Learning from Art History: Art Competitions

From ancient Florence to the Berlin Olympics, art competitions have made a big mark on our culture and history, but what lessons have they taught us?

competition exhibition opening reception at Agora Gallery

Art competitions have taken many shapes and forms over the centuries. As Chelsea International Fine Art Competition opened for submissions, we’re taking a look back at four notable art competitions from art history. After all,  you have to search yesterday to understand today.

Fine Art Competition opening reception at Agora Gallery

The Florence Baptistery: The Gateway to Fame

Built sometime between 1059 and 1150, the Florence Baptistery was already ingrained into the social identity of Florence by the time the wool merchants’ guild, the Arte del Calimala, was given the responsibility to maintain and embellish it. This project began in the twelfth century, so when, over two hundred years later, the Calimala opened a competition for a new set of doors, it was an incredibly lucrative commission for the potential winners.

The competition called for competitors to submit panels representing the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The competitors were limited in many ways: they were each allotted only a certain amount of bronze, how many figures could be included, and that the panel must be contained within a quatrefoil (the Gothic pointed shape).  The jurors outnumbered the competitors 34 to 7, and in the end, all of the artists except for Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were eliminated. Some accounts say that the actual competition resulted in a tie and joint commission, but that Brunelleschi refused to work with Ghiberti, leaving instead to study architecture in Rome. Other accounts (including Ghiberti’s autobiography) say that Ghiberti won flat-out.

The competition entries from Ghiberti (right) and Brunelleschi (left), on display at the Bargello.
The competition entries from Ghiberti (right) and Brunelleschi (left), on display at the Bargello.  | Image Source: Heidi Walton

When Ghiberti won the competition, he was only 23 years old. Although, back in the 1400s, 23 was basically middle-aged. It took him over twenty years (from 1425-1452) to complete the commission, and the final panels were hung in the northern entrance.

For the work, Ghiberti was paid 200 florins per panel (for a total of 4,000). Based on the gold content of one florin, that would be about the worth of $560,000 in today’s USD. At the time unknown artists like Donatello and Paola Uccello were Ghiberti’s pupils and may have helped collaborate on the door panels. After his hugely successful commission, he was asked to do yet another doorway: the east entrance of the same Baptistery.

What can we learn from the Florence Baptistery competition?

"Florenca146" by Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Florenca146.jpg#/media/File:Florenca146.jpg
East Doors / “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti. | Image Source, Wikipedia

For one thing, we learned that hard work can pay off. Ghiberti’s door panels are still celebrated today, as are his and Brunelleschi’s original competition entries.

We can learn a great deal from the actual works that were produced for this competition. The renditions of the Sacrifice of Isaac employ great mastery of skill in composition, form, and narrative in artwork. They are both closely studied today in art history. Some say that this competition and the works that resulted marked the beginning of the Renaissance artistic style.

The fact that these works are so highly regarded serves as a testament to the inspiration that can arise from competitions. Though Brunelleschi did not win the commission, his panel submitted to the competition is indisputably an accomplished piece of artwork – one that never would have existed if it weren’t for the competition of the Florence Baptistery.

Prix de Rome: The Oldest Art Scholarship

Ever wondered about how the practice of awarding scholarships and bursaries to artists began? The tradition is rooted in patronage offered by monarchs and rulers to artisans, painters, architects, scientists, and musicians. The Prix de Rome, often regarded as one of the first official scholarships, was instituted by the French king, Louis XIV for art students and painters. the bursary was later extended to architects, musicians, and engravers.

art competitions
Palazzo Mancini, Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi | Image Source: Wikipedia

The competition, organized by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), Paris, consisted of a very difficult and complex elimination contest. The winners were awarded an all expenses paid stay of three to five years at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome. A number of candidates from the competition were also selected to join the French Academy in Rome.

Artists like Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre and Charles Dupaty have been the recipients of the winning title of the Prix de Rome. The competition cum artist residency program continued until its abolishment in 1968 by André Malraux, the Minister of Culture at the time.

What can we learn from the Prix de Rome?

The Prix de Rome provided young artists with opportunities of a lifetime like studying at a respected institution and residing at a palace full of history and beautiful architecture. Some of these artists went on to become pioneering figures in traditional and academic painting.

Art competitions, especially today, are truly an exceptional way to get access to opportunities that can help you build a sustainable career in the creative field. However, it is important to first consider the requirements of any competition that you are entering in. Prix de Rome was instituted on the basis of promoting academic art education to young students, which is why liberal artists like Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet did not gain any recognition even after attempting the competition more than once.

The Paris Salon: The Most Famous “Losers”

Have you ever heard of a Salon-style gallery? The term gets its roots from the Paris Salon, which famously wasted no wall space by hanging artwork floor-to-ceiling, in a very economical layout.

The French government and Académie des Beaux-Arts began the Salon in the late 1600s, but it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that a jury was introduced, turning it into a true competition. The exhibition by that point had gained such notoriety that winners were essentially guaranteed a successful art career after earning their medals.

However, this great reputation also meant that the competition was vastly popular. As such, in 1863, the Salon jury refused two-thirds of the presented paintings, including works by Manet, Courbet, and several other notable Impressionists. With support from the public, their indignation and protests led to a new, separate exhibition of the refused artworks, the Salon des Refusés (“The Exhibition of Rejected Art”).

