The history of the Prix de Rome dates back to 1666, when the prize was created in France by King Louis XIV, who believed that promising French artists should be able to study works from classical antiquity, the cradle of European art, with their own eyes. The prize consisted of a bursary that enabled the winner to work in Rome for four years. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte introduced the Prix de Rome to the Netherlands in 1808 for the advancement of the arts in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Talented student artists were given the opportunity to study classical art for four consecutive years in Paris and Rome. When the study period in Paris was completed successfully, the trainees were allowed to undertake the long journey to Rome to continue their work under the supervision of the Académie de France in Villa Medici. While abroad, the students were obliged to regularly send works, mostly copies of classical scenes, back to the Netherlands. A number of the works from this initial period of the Dutch Prix de Rome still remain in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

From 1817 the prize was linked to the Koninklijke Akademie van Beeldende Kunsten which was established in that year by King Willem I, whereby at the end of the study the ‘Grand Prize’ including the trip to Rome could be awarded to artists and architects who excelled in the organized competition. This association was discontinued 43 years later during the Thorbecke government due to the disappointing careers of the winners after their return from Rome. And although the Prix de Rome was reinstated in 1870 and legally assigned to the Rijksakademie, which was established in the same year, it was not until 1884 that the first competition was organized. Artists were able to nominate themselves for the Prix and if they passed the entrance exam were enrolled in a ‘test camp’ for which each candidate was allocated a cubicle in the attic of the academy, where they were required to create two compositions with biblical themes and two nude studies. In order to ensure anonymity, the artists worked in isolation from early in the morning till late at night, meals were delivered through a hatch in the door. After adjudication there followed an ‘end camp’ for which the candidates worked in the same cubicles for three months on an oil painting with fixed dimensions and a fixed (biblical or mythological) theme, ‘chosen in such a way as to demonstrate the candidates’ adeptness in the rendering of nudes and drapes’. Obviously, the set disciplines were adapted when the prize was organized in the categories of sculpture, graphic art or architecture. The runners-up received 200 guilders, the winner a gold medal and a bursary of 2000 guilders for a study trip in which he was required to follow a strictly defined programme of cities and masterpieces to be studied. These trips, incidentally, reached beyond the borders of Italy and depending on the discipline, countries such as Spain and Greece could also appear in the programme. The studies that the artists sent back to the Netherlands during their trip were, subject to approval, exhibited at the academy.

This system was maintained for a long time, including the hatch for the meals and the compulsory themes, although the biblical and mythological assignments were replaced by more abstract themes in the 1960s, such as human, animal, water or encounter, which generated freer work. It is conspicuous that despite the unchanged aspiration for the prize to discover artists of great promise and encourage their development and international orientation, relatively few big names adorn the list of winners from the period 1884-1984. Famous names such as Jan Sluijters (1904, painting), Cornelis van Eesteren (1921, architecture) and Wessel Couzijn (1936, sculpture) find themselves in the company of artists of whom many unfortunately failed to make it into the annals of Dutch art history. Another point of criticism that became increasingly terse after the 1960s was that virtually all the winners came from within the academy itself, while the outside world was changing rapidly. The artists who had broken through and were determining the discourse – such as Jan Dibbets, Ger van Elk, André Volten, Wim T. Schippers – had often studied at other art academies in the Netherlands or abroad. Moreover, a trip to Rome was no longer a perceived necessity; sources of inspiration were found elsewhere in the world or in the artists’ own city. During this period, the once so respectable Prix de Rome was taken less and less seriously and the number of entries dropped accordingly. The same discussion took place in France, where the Prix de Rome was even scrapped in 1968 to be continued in a different form.

In the Netherlands it wasn’t until 1985 that the format of the Prix de Rome was modernized – simultaneously with the reorganization of the Rijksakademie. The prize money and age limit were raised, the educational requirements were lifted and the system for adjudication was revised. The objective of the prize remained unchanged: the promotion of artistic development in an international context. The changes paid off with increasing numbers of entries and the participation of interesting artists, who succeeded in breaking open the still compulsory disciplines until the system of categories was abolished completely in 2005. Furthermore, criteria such as ‘singularity’, ‘artistic concepts’ and ‘originality’ began to play an important role in the adjudication. The end result is a list containing winners who belong to the top echelon of art and architecture in the Netherlands, with names such as Erik Andriesse (1988), Adriaan Geuze (1990), Charlotte Schleiffert (1999), Gianni Cito (2001); Lonnie van Brummelen (2005); Ronald Rietveld (2006); Pilvi Takala (2011) and Falke Pisano (2013).

During a restructuring in 2011, the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science decided that the organization and financing of the Prix de Rome would be assigned to the Mondriaan Fund. The objective of the prize dovetails with one of the most important goals of the public fund: to develop the talent of visual artists in the Netherlands. To ensure the continuity of the prize, the Fund also organizes the four-yearly architecture edition of the prize, in collaboration with the Creative Industries Fund NL and Het Nieuwe Instituut.

The Mondriaan Fund organizes the prize in a modified form with respect for the history and development of the Prix de Rome. The first edition of the visual arts prize organized by the Mondriaan Fund took place in 2013.

Author: Mirjam Beerman
Source: Marguerite Tuijn (ed.), Prix de Rome MDCCCVIII – MMVIII, Amsterdam 2008