Although the narrative of the 19th century suggests that art was all about innovation, the majority of art produced at this time was actually academic. The avant-garde of the 19th century paved the way for a break in tradition, but not until the 20th century - understanding academic art helps us understand the limitations that the likes of Courbet and Manet faced.
All artists in the 19th century would have attended an academy, even the revolutionary ones, it was common practice. Those enrolled in an academy (an evolution of the Renaissance workshorps) would be taught literature, religion, poetry etc... They had to know how to educate their audience via the medium of art. As time went on though, the academies were slowly but surely being seen as outdated:
There is no need to return to history, to take refuge in legends to summon powers of imagination. Beauty is before the eyes, not in the brain, in the present not the past; in truth and not in dreams.
- Jules Antoine Castagnary
THE academy to attend in Paris was Ecole des Beaux-Arts, they taught disegno, chiaroscuro, history painting etc...
Some venerated academicians...
Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
This is depicting a grand historical medieval episode of the 15th century, the exocution of an aristocratic lady. It was deemed moral by the highbrow elite as a courageous woman in the eye of death.
Jean August-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque with Slave, 1839
Birth of Venus, 1848.
Thomas Couture, Romans During the Decadence, 1847
This was at the same time as Courbet etc were active, academic painting was a tradition that were to prove stubborn. The scene depics the Romans during the fall of their empire. It had contemporary political connotations too considering the 1848 French revolution was around the corner. Traditionally it was unusual for history paintings to be politically charged but in an attempt to hold their ground academicians were forced to modernise their practice.
Alexandre Cabanel, La Naissance de Venus, 1863
This was shown in a gallery at the same time as Manet's olympia. It is more erotic than Manet's Olympia but critically received better because she was a mythological subject and not a Parisian prostitute. It is fine for Venus the God of love, born naked from the foam of the Aegean sea, to be naked yet Manet's prostitute was unnaceptable! a shoddy excuse to legitimise pervy old men looking at naked women...
Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, 1887.
The later into the 19th century academic art was, the looser the boundaries became. Here, Cleopatra and her surroundings are depicted in an exotic way to try and draw the audience away from the avant-garde. Exotic, distant places were admired by audiences accross Europe for a long time - even by the US at the dawn of the cinema age in 1920's (a lot of cinema was actually based on 19th century academic paintings - for example Cecil. B. de. Mille's Cleopatra)
Adolphe-William Barguereau, Birth of Venus, 1879
Barguereau was a contemporary of Van Gogh, just to reiterate the two forces at play. You can see here how academicians began to tackify their art in order to modernise it somewhat. Classicism was in decline...
This year Venuses again...always Venus!
- Honore Daumier
Nymphs and Satyr, 1873.
Cupid and Psyche, 1889.
An allegory of Cupid and the soul, Bouguereau knew that a middle class audience would find this adorable.