Academic art grew out of a highly structured European training method that produced art based on classical ideals. Artists at academies where educated in a specific, systematic way. Through the patronage of European aristocracy, art schools, known as academies, were established throughout Europe. Florence, Italy, was home to the first art academy, which opened in 1563 during the Renaissance. Art academies became even more influential in the 17th century with the opening of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Eventually, academic art was pushed aside in favor of modern art, but many of the methods in academic art are still used to educate artists even in 2011.
Academic art academies had strict training methods based on classical theory. Most academies focused on drawing as the basis for both painting and sculpture, and students practiced drawing casts of classical sculptures before they could move on to drawing a live model. Students could not begin to paint until they had proven themselves to be adept in drawing. The academies also emphasized the intellectual development of young artists by offering courses in history and philosophy.
Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici established the first academy in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance in 1563 under the guidance of Giorgio Vasari, an artist, architect and art historian. The school was called the Academy and Company for the Arts of Drawing. The Medici family formed its wealth through textiles and banking, and had a long-established history of art patronage, supporting artists like Leonardo di Vinci, and later Raphael and Michelangelo. At the Academy and Company for Arts of Drawing the study of anatomy was essential to helping students depict the human form in a realistic style, which was a hallmark of academic art. In order to gain a better understanding of perspective, students also studied geometry — the theory of creating a three-dimensional effects.
The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture opened in 1648. The intent of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was to elevate artists above the status of craftsmen, provide regularized training for artists, and promote classical Greek and Roman ideals in art. As its name implies, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture also gave the French monarchy increased control of the art production. Under the direction of Charles Le Brun, who took over as director in 1683, the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture reached its peak.
The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was temporarily disbanded in 1793 during the French Revolution. It was later renamed the Academy of Painting and Sculpture. French art academies were still influential when a group of artists, the Impressionists, rebelled in the latter half of the 1800s against the strictures of classic realism.
While European academies were powerful between the 16th and 19th centuries, they came to be seen as outdated. The Impressionist method of painting was a major challenge to the academic art style, and eventually the modern art movement pushed academic art aside. Despite this change, in 2011 most art schools still use some of the teaching methods used in academic art. The importance of drawing is still emphasized in art schools, and life drawing is still taught. Both of these areas of study are considered to be important foundations for aspiring artists.