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The Florence Academy of Art

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

Entering the gates of The Florence Academy of Art, its symbol embossed in gold at the crown and knowing much of the academy’s illustrious reputation, I feel a sense of excitement. I open the doors into an elevated space with natural light cascading in. It illuminates the students, their canvases and sculptures; they are locked in a kind of embrace, the future of Realist art unfolding in their hands before my very eyes.

Tracing the art adorned walls, I pass slowly through the corridors, coming to the heart of it all: a labyrinth of intricate, purpose designed studios that give the academy’s students the best environment to follow their passion and to capture their calling.

Every face I see is somehow lit up with what seems to be a kind of creative peace, an absolute devotion to what they’re doing here. Just being inside the school, in the presence of this unfolding, one gets the feeling of complete authenticity, a kind of wholeness of the spirit of the place. When I meet the Excecutive Director, Susan Tintori and she gives me a detailed tour, I perceive in her an ever enormous sense of enthusiasm and promise; it is clear that even after many years at the school, she has in no way lost her passion for and dedication to everything they do there. It is rare for an institution to stay true to it’s founding philosophy whilst continually evolving and reaching for new heights.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

I meet the honoured American artist Daniel Graves, the academy’s Founder and Director and it becomes even more clear why the atmosphere and the mission of this place is so undimmed. The school was born out of his unwavering fight to be a part of and to preserve the lineage of the Realist tradition, and the integrity of the values which it has always embodied. It hasn’t come easy as I later find out, but then most things worth fighting for don’t.

The story of the academy really begins before Daniel even started to teach. He was a young artist who was determined to learn classical Realist techniques. He searched high and low for people who understood the tradition and in 1970 his quest brought him to Florence in Italy at a time when travelling wasn’t easy and you couldn’t just get on a plane. He was in a foreign, faraway city that he didn’t know anything about and the challenge was far from over. But waiting there in that beautiful, exalted city was a flourishing Realist lineage including: Italian artist Pietro Annigoni (1910 - 1988) who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and who would later become best known for his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II; Nerina Simi “La Signorina” (1890 - 1987) an important Italian artist, renowned teacher of painting and drawing, and the daughter of the celebrated Italian painter Filadelfo (Philadelphus) Simi (1849–1923), who studied with the illustrious French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), the latter studying at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Crucially, Daniel began to study with Nerina, absorbing everything he could, “I was only able to glean these bits and pieces that I would need along the way, there was no complete form of school, The Signorina was one of the most formal studios where I could study as well, but they were all doing the best they could with what they had and I was interested in a more complete idea of education.”

With that in mind, Daniel started a school with American painter and Art Historian Charles Cecil. In the beginning they only had two students and two teachers but 8 years later these had grown to around 40 students and numerous student teachers. However, it was time to build something of his own and so in 1991 The Florence Academy of Art was born. The only one of its kind in the world, it’s founding philosophy is a dedication to the revival of “…classical-realist tradition rooted in the 19th century, most particularly exemplified by the French Academies in the teaching of master painters like Gérôme, Bonnat and Carlos Duran…It is the view of this academy that throughout the 20th century prominent movements of art have steadily drawn attention (and teaching) away from close observation of the material world and the acquisition of strong technical skills, to a position where cohesive artistic thought is inexorably fragmented by the urge towards greater individual expression”.

The central driving philosophy, Daniel says, has stayed true, “The idea is still the same, it’s the idea of passing along a tradition as best as one can without really manipulating it into a specific individual style, but, to pass along the principles and a fuller, broader education. So, we include everything from écorché, anatomy, composition, art history and philosophy. One of my dreams is to have a humanities programme but right now, mostly we are a technical school, we pass along the training that you would have gotten pretty much at the École des Beaux-Arts. I would love to be able to teach from the Renaissance to the Baroque period, but very little is known about how individuals were taught at that time, so I’m bringing forward the pieces that were left for us and which are fairly well documented such as in letters from students and so forth and the manuals that they used. We have a fairly good idea of how they worked and what the emphasis was. The cornerstone of this programme is definitely founded in the 19th century, although it’s not my favourite period of art. It’s a work in progress. It’s constantly evolving. We’ve never rested on our laurels or sat back and said ‘ok we’ve done everything we can’. We’re constantly trying to modify and broaden the programme. Yeah, it’s fun, it’s really exciting!”

