The First 100 Years of Teaching

Academy students were originally obliged to spend years drawing after plaster casts in the evenings, but the 1820s brought radical changes to how painters were taught

Most academy students were very young when they enrolled; usually between ten and fourteen years of age. They would complete a course of study that was essentially the same at most European art academies from the Renaissance onwards: first they would copy drawings or prints, and then they would draw after three-dimensional models, especially plaster casts.

The level of difficulty rose gradually, moving from individual body parts to complete figures. Students gradually moved on from the drawing classes to Gipsskolen – The Plaster School – where they would draw complete plaster casts.

At the Model School students would draw figure studies after actual models, traditionally nude men or boys. All classes took place indoors and at night; the days were spent on private tuition conducted by the academy professors.

School structure

Teaching was conducted in accordance with a school structure where specific courses and disciplines were divided into separate schools. Of course, the exact number and names of such schools changed over the course of the first hundred years, but they all shared certain common traits: the lower-level schools were taught by so-called “informers”, while the higher-ranking schools were taught by professors.

The lower ranking schools were the Drawing Schools (“Fritegningsskolerne”) and the Plaster School. Basic studies of architecture were conducted at “1. Arkitekturskole” (Primary School of Architecture). Higher-level education for artists was offered at the Model School; for architects the corresponding level was the Secondary School of Architecture. A third-tier School of Architecture was added in the 1820s.

Unlike the lower-ranking schools, the Model School distinguished between various types of artist. Sculptors mainly worked with clay reliefs, whereas prospective painters would usually paint.

In addition to the main schools there was also the School of Ornament (Ornamentskolen), which was originally a separate school for craftsmen’s apprentices. The year 1842 saw the introduction of The School of Decorative Arts (Dekorationsskolen) as an advanced study programme that supplemented the higher-level schools; here painting and sculpting were merged with architecture. The new school was not given the distinction of a professorial chair until the early twentieth century.

Medals and competitions

A competition system urged students to be diligent in the pursuit of their studies; indeed, competition underpinned the high and low-ranking schools alike – and the system applied to both architects and artists. The competitions could yield a number of rewards, such as the right to pick the best spot when drawing or painting after models, or winners might receive the academy’s Silver Medal (small or large). Up until 1842 silver medals were awarded for reliefs or figure drawings after nude models.

The most coveted prize at the Model School was the Gold Medal – first the small, then the large – which not only bestowed honour on the recipient, but also the right to receive the academy’s major travelling grants. Indeed, a student’s education was not regarded as complete until he had spent time studying abroad.

Private tuition
at the professors’ studios

The professors had a particularly strong impact on the teaching at the academy, which they shaped through their individual personalities, views of art and own work. The most influential professors during the academy’s first century include J.F.J. Saly, J. Wiedewelt, Jens Juel, N. Abildgaard, C.W. Eckersberg and H.E. Freund; their ranks also include Bertel Thorvaldsen, although he spent most of his time abroad, which means that his influence was mainly exercised by virtue of his works and fame than through any actual teaching.

Academy students would receive most of their hands-on training – for example on the art of painting – at the professors’ studios. Academy professors who lived at Charlottenborg or had homes made available to them for free elsewhere were required to host studio workshops where students could practice their craft. The studio of the sculptor J. Wiedewelt in Frederiks Holms Kanal was a so-called “professor workshop” (as were later versions under H.E. Freund and H.W. Bissen), but not a fully-fledged School; this was not set up until 1945. C.W. Eckersberg’s studio classes, and their impact on his students, are also particularly well known.

Painting in daylight 
and in the open air

The 1820s saw prominent changes to the instruction offered to painters: J.L. Lund and C.W. Eckersberg introduced daylight painting at the Model School. It all began with a summer course in 1822 and continued when a permanent “painting room” for daylight painting was set up. Eckersberg also introduced the concept of allowing classes to take place out of doors in the open air, not just in a studio at Charlottenborg.
Painting of this kind was not formally included in the curriculum until 1842, but after 1830 it was tacitly accepted that professors and teachers taught painting during the daylight hours.

The Copenhagen academy was the first in Europe to formally approve open-air painting done in nature; in the other major cities of Europe plein-air classes were still only held by private arrangement, without the official stamp of academy approval. In Denmark, the official approval of this new practice paved the way for a vigorous vein of art based on careful observation of landscapes as they appeared before the painter’s eye; this style is now referred to as Danish Golden Age art.


  • Salling, Emma and Smidt, Claus M.: ”FUNDAMENTET – De første hundrede år”; in Fuchs, Anneli & Salling, Emma (eds.) KUNSTAKADEMIET 1754-2004, Det Kongelige Akademi for De Skønne Kunster & Arkitekturs Forlag 2004, vol. I, pp. 23-117
  • Grand, Karina Lykke: ”Kunstakademiet”; Nordisk Selskab for Romantikstudier,