Academy of Arts

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The idea of founding an Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg was first mooted by Peter the Great, but it was not until 1757, primarily on the initiative of Ivan Shuvalov, that the project was realized. Shuvalov, its first president, commissioned a large, neoclassical edifice on the banks of the Neva to house the institution, and in 1764 Catherine II gave it its first charter, based on that of the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture, which had been established in Paris in 1648. Following the French example, the Academy developed a system of instruction in painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts that emphasized the study of old masters and the antique, and which prioritized subjects of historical significance. However, the Academy was not created primarily to fulfill state commissions, as had been the case in France, but aimed instead to professionalize practice in the visual arts. Students followed a regimented system, and all graduates who fulfilled the program were entitled to fourteenth rank in the civil service Table of Ranks. Those who won the major gold medal competition were also granted the opportunity to study abroad for three to six years with a travel scholarship from the Academy. Students were required to complete regular assignments, which, along with the Academy's growing collection of casts, copies, and original works by western European artists, formed an invaluable teaching resource.

In the nineteenth century, the role of the Academy changed as its activities became increasingly harnessed to state interests. Beginning in 1802, national monuments could only be erected with the approval of the Academy; this had the effect of casting it in the role of an official arbiter of taste. Nicholas I then took an active interest in the Academy's affairs, appointing his favorites as professors and pronouncing on the direction that he felt the work of its students should follow. This growing association between the Academy and the court culminated with the appointment of Nicholas's son-in-law Maximilian, Duke of Leuchtenberg, as president in 1843, after which the institution was continually headed by a member of the imperial family.

By this time, the Academy was being criticized for the rigidity of its training program, particularly since the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, though partially dependent on the Academy's program, actively supported new trends in art. Opposition came to a head in 1863, when fourteen students led by the painter Ivan Kramskoy requested permission to choose their own subject for the annual gold medal competition. When this was refused, thirteen of them left, working initially in a commune known as the Artel. Subsequently they joined the Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions, a group of realist artists that dominated the artistic scene for the next twenty years. The Academy attempted to counter this threat by launching its own travelling exhibitions in 1886, and in 1893 effected a partial rapprochement with some of the realists, who joined its teaching staff. However, its position of authority had been irredeemably undermined. In the Soviet era, the Academy encompassed teaching institutes in various cities, including the Repin Institute in the original building in St. Petersburg. It became a bastion of Socialist Realism in the 1930s and 1940s, but it has since regained its status as a respected center for the study and practice of the fine arts.

See also: education; nationalism in the arts; socialist realism


Pevsner, Nicholas. (1940). Academies of Art: Past and Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Valkenier, Elizabeth. K. (1989). Russian Realist Art: The State and Society: The Peredvizhniki and Their Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosalind P. Blakesley

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Academy of Arts

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Academy of Arts