The Academic Tradition in Europe & Canada, 1700-1900

George Romney, Portrait of a Man in Blue Coat, c. 1780

Homer Watson, Near the Close of a Stormy Day, 1884


From Rome to Utrecht, European artists in the 17th and early 18th century created the emotionally charged work of the Baroque era. In reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church strove to entice believers back to the fold with gripping and beautiful vignettes of biblical drama. Palaces in mid-18th century France, Italy, and Austria brimmed with Rococo design, typified by intricate curvilinear patterns and soft colours celebrating aristocratic luxury. Elsewhere in the predominantly Protestant north, depictions of luxuriant and exotic still lifes, pastoral landscapes, and suspended views of daily life, directly appealed to a burgeoning middle class clientele.

During this time art academies were established throughout European centres. Originally private artist associations, academies developed into formal state-sanctioned institutions. They eventually supplanted the Medieval and Renaissance guild system in overseeing and regulating art instruction across the continent and in Great Britain. Neoclassical artists demonstrated a resurgent interest in Antiquity as a celebration of the 18th century’s scientific progress and rational enlightenment. Through the ensuing 19th century, Romantics reacted against what they saw as the overvaluing of reason at the expense of human emotion, while Realism extolled the unidealized and mundane in depictions of the often hardscrabble existence many people experienced. Movements in France, Holland, and England relayed these sensibilities in different ways, through a concern for naturalistic detail, an interest in medieval legend, or brooding, but noble, depictions of rural life.

Meanwhile, in the northern colonies and territories of North America, an artistic tradition slowly began to emerge. Honorific portraiture and charming genre scenes were two popular subjects portrayed by Canada’s first professional artists, reflecting the tastes of their patrons. With the founding in 1880 of the Royal Canadian Academy and increasing numbers of Canadian-born artists studying in Europe, the seeds of a new international outlook were planted in Canada.

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