In the French Academy, beginning students were called ‘eleves’. They had a reasonably good life; they were exempted from military service and were well positioned to compete with apprentices outside the academy. There were monthly examinations, designed to weed out inferior students but the major goal, from 1666 onward, was to to win two all-important prizes: the Grand Prix and the Prix-de-Rome scholarship. The Grand Prix was not easy to attain. First, students had to pass an examination by executing a satisfactory drawing in the presence of an instructor. If they passed that test they could submit a sketch, and if that sketch was accepted, they were invited to make a picture or relief from the sketch while locked in a room ( to make sure they weren’t cheating by copying other drawings). All the pictures that had been made that way were put in a public exhibition, and eventually a panel chose a single Grand Prix winner.
The Prix-de-Rome was much more generous than today’s grants and fellowships. Winners went to the French Academy in Rome for four years, and when they returned they had a choice of careeres. They could either set up shop in some small town or else try for the next step up in the academy. After being an ‘eleve’ and taking part in the Grand Prize competition , a student could apply to be accepted as an ‘agree’, which involved finding a sponsor and submitting another painting. “Agrees” then had to pay a fee and complete a third work, this time specifically for the academy’s permanent collection: and if it was accepted, they became ‘academiciens’, the highest normal position, something like our full professors. This three stage system was adopted from the medieval sequence from apprentice to journeyman-apprentice to master.