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Art History for Artists: Toward a Transnational History of Art Academies in the 19th Century


Dr. Eleonora Vratskidou

Financing and project duration

Supported by Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, May-October 2014; July 2015-December 2016

Project description

Art academies are hybrid institutions where various intentions, actors, and publics intersect. As training and exhibition centers, academies functioned as instances of legitimation within the artistic field. At same time, academies produced an historical and theoretical knowledge on art and played a key role in the formation of human sciences. Since the late 18th century, along with practical training, a series of courses such as history, archeology, art history and aesthetics were introduced in the academic curricula in the context of major pedagogical reforms. Art history in particular was, in many cases, taught for the first time within art academies.

Why do artists need to study the history of art? What did this knowledge bring to art practice? Inversely, in which ways were art historical discourses produced in art academies affected by the proximity to art practice? Through an analysis of the academic curricula, teaching material and professors’ profiles, this project studies art historical and other theoretical courses offered in art academies during the 19th century. Such courses have remained unexamined in the history of artistic training, as well as, in the history of art history, which focuses primarily on the university and the museum, thus neglecting the role of art academies in the institutionalization of art history. In adopting this particular entry point into the history of the discipline, the project seeks to explore anew its multiple institutional origins and modes of professionalization.

Contrary to the common tendency to regard art academies of the 19th century as rigid and conservative institutions, I argue that their art historical and other theoretical courses provided for a locus of reflexivity within established academic traditions: a place where the academic principles, values and norms were reconsidered or even severely questioned. The project further explores to what extend adapting art historical discourse to the needs of artistic training contributed to the formation of an “alternative” scholarship in comparison to that produced in universities and museums: a scholarship centered more on images, forms and techniques rather than on narratives and national-oriented historical constructions.

The project considers fine art schools in Europe and the Americas, and more precisely the cases of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf, Athens, Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro. This multi-centered research field permits to study the circulation of discourses and practices, as well as the local and international networks of artists and scholars formed around art academies. The project intends to rethink the connections between “centers” and “peripheries” and put forward the transnational construction of art history as a discipline.  

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