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

Daniel and the academy are staying true to the past, to what is documented, in a state of contemporaneity where so much of the past is being lost, distorted or forgotten and yet where we are longing to be and need to be reconnected with our past in an authentic way. The academy’s approach is strongly rooted in the example set by French academies because they were considered to be the premier programmes, are very well documented, and the most talented artists coming out of the Italian academies were all going to France.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

Nelson H. White, celebrated American artist, Florence Academy board member and former pupil of Pietro Annigoni and later, the academy, tells me “…the Jean-Léon Gérôme École des Beaux-Arts…had so many successful pupils all over the world, so many more than came out of the Accademie Di Belle Arti here in Italy…Gérôme was the leading teacher all over the world and he performed a method that was typically French.” Daniel adds that even Filadelfo Simi studied there “…when he was finished he came back into Italy, opened a studio and of course was considered a top ranking artist because of his training. The same thing was going on in England and the US, people would go over from Boston and so on and study in Paris and then go back to the US and they were usually met with great open arms and people who were really excited to see the quality of their work. The taste and the structure of the German programmes were really good, the Italian’s were really good, but the French had the handle on beauty. So it made sense for everyone to go there and people were looking for that kind of refinement, it just made sense”.

Daniel adds, “We’re just looking for the best that we can. The late 19th century gave birth to so many different styles and it was the first time in the history of art, that art was being taught in a way which could be used by individuals in their own specific way. It was a great base for drawing and painting and art education in terms of history and philosophy, but, just think of the number of styles that came out of 19th century painting and that is something that I think we don’t want to lose in our teaching. It’s fundamental to what we do that we don’t try and push, make everybody come out in the same shape, like pushing round pegs through a square hole”.

Over the last 26 years the academy has grown from a single atelier in Florence into a network of three schools, in Florence, the US and Sweden. Daniel chose Florence first and foremost, for its engrained historical language of classical art and the colour and light of Italian painting that would perfectly complement its exacting curriculum. In the past the majority of students attending the Florence academy have been American, however over the last ten years the makeup of the student body has become more and more diverse. Currently, they have students from 36 different countries and interestingly there has been a recent influx of British students.

The academy has a mission that seems akin to The Arts and Crafts Movement, in that it fights for awareness and respectful treatment of quality materials, which by definition celebrate their natural beauty and form. And in addition, it was born in significant part out of the belief that the mastery of creative techniques of the Realist tradition ought to be restored and revived. Daniel tells me that this awareness and respect for materials is the foundation and basis of art, full stop.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

“…without it, the fine arts just can’t exist because they are based on materials and manipulating those materials whether it be stone, paint, etching, watercolour, whatever it is. So I have a very strong connection with materials, we spend a lot of time talking about the craft, it’s an integral part of what is going on here. I couldn’t emphasise it enough and it’s the one thing of course that modern art schools completely skip over. They’re not really interested in teaching anything that is hands on, whether it be an approach to drawing or what materials to use. I think a lot of what we see in Renaissance painting, a lot of what we appreciate, whether it be by Leonardo da Vinci or whoever, you’re acutally looking at a great craftsman, and he obviously has the inspiration and the great wealth of knowledge to take it to a very high level. But at the end of the day it’s just a beautifully crafted work of art. So without that knowledge you are very limited and (from) what I see today most painters are really struggling with that, they don’t have much of an idea about materials and it shows up”.

