Firefighter art, an official art

Firefighter art, an official art

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  • Birth of Venus.

    CABANEL Alexandre (1823 - 1889)

  • Napoleon III.

    CABANEL Alexandre (1823 - 1889)

  • Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild.

    GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

  • Madame Léopold Stern.

    BONNAT Léon (1833 - 1922)

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Title: Birth of Venus.

Author : CABANEL Alexandre (1823 - 1889)

Creation date : 1863

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 130 - Width 225

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 01-015735 / RF273

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - T. Le Mage

To close

Title: Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild.

Author : GEROME Jean-Léon (1824 - 1904)

Creation date : 1866

Date shown: 1866

Dimensions: Height 49.6 - Width 35.8

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 04-508694 / RF2004-9

Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Madame Léopold Stern.

Author : BONNAT Léon (1833 - 1922)

Creation date : 1879

Date shown: 1879

Dimensions: Height 138 - Width 108

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Bonnat Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojedasite web

Picture reference: 98-015438 / CM2667

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: February 2011

Historical context

The fine arts system

In the XIXe century, the academic system in place since the reign of Louis XIV continues to rule artistic life. Placed under the control of the members of the Academy of Fine Arts, created in 1816, the School ensures the preeminence of the precepts of classicism: drawing and copying works remain the two privileged means of access to the arts, and Antiquity remains the absolute reference.

To learn how to render shapes, the students of the School practiced drawing from nature or from the antique, practical training which they completed in private workshops or at the Louvre. The public was enthusiastic about these academic artists who, true to the official "pompierist" aesthetic, enjoyed full accolades throughout much of the 19th century.

Image Analysis

An official art

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1899), winner of a second Prix de Rome in 1845 and professor at the School of Fine Arts, achieved fame with this Birth of Venus which he presented at the Salon of 1863, a canvas which the Emperor Napoleon III immediately purchased for his personal collection. While not always popular with critics, this erotic female nude was nonetheless a resounding success among Salon visitors. Thanks to his pastel tones and to a learned technique which inscribes it in the purest academic tradition, the painter has in fact veiled the attractions of mythology, unlike the Luncheon on the Grass by Manet, presented the same year at the Salon des refusés and considered much more trivial. This work marks the beginning of the official career of the painter, completely devoted to the reigning bourgeoisie.

Napoleon III commissioned several paintings from Alexandre Cabanel, who quickly became familiar with the imperial court. In 1865, the painter sent to the Salon this official full-length portrait in which the emperor poses with a certain naturalness in evening dress, his chest barred with the large red ribbon of the Legion of Honor. Arranged beside him on a table, the official insignia of sovereignty, the crown, the ermine mantle and the hand of justice, bring solemnity to the scene. Very popular with the imperial couple, this painting took place in the study of Empress Eugenie at the Tuileries.

At the same time, another artist was also covered with honors: Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), leader of the neo-Greek style and the hyperrealist current, appointed professor at the School of Fine Arts in 1864 then member of the Institute. Among the small number of portraits he painted during his long career, that of Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild, dated 1866, represents a figure of the Parisian upper middle class. Attracted by the visual arts, Charlotte de Rothschild practiced watercolor and regularly exhibited her works at the Salon. She also assembled a very eclectic collection, and it is to evoke this facet of the baroness that Gérôme chose to represent her in her luxurious interior. As in the portrait of the latter's mother, painted by Ingres, one of Gérôme's masters, the model stands in front of a fireplace adorned with precious objects and several canvases. At the same time as they reflect the dominant aesthetic, the painter's very smooth manner and the precision with which he represents the baroness's living environment testify to his ethnographic interest in the way people lived, whether they were her contemporary or that they belong to the past.


Firefighter art: an art long deprecated

This dominant aesthetic, where accuracy competes with the profusion of details and the excessive richness of the palette, soon earned him the pejorative qualifier of "fireman". The origin of this term is mysterious: it derives sometimes from the characters in David's paintings, which resemble the firefighters of the 1830s, sometimes from the arrogant, pompous character of the paintings of the time. Depending on who uses it, the word alternately designates the too smooth, too neat pictorial technique, the baroque accumulation of insignificant details, the saturation of bright colors, the search for the sensational, the adoption of a classic false ideal. and the excessive and servile attachment to the theories of classicism. In general, it targets the official academic art that reigned supreme in the XIXe century and whose representatives are trained and rewarded by the major state institutions, School of Fine Arts, Academy, Salon.

Currents of modern art, in the first place Impressionism, arose in reaction to this omnipresence of fireman art. The conflict between academic art and the Impressionists erupted in 1863, when Napoleon III was forced to open a Salon where works refused by the jury of the official Salon could be exhibited. With the birth of the Salon des refusés, the split was consumed between the proponents of academic art and innovative artists.

During most of the twentiethe century, the art of firefighting continues to be criticized by critics, who see it as the embodiment of 19th century bad taste. It is only since the 1970s that it has been gradually reassessed (which is evidenced in particular by the opening, in 1986, of the Musée d'Orsay) and that we recognize the influence of the academic system on the formation of currents. and avant-gardes which will follow it.

To know more about The birth of Venus de Cabanel, visit the website Panorama of art

  • Acadamy of Arts
  • fireman (art)
  • official portrait
  • rome price
  • neo-Greek


Laurence DES CARS, Dominique DE FONT-RÉAULX and Édouard PAPET (eds.), Exhibition catalog Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). History on show, Orsay Museum, Paris, October 19, 2010 - January 23, 2011, Paris, Orsay-Skira-Flammarion Museum, 2010. Philippe GRUNCHEC, exhibition catalog The Prix de Rome competitions, 1797-1863, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 8 October-14 December 1986, Paris, É.N.S.B.A., 1986. James HARDING, The Painters firefighters. Academic painting in France from 1830 to 1880, Paris, Flammarion, 1980.Louis-Marie LECHARNY, Firefighter Art, Paris, P.U.F., coll. "What do I know? », 1998.Cécile RITZENTHALER, The 19th century School of Fine Arts. Firefighters, Paris, Mayer, 1987.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "The art of firefighter, an official art"


  • Fireman: Adjective which ironically designates the official art of the second half of the 19th century. The term refers to the firefighters who monitored the Show. Their helmets and colorful uniforms recalled the taste of these academic artists for fanciful representations of Antiquity.
  • Academy of Fine Arts: Created in 1816 by the union of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648, the Academy of Music, founded in 1669 and the Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671. Institution which brings together artists distinguished by an assembly of peers and usually working for the crown. It defines the rules of art and good taste, trains artists, organizes exhibitions.

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