The Hierarchy of Art

Until recently, I had no idea that an actual hierarchy existed in the world of art. I found it very interesting and wanted to share it.

It begins with the Royal Academy of Art, established in France in 1648. The official name of the academy was the Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture — meaning the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. It was founded by a group of artists and received the support of King Louis XIV. The academy was modeled after successful Italian schools of art. It gained the support of the monarchy primarily because the king realized that art could be a valuable means of understanding — and affecting — the thoughts and opinions of the populace.

Art was a political resource, and the academy played an important role by exercising control over how art was taught, what should be learned by aspiring art students, and how art should be received. Periodic exhibitions of fine art reinforced the principles by which the government ruled.

Within the academy, a definite structure emerged to give different art genres and different subjects their proper place — not only in the world of art, but in the minds of the French people. This was not an arbitrary ranking but one which was carefully developed by the monarchy.

Historical paintings were considered to be of the greatest worth — for rather obvious reasons. These paintings included the most noble moments in the story of mankind. Mythological paintings and those with biblical subjects were seen as historical, and were prominently displayed in churches, cathedrals, important exhibitions, and other public venues. These paintings served to teach the populace about morality, presenting illustrations of good versus evil, as well as giving great honor to events and individuals in the history of France.

Almost as important — and therefore as valuable — were portraits. Large portraits of notable individuals within the court and other nobles brought high prices for artists, and students had to go through rigorous training in order to master the skill. Many portraits were large-scale, some even being life-sized.

Genre painting occupied the third rung of the hierarchy. These were paintings of people in every day situations illustrating happy families and the activities in which they engaged. Animals often formed part of the painting — sheep, goats, family pets, horses — and in outdoor paintings, a bit of landscape would be included. Landscape, however, was secondary. The important elements were the people and their activities. From these paintings, individuals could learn about life and proper conduct.

Moving down the hierarchy, we come next to landscape painting. These were paintings that included no human figures. Instead they included natural and physical structures in the area — buildings, bridges, and other man-made structures as well as natural elements such as rivers, lakes, meadows, and seas. These paintings were considered lesser because they seemed to have no real meaning other than as an appreciation of beautiful scenery.

NOTE: Landscape paintings were typically done on horizontal canvases; portraits were usually vertical, and thus was born our computer lingo for printer-page orientation.

Later, another rung was added to the ladder for animal paintings — in which the animals were the subject, not mere background. Paintings of well-loved horses were included in this category. Today, many wildlife paintings are part of the animal genre.

Finally, we come to the still life. With no living creatures included, these paintings were deemed to be of little significance. They were often smaller scale, and it was thought that these paintings required little imagination. These paintings were considered to be appropriate for private display rather than public exhibition.

Vanitas with Music Sheets, an Hourglass, and Skull

Personally, I think putting together a still life requires a great deal of imagination. The painting shown here is by Madeleine Boullogne, a 17th century artist who studied at the Royal Academy. Who would have thought to combine sheet music, an hourglass, and a skull?

The word vanitas, I learned, refers specifically to symbols of death, which accounts for the skull in the painting. I suppose the hourglass could also symbolize death — or at least, the passing of time. The music? That’s left a bit to the imagination, I guess.

For more information about the Royal Academy and the hierarchy of art, an excellent resource is Hierarchy of Genres, which provides information on other schools of art, as well as the French academy.

Do these hierarchies and the thoughts they represent still affect our appreciation of art today? I don’t think so. Do you? I wonder, too, precisely where paintings of the human form would fit into the old hierarchical structure? And what of abstract art? Would it be considered art, at all?

Art history is always fun to explore. There’s always something new to learn.

Additional resources include:

Art: A World History

History of Art

The Story of Art

Art Through the Ages




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