What Was the Prix de Rome?

French Academy / Piranesi

The Prix de Rome was the most coveted prize offered by the state-sponsored art academies in Paris. Winners of the prize received an all-expenses-paid stay of three to five years at the French Academy in Rome. There they continued their formal training in art and made sketches of Rome's treasures.

For the Prix de Rome in history painting, students competed by submitting a painting on a theme chosen from ancient history, the Bible, or mythology. The theme changed annually and was a closely guarded secret.

Most art students competed two or three times before winning the prize, being eliminated, or giving up. Jacques-Louis David competed four times; after his third unsuccessful attempt, he tried to commit suicide by starvation. Training in Rome was so important to a successful career that many artists who did not win the prize often made their way to Rome with the help of a patron or friend.

The drawing above shows the Mancini Palace, which was the seat of the French Academy in Rome until the French Revolution.