Édouard Manet - "Le Déjeuner sur L'herbe" Oil on Canvas 81.9" x 104.5" Originally exhibited in the Salon des Refusés is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Édouard Manet – “Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe” Oil on Canvas 81.9″ x 104.5″ Originally exhibited in the Salon des Refusés is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  |  Image Source: Google Cultural Institute

The 1863 Salon des Refusés included artists Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, James Whistler, Édouard Manet, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet.

The Salon des Refusés was not just a one-shot: three more were held afterward, making way for the Salon des Independants and the Salon d’Automne to rise.

What can we learn from the Paris Salon?

It can be a reassurance to learn that artists like Cézanne, Whistler, Manet, and Courbet were once rejected from a juried exhibition. And did these artists give up their art career after they were rejected? No: they rallied together and created something altogether new and brilliant. In fact, the Salon des Refusés went on to become a pivotal moment in art history and Impressionism.

Large-scale art events like the Paris Salon can bring together great artists from all over the world – even if they aren’t chosen for exhibition. And, as we all know, when you assemble a group of great minds and artists, amazing things can happen.

It is in this spirit that art exhibitions, competitions, residencies, and art fairs are so important. In these collective affairs, we can truly see progress and greatness.

The Olympics: Aesthetic Meets Athletic

Did you know that the Olympics once had a medal for fine art? That’s right, every Olympics between 1912 and 1952 held competitions for architecture, fine art, literature, and music, where gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded. Like the competition at the Florence Baptistery, there was a specific theme to be maintained. For this, the theme was “a definite relationship to the Olympic concept.”

Detail, Alfred Reginald Thomson / London Amateur Championships (Oil painting) Image Source: Christies
Detail, Alfred Reginald Thomson / London Amateur Championships (Oil painting) – Gold prize winner in the Paintings event in the 1948 London Olympic Games |  Image Source: Christie’s
Four Fresco Petterns, Romano Dazzi. Silver Medal winner in "Drawings and Water-Colors" in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games | Image Source: Olympic Museum
Four Fresco Patterns, Romano Dazzi. Silver Medal winner in “Drawings and Watercolors” in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games | Image Source: Olympic Museum

Similar to the sporting events at the time, professional artists were forbidden from entering. This means that the entrants for the Olympics were less well-known. As a result, many of the original medal-winning artworks can no longer be found. This stipulation is what ultimately led to the end of the art competition in the Olympics. Finding it incredibly difficult to determine whether or not artists were “amateurs” both made it complicated to orchestrate the events and led to a lowered quality of the ultimate entries. In addition to that, the juries were allowed to withhold prizes when works failed to meet their standards. Sometimes, there would be no medals at all awarded for a category.

Ultimately, the lack of interest, coherence, and organization led to this fascinating Olympic event being lost to history. Like a scorned lover, the Olympics not only ended the decade-old art competition but actually struck all medals from the record. All 151 medals no longer “count,” and it is as if the whole thing never happened.

The relationship between the Olympics and art is not totally gone, though. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has more recently been holding a Sport and Art Contest, separate from the Olympics. The first prize for the competition in 2012 was $30,000 and a diploma. Sadly, there have been no releases about another contest to follow the 2012 contest.

What can we learn from the Olympic Art Competition?

One of the biggest mistakes that the Olympic organizers made was trying to define a “professional” artist. With too strict limitations on who would be allowed to enter, the quality of their submissions greatly suffered. Many great artists today, self-taught or professionally trained, might not have been allowed entrance into the Olympic Art Competition.

It is important to view artwork on its own merit. There are countless artists who may never have received formal training in their crafts as opposed to those who hold too much stock in the training they have received. Many hold the opinion that this perpetuates the “elitism” of the art world: legitimizing only the artists who can afford expensive art education.

There are several art competitions today that judge the submissions blindly. These competitions will have few to no restrictions as to who may enter submissions, and the artwork is rated without any defining information on the artist, their background, or their training.

These four art competitions were vastly different in scope, influence, and notoriety. Today, with the larger-than-ever global “community” of artists, there are countless competitions to enter, and they all hold great benefits. From small, local shows, to international competitions, these opportunities provide artists of all backgrounds great exposure to a larger audience.

Looking to enhance your career and build a presence in New York? Submit your portfolio to us and get the opportunity to present your work to a broad range of national and international art collectors and buyers. Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.

Chelsea International Fine Art Competition accepts submissions here.


For more information about Ghiberti and the Gates of Paradise, check out this article at Britannica.com.

Read more about the Salon des Refusés in the article “May 15: 1863, Paris’s Salon des Refusés Opens” on Academia

To know more about the Olympics art competition, read the Smithsonian’s article, “When the Olympics Gave Out Medals for Art”

Read more about the Prix de Rome on Wikipedia

This post is also available in: Spanish

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  • Never allow negative response stop your positive vision. Keep your focus and you must surely get there.

  • Really loved this historical perspective! Rejection can be viewed as negative or you can take another path and move forward.. cleary these great artists found another path to follow.! Always can learn from criticism

  • Es bueno saber de Historia y aprender de ello… De las oportunidades que se tiene de sobresalir y dedicarse al arte que uno ama. Y que no todo rechazo es el final de algo sino el comienzo de una nueva manera de hacer arte, de romper esquemas no importando la edad, época ni estilos.