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In the context of the nineteenth century, the term Academic Art refers to paintings and sculptures made according to the rules and principles that had been taught in art academies since the Renaissance. The central premise of Academic painting was that it should present a convincing illusion of three-dimensional reality, as if the picture frame were an open window through which we see reality.

Academic paintings are characterized by the correct drawing of bodies and the accurate construction of space; by sharply described details and strong local color; and by smooth, highly finished surfaces, without visible brushstrokes that might draw attention to the artist’s handiwork. Most of Academic painting is narrative, favoring heroic moments from history and literature, or ennobling and entertaining scenes from present-day life.

Academic Art was the dominant official style for most of the nineteenth century. It was passed on in state art schools and sanctioned by the juries of state sponsored exhibitions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, Academic painting increasingly came in conflict with radically new, explicitly modern practices that, like Impressionism, challenged all traditional notions of the purpose, technique, and subject matter of art.