rationalism of the Renaissance, the narratives and idealism of antiquity and a French stylistic sensibility.
The century also saw an increasingly close relationship in France between art and the state. Painting performed a central role in the process of transforming France from a series of fragmented regions and communities to a highly centralised and unified nation with a common identity, economy and political structure. The reigns of Louis XIII (1610–1643) and Louis XIV (1643–1715) saw art, literature and science actively involved in the process of building a sense of France as a unified and powerful nation. Court painters received generous commissions to decorate religious and state buildings with paintings that allegorised the glories of France and the king.
The significant relationship between art and the state was also expressed in the establishment of the Académie Royal in Paris in 1648. The Académie was intended as a training ground for great French artists. It introduced students to a highly disciplined, rigorous learning program modelled on the practice and the ideals of Poussin.
The Académie maintained clear, hierarchical distinctions between different genres. History painting – the depiction of a historical or mythological narrative with multiple figures – was considered more significant than portraiture, landscape and still life, regarded simply as copies of nature. In order to win the Académie’s biggest student prize – the prestigious Prix de Rome that from the 1660s entitled the winner to a scholarship and a three- to five-year stay in Rome – entrants needed to produce a resolved history painting. On return to Paris, after absorbing the lessons of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, the winner was almost assured a fruitful career completing large-scale public and private commissions.
At the century’s end, the Académie had become the most powerful artistic body in France, as surely as Paris had begun to supersede Rome as the dominant cultural centre.
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