The first thing that is required, as the foundation of everything else, is that the matter and the subject should be something lofty, such as battles, heroic actions, and religious themes…The painter…. must select [the subject] of such a nature that it may be endowed with every ornament and perfection; but those who select lowly subjects seek refuge in them because of the infirmity of their minds.
Of all the genres of painting, history is without question the most important. The history painter alone is the painter of the soul, the others only paint for the eye. He alone can bring into play that enthusiasm, that divine spark which makes him conceive his subjects in a powerful, sublime manner; he alone can create heroes for posterity, through the great actions and the virtues of the famous men he presents; so the public does not coldly read about but actually sees the performers and their deeds. Who does not know the advantage of the faculty of sight has over all the others, and the power it has over our soul to bring about the deepest, most sudden impression?
The French artistic tradition exerted the greatest influence in Europe around the time when Louis XIV founded the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648. Rules governing appropriate techniques, subjects, and styles were implemented and followed in order to preserve the standards of French culture that were soon imitated throughout the courts in Europe. Although over a century apart, examine the works of Eustache Le Sueur and the artist from the School of Jacques-Louis David–both prominent academicians of their day– to identify the similarities in subject and presentation. How did the fact that this style was set forth and institutionalized by a monarch impact the legacy of French art?
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According to the hierarchy of genres put forth by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the highest subject that an artist can depict is that of great and noble people- whether in mythology or from the Bible. Only “noble” subjects are deserving of such grand artworks.
In both of these paintings, the figures seem formal and idealized–the perfect “type” endowed with smooth skin and graceful features. Even the poor shepherds of the fields are clean, well-mannered, and pose in a way that is deemed worthy to be part of such a noble scene.
Considering the ornate frame and large size of these works, it is clear that they are intended for public, auspicious spaces. In France, art was considered to be an uplifting, moralizing force and was often commissioned and supported by monarchs, churches, and other prominent institutions.
*Nicolas Poussin, “Observations on Painting” in Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti moderni (Rome, 1675). English translation quoted in Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin (London: Phaidon, 1967).
**Originally published anonymously as Réflexions sur quelques causes de l’état present de la peinture en France. Avec un examen des principaux Ouvrages exposés au Louvre le mois d’Août 1746 (The Hague: Jean Neaulme, 1747). English translation by Belinda Thomson and Christopher Miller, Art in Theory 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000).