The history of an Académie is perhaps above all the history of a passion, that of the practice of art and creation. It is also, at times, a form of love-hate between different sensibilities, between aesthetics linked to tradition and the audacity of the avant-garde.


An examination of the archives reveals that academic teaching was certainly not reduced to the cliché that a certain vision of art history had for too long disseminated, which focused solely on imposed subjects, antique plaster casts, or studio rules that were seen as stifling. Beyond the divide between tradition and the avant-garde, an academy remains above all, through the atmosphere of its studios, the privileged place of an awareness: that of the secret affinity bringing together young artists. Among the professors and former students of the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles were artists of such diverse sensibilities as : François-Joseph NAVEZ, Jean PORTAELS, James ENSOR, Henri EVENEPOEL, Paul DELVAUX, René MAGRITTE, Edgard TYTGAT, Guillaume VOGELS, Hippolyte BOULENGER, Jean BRUSSELMANS, Anto CARTE, CRETEN-GEORGE, Charles DE GROUX, Louis DUBOIS, Eugène LAERMANS, Jean MILO, Théodore BARON, Victor HORTA, Alfres BASTIEN, Jean-Jacques GAILLIARD, VAN RIJSSELBERGHE, Ferdinand SCHIRREN, Pierre PAULUS, Fernand KHNOPFF, Auguste OLEFFE, Edgard P. JACOBS, LISMONDE ;

We should also mention the pioneers of abstract art in Belgium: Victor SERVRANCKX, Georges VANTONGERLOO, Pierre-Louis FLOUQUET, Marcel-Louis BAUGNIET, and Jules SCHMALZIGAUD, representative of Futurism in our regions.

It is also worth noting the ‘international’ nature of the Brussels Academy, which was attended by young artists from a wide range of backgrounds. These included the Dutch symbolist Jan TOOROP, the Spanish artist de REGOYOS, the French surrealist André MASSON, the Chinese artists WU Shu Jen and XU Beihong, the Russian exile Nicolas de STAËL, and HERGE's friend TCHANG. And we find ourselves daydreaming in front of the page of the austere evening classes enrolment register which, very laconically, mentions in a cold administrative manner, on 15 November 1880, Vincent VAN GOGH and immediately under this name ‘Théophile VAN RIJSSELBERGHE’...

18th century: the beginnings of the Académie

While most eighteenth-century academies had their origins in the centralising intentions of princes, the Académie de Bruxelles owes its foundation to the guilds and the protection of a communal power that remained powerful in our regions.

On 30 September 1711, the magistrate of Brussels granted a room in the town hall to the deans of painters, sculptors, upholsterers and other amateurs ‘to practise the art of drawing’; on 16 October of the same year, a kind of school was established.

The Brussels Academy was part of a trend towards exclusive interest in drawing, like most institutions of this type which, when they were founded, referred to the model of the Accademia del disegno founded in Florence in 1563 and organised according to the ideas of the painter VASARI.

From 16 October 1711 to 30 September 1737 (the date on which the school received its first set of regulations), this mission to ‘practise the art of drawing’ was to form the very basis of the school's teaching and administrative organisation.

In 1762, the Académie went through a serious internal crisis, prompting most of its members to seek the protection of Charles of Lorraine and leading to changes in its structures.

At the request of the students, who were inspired by the French academic model, the Duke granted his ‘high protection’ to the Brussels Academy in 1763. After calling for the drafting of new ‘stable and permanent’ regulations, Charles of Lorraine insisted on the need to teach civil architecture at the Academy.

However, as ‘high protection’ did not come with the rich endowments of the French academies in our regions, it was decided, in 1768, to appeal to private individuals by organising a major subscription to raise the funds needed to establish an ‘Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture worthy of the protection of His Royal Highness’. By creating the structures and resources needed to develop the school, the Duke's reform was beneficial to the institution, and the Austrian government would encourage the dissemination of its regulations to other towns wishing to create similar establishments.

The Academy's entry into the 19th century

Teaching at the Academy was interrupted by the unrest in our regions during the revolutionary period. The Academy reopened its doors in 1800 thanks to a decree issued by the mayor, Nicolas-Jean Rouppe, citing its public utility.

The documents of the time show the period of French occupation as a phase of stagnation, even decadence, in the field of fine arts education. This lethargic phase lasted until the end of the Dutch period.

