National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s
Overview

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On 2 January 1769, under the patronage of King George III, the Royal Academy met for its first session. The official title of this elite institution is "Royal Academy in London for the Purpose of Cultivating and Improving the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture," but artists, then and now, simply call it "The R.A." The painters among the R.A.'s founding members were its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds; the portraitist Thomas Gainsborough; the landscapist Richard Wilson; and Benjamin West, a colonial American who became president upon Reynolds' death in 1792.

The functions of the academy were many. It acted as a school to train young artists as well as a guild to govern the conduct and pricing of established masters. It mounted exhibitions to display recent work to fellow artists, critics, and collectors. And it presented lectures and published catalogues to elevate public taste. For more than a century, London's Royal Academy established the highest cultural standards in the English-speaking world.

The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibitions

Opening in London in early May, the Royal Academy's summer exhibitions have been held annually since 1769. Admission fees and catalogue sales for these popular events made the R.A. self-sustaining. Its financial success even allowed it to grant pensions to needy artists.

Each year, a screening committee would cull several hundred works of art for display from thousands of submitted entries. A hanging committee then arranged the exhibition. Much politicking was involved in the placement of paintings, especially for the best positions at eye level, or "on the line."

To save wall space, pictures were hung frame-by-frame from chair rail to ceiling. The higher canvases, sometimes more than five tiers overhead, were tilted forward to enhance visibility and reduce glare. The huge, sky-lit galleries reverberated with the noise of the thronging crowds who, as usual at social occasions in Georgian England, brought their hunting hounds and lap dogs.

Until the late 1800s, almost every important artist in Britain was elected to the Royal Academy or, at least, occasionally displayed work at its annual exhibitions. (William Blake and Gilbert Stuart are among the many who exhibited but never became members.) There are only two major exceptions. The fashionable portraitist George Romney refused to resign from another artistic society, which violated the R.A.'s exclusive membership laws. And the bitter envy of other architects barred entry to Scotland's neoclassical designer Robert Adam.

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