France: École des Beaux Arts in Paris- the world’s most influential Art School

An art school that has been so influential, it even has an architectural style named after it.

Why visit?
It’s the mother of all art schools. The one that spawned generations of artists, many of them well-known.

And to inspire and train all those budding creative types, the school created an environment full of art and architecture that’s like a text book of Western art & architecture.

Which is all on display, in full 3D surround technology, once you enter its gates.

In Paris on Rue Bonaparte, just across the river from the Louvre. Map.

BLAME THE SUN King. Or rather, his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, who decided, back in 1648, to found the Académie des Beaux Arts to train young architects and painters in the ‘proper’ way to paint and build.

Mazarin and Louis XIV were addressing an acute labour shortage: Louis employed many of the graduates in the building of his little country home in Versailles, which was so vast that it required a generous supply of trained artisans.

Over the years, the school, currently officially named the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Paris, took the role of the official state-sanctioned trainer, and arbiter, of good taste.

Heard of Degas, Delacroix, Renoir, Seurat, Braque, or Sisley? They all studied here. (Rodin flunked the entry exam. Three times. Sad!) Of course, good art meant classically inspired art: which is why students were encouraged to compete in the Prix de Rome, which could earn them an all-expenses-paid trip to the Italian capital, where they would stay at the Villa Medici and immerse themselves in the classics. (And hey, you can do the same: our article on the Villa Medici explains how.)

The curriculum was divided into two programmes: Painting & Sculpture, and Architecture. And to inspire and instruct the students, they were surrounded by examples of what the School considered good art. The Painting & Sculpture students were provided with a generous supply of replicas of classical statuary, so students could copy and draw and draw again, until they got it just right.

The architecture students had the whole campus to play with: buildings were intended to showcase a variety of classical architectural styles, some of them leftovers from a monastery that stood here, others constructed later as a lived-in example for the students.

In the late 1800s, many American architects studied at the École, the most famous probably being H.R. Richardson. The Beaux Arts architectural style was at its height at the turn of the 19th century, spawning a large collection of (public) buildings, in the US, France, and beyond. It’s the style that makes you think ‘Yeah, that looks old and grand’ as you wander around city centers. Classic examples are New York’s Grand Central Station and the Opéra Garnier in Paris (Charles Garnier was an alumnus, too).

‘So what does this have to do with me?’ you may ask. Cool name-dropping and interesting etymology, but how is this a sight?

Well, the current campus of the École, which continues to be in use, is still this walk-in diorama of classical art. So let’s go inside, and see…
The campus's central square.
As you enter from Rue Bonaparte, you will find yourself on the main square of the campus. To your right is the oldest building, the chapel. It’s useful as an architectural practice model, because if you look at the façade, you’ll notice that each layer conveniently employs a different classical Greek order: Doric,Ionian and Corinthian, from bottom to top. That’s what the Renaissance (the building dates back to the 1600s) will do for you.
Facing you is the heart of the campus, the massive Palais des Études. Using classical Italian Renaissance forms (even though it was built by a Frenchman around 1800) it is lined by numerous statues. Embedded in its walls you’ll find several architectural elements, useful for those students trying to learn to tell their capitals from their cornices. It’s a 3D text book for students.
It looks like Florence but it's central Paris. 
Das Capital. 
Still life, ready to be copied. 
Do slip inside, because here you will find what for many is the highlight of the campus: the Cour Vitrée, a glass-covered courtyard that makes you feel like you've left Paris and have been teleported to 16th century Florence. Classical proportions, statues of Roman emperors and other ancient superstars- it’s one of the most impressive courtyards in Paris. It is used for exhibitions and events, rather than teaching. It would make a great ballroom. Or wedding venue. Be sure to go up one of the staircases for an even more jaw-dropping view and a good look at the excessively decorated arcades.
Ave, Ceasar!
There are more buildings to explore. A modern hallway brings you to the buildings on the Quai Malaquais, the quay facing the river. This used to be the Hôtel de Chimay, an aristocratic mansion dating back to the 17th century. It was annexed by the school and its courtyard, facing the river, contains several workshops as well as more classical nudity to enlighten and elevate the student body.
The Hotel de Chimay's courtyard. 
Work in progress. 
Speaking of bodies, be sure not to miss the the Barberini Faun, a copy of a classical statue, which casually lines one of the school's hallways. We’re sure it has brought a rush of excitement to many a student (and perhaps some of the staff’s members (excuse the pun) as well).
Full frontal.
This is a working school, so be discreet when nosing around. Being populated by creatively-minded young adults, you shouldn’t be surprised to find some contemporary art or graffiti as well, in addition to a foosball table and empty bottles of wine. Student life, eh?
Although the École des Beaux Arts may have lost its preeminence (and did so quite a while ago), we hope you agree this is a place worth visiting to see the environment that was created to train (or brainwash, whatever you prefer) young talent in artistic beauty.

Getting there:
The official address is 14, Rue Bonaparte, in the 6th arrondissement. Just across the river from the Louvre.

OK, so this is a working school. We had no problem walking in, after briefly opening our bag for the perfunctory security check, no questions asked. We know others have done the same thing.

But it may happen (depending on the day and/or the mood of whomever is guarding the gate) that they refuse entry to anybody who’s not a student or staff member. Just try your luck- being quiet and polite goes a long way! The school occasionally offers guided visits. But we prefer sneaking in…

Useful links:
The School’s official website.
Paris Adèle, who also enjoys sneaking into semi-forbidden places, took some great pictures too.


  1. This is great! Planning to try this out in my upcoming visit to Paris. Only thing is I can't speak French, so it's bound to be challenging to look like a convincing student lol!


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