“Why does a beautiful sketch please us more than a beautiful painting? It is because there is more life and less definition […] Does the sketch perhaps have such a strong appeal because it is indeterminate? The more undefined the artistic expression, the more our imagination is free to see what it wants.” Denis Diderot, Salon of 1767
In June 2015 at a public sale, the Musée d'Orsay acquired a collection of 31 sketches produced between 1825 and 1861 for the Prix de Rome competition for historical composition and historical landscape.
Awarded every year by the Institut de France, the Prix de Rome enabled the most outstanding student of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to spend five years at the Villa Medici in the Eternal City to complete his/her training. For the final test, participants had to produce a drawing and a painted sketch of their future composition on a subject taken from mythology or from Classical history, and followed by a finished, large format painting (now all kept in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris).
At the end of the competition, it was customary for the students of the Neo-Classical painter Francois-Edouard Picot, who had been awarded prizes by the jury, to give their painted sketch (or another version in the same format) to the master. This collection comprises thirty-one of these sketches, produced between 1825 and 1861, by twenty-one of his students. Picot’s studio, just like those of Heim, Cogniet and Delaroche, was one of the most important of its time. Some of the most famous names in Academic painting in the second half of the century had studied there, including Achille Bénouville, William Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, Jean-Jacques Henner, Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, Louis-Hector Leroux and Emile Levy, who are all represented in this acquisition.
The collection of these " sketching exercises " (Bruno Foucart) has fortunately been preserved with a coherence that shows not only the great constants of Academic teaching inherited from David (composition, drawing, classical models), but also the slow but sensitive developments from history painting to Romantic dramatisation and Ingresque refinement.