After 1830, the Académie experienced a revival. In order to contribute to this, F.J. NAVEZ (a pupil of David and heir to the neo-classical tradition in our region) was appointed Director; he studied projects for the reorganisation and extension of teaching, which came to fruition between 1835 and 1836. He also endeavoured to give fresh impetus to the study of sculpture, thus laying the foundations for a school that would be considered one of the most prestigious in the late 19th century. The academy's sculptors included Eugène SIMONIS, Julien DILLENS, Victor ROUSSEAU, Jef LAMBEAUX, Constantin MEUNIER, Georges MINNE, Léopold WIENER, Godefroid DEVREESE, Charles VAN DER STAPPEN, Philippe WOLFERS, Rik WOUTERS and, much closer to home, Jacques MOESCHAL, Rik POOT and Harry ELSTRÖM.

The reorganisation of teaching by NAVEZ was accompanied in 1835 by the granting of the title of ‘Royal’ to the Brussels Academy.

In 1849, in compliance with the 1836 regulations, he organised a painting class. Until then, there had been no special painting class at the school, with students completing their education in the private studios of the most renowned painters of the day. A year earlier, in 1848, the Royal School of Engraving had been merged with the Academy; professors CALAMATTA, BROWN and LAUTERS developed the teaching of this art. From 1860 to 1862, the Academy considered other restructuring projects and, as part of this reform, more general courses were introduced.

Under the influence of the great Exhibition held in London in 1851, certain provisions of the programme also emphasised the need to promote the arts applied to industry.

Under the influence of Charles Buls, this trend led to the opening of a School of Decorative Arts in 1886. Arts & Crafts’ aesthetic trends and ideas of individual emancipation through art were in the air at the time... Reactivating the theories of Ruskin and William Morris and their nostalgia for a world where craftsmanship gave workers a taste for beauty for its own sake, certain circles concerned with social issues were keen to encourage the revaluation of manual work understood as arts and crafts. Baes was appointed deputy director of the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs as soon as it was founded.

Another measure revealing BULS's innovative tendencies was the decision by the Academic Council at its meeting in January 1889 to authorise young girls to attend classes.

At the end of the 19th century, the measures taken by Charles VAN DER STAPPEN under his direction contributed to the prestige of the teaching and the opening up of the school to literary approaches, as well as to an interest in photography in its relationship with the fine arts. The same director had a camera purchased for this purpose. At the time, people were wondering about the possible interactions between art and photography. Charles Van Der Stappen offered a platform to VERHAEREN, LEMONNIER and EECKHOUDT. This approach, inspired by the example of the ‘Groupe des XX’, aimed to increase exchanges between different artistic expressions. Still on the subject of the relationship between literature and the fine arts, it is worth highlighting the role played by the Brussels Academy in the Idealist and Symbolist movements: Among its teachers and students were Jean DELVILLE, Emile FABRY, Fernand KHNOPFF, Xavier MELLERY, Albert CIAMBERLANI, Léon FREDERIC and Constant MONTALD, whose students included Paul DELVAUX.

In 1912, at the start of a reorganisation of the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, Victor HORTA (director from 1913 to 1915 and several times between 1922 and 1931) envisaged a new change to the curriculum. However, the events of the First World War prevented the application of these organic regulations, approved in 1914 by the City. This reform of the Academy was not implemented once peace was restored, and the workshop system recommended by BONDUELLE and LAMBOT was introduced.

In 1936, a royal decree established a legal basis for the teaching of architecture and put an end to evening classes in this field. In 1949, a decree from the Regent placed the study of architecture on a higher education level. More recent changes have transformed the school's structures. The Royal Decree of 1971 regulated the organisation of reduced timetable studies in the plastic arts. In 1972, an ‘artistic humanities’ section was established. In 1977, the teaching of architecture, organised in the long form, acquired its autonomy. In 1980, a second level of higher education was established, and new general courses were introduced at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, helping to provide theoretical reflection to complement the work and research carried out in the workshops.

As it entered the third millennium, the Académie, which became the ESA (Ecole Supérieure des Arts), underwent a profound transformation, a university orientation and a reform of its teaching offering new options to students and, above all, investing all the enthusiasm, research and reflection that will contribute to the art of tomorrow.

For more information on the history of the school, consult the exhibition catalogue - Académie royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles - 275 ans d'enseignement (Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique - Musée d'Art Moderne - Mai/Juin 1987) Publisher - Crédit Communal - Brussels - 1987 Article by Georges MAYER, pp 21-37.

The Centre for Historical Studies

The Centre d'études historiques sur l'enseignement des Beaux-Arts has a research structure linked to the art library. It is also an information centre, offering help with research into artistic life in Belgium in connection with the history of the Brussels Academy. It is the place where you can find information on the history and archives of the ArBA-EsA. It is open to students, former students, professors, assistants, etc. of the ArBA-EsA and outside researchers.

Mr Georges Mayer, Professor and Director of the Centre
Email: info@arba-esa.be
Premises: the library

Opening hours: by appointment