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The Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the Ancien Régime: New Perspectives

Marc Fumaroli, Collège de France
Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, fall 2011

I accepted the very generous offer of a two-month appointment as Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor at CASVA because it presented the opportunity — among many others — to concentrate for a sustained period on one of the primary subjects of my current research on the arts in France under Louis XV, particularly the work of the antiquarian, man of letters, and member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières, comte de Caylus (1692 – 1765).

A particular point of interest for me is the Parisian “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” a debate that drew parallels between Ancients and Moderns in the arts as well as in literature and that opposed science and the scientific progress of the Moderns to the enduring value of classical beauty and poetry. Another pressing question for me concerns the rise and fall, during the eighteenth century, of the anticlassical style called rocaille in the French arts. This rise and fall imply, in my view, a persistence and even reinforcement of the most important debate of the Quarrel: the natural legitimacy of the new and the cultural authority of the ancient. An ironic turn elicited a perception of the new (the rocaille style) as a decadent and “gothic” error and caused the poetry of the Ancients to recover, first, in heightened form, its moral and aesthetic authority and then, with revolutionary undertones, its republican civic exemplarity.

French art history has taken little interest in the rocaille phenomenon. Most of its energy has been dedicated to the neoclassical reaction against the rocaille, in line with the ancien régime myth of the classical painter Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) and the modern republican myths of revolution and empire, which are iconographically associated with neoclassical decor and art. American scholars, however, such as Fiske Kimball, Thomas Crow, Katie Scott, and Melissa Hyde, among others, have devoted serious and sympathetic study to the rocaille taste, mostly overlooked today in its French fatherland.

The collections of the National Gallery of Art and its library contain many rocaille masterpieces — paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, and rare books — which, in combination with the nearby Library of Congress and its almost exhaustive collection of North American scholarship on French history and art, provided me with the opportunity to discover new visual examples of the rocaille style and to consult numerous recent publications that treat these subjects. CASVA’s excellent resources, too, have allowed me to complete my documentation concerning the period in question and the main character of my next book — about the life and times of the comte de Caylus — whom I will demonstrate to have been instrumental in the invention and diffusion of the first version of French neoclassicism, the “goût à la grecque.”

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