The academy encourages its students to reflect on what they are creating and why, and in doing so to create work of art with humanist values and universal relevance at their heart. To Daniel personally, that means when a work connects us to a universal truth, making it somehow eternal, “…because of course when you connect to a universal truth or something that goes beyond your time and space, it can live forever. I mean the sculptures of the Renaissance, the sculptures of Ancient Greece, they are just as valued today and just as beautiful. We may not even really understand why they were made and what they were meant for, but the essence of them is just so beautiful and they strike a chord with us, at least to me. I’m constantly in search of those images that have that kind of meaning and that kind of truth, and they’re very elusive. If you copy something that has already been done then it will never have that same immediacy it had at the time is was made. So using all of the experiences, the art history, the knowledge of materials…it has to manifest itself in the individual”.

The challenge is not to study the techniques of old masters with the premise to copy and reproduce past works from bygone ages, that, Daniel says, is a common misunderstanding.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

“Well there’s a kind of misunderstanding that if you go back and study the techniques of the Renaissance that somehow you’re going to be a Renaissance painter, don’t you wish! You know it’s an impossibility. First of all we’re just in a different place in development and tastes and all these things that influence us. Even the Renaissance by definition was like going back to Ancient Greece and taking the best parts of Greek art and moving it forward in their own unique way, and I think that’s what the foundation for inspiring works of art is, to take something that is humanistically based and reinterpret it for your generation in a more meaningful way”.

“The next problem will be getting people to appreciate it, because right now I find the biggest challenge is you go to a gallery with a very large painting of a photograph that’s very detailed, extremely powerful to look at, but it’s not part of this tradition at all. It’s a Realist image but it was made in a completely different way, with what I consider to be very little basic skill. This distinction is very important to me, its a very large philosophical discussion, but take any artist you want like Degas or Corot and they’re making a painting- they’re looking at what everybody else looks at: a tree, a house, a person, whatever it is but it’s their translation of that that makes the art, and if there is no translation there’s nothing going on that’s changing it. If a machine makes the image and then you simply fill it in then you’re missing the whole distinction of the artist which is, I believe, the essence of the art. That’s why the materials are important, that’s why the process is important and people who don’t understand that can’t appreciate fully what we do…” Nelson adds that for him when you’re painting from photographs, what you lack is the emotion and recounts what he heard Pietro Annigoni say once when he was asked what he thought about a certain painter and replied “he’s a master from painting from a beautiful photograph but that is not my point of view. If you put the photograph between me and the subject, I miss the most important thing which is the emotion”.

Daniel explains that it’s not about asserting that there is one mode of art, “do whatever you want and use whatever abstract work, photographs, whatever you want. Just like music, there are 20 or 30 different major groups of music and I think they should all exist. There shouldn’t be just one type of music and the same applies to art, but when you talk about what we do then you need to know what defines us, what makes us who we are, why we do what we do. So these are things which we literally live and die for which sounds bizarre because most people don’t even know about them, I would imagine. This probably isn’t a good example but some people like to play Corelli on a clavicord because that’s the instrument that it was designed to be played on, but other people say why not use the piano, it’s the same and it sounds better why not just enjoy that. If you’re a purist in the strictest sense it absolutely has to be the clavicord”.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

The teachers and students at The Florence Academy of Art are dedicated to the purist way, they are standing apart from today’s commercial contemporary art market, a highly controversial marketplace whose values are arguably in conflict with their own. It’s an honorable stance. His students, Daniel explains, are “looking for the guy playing the clavicord, you know, because if you’ve got a gimmick and you add it on to what you’re doing simply because you get notoriety then it’s going to burn out very quickly and basically you’ll just lose interest yourself. Whereas if you’re really true to yourself and you follow your own passion and calling, it’s a longer much slower process and fame and fortune may come down the road. But along the way everybody wants to be famous and rich today and it’s hard not to, I see so many young people, they become commercial artists simply because they just want to have a life and I don’t blame them. I sacrificed more than anyone will ever know just because I didn’t want to do that, that’s why I teach. I didn’t realise that it would all turn into this but I did realise that I didn’t want people saying ‘Oh you did this really cool painting with the signature hand thing, I need ten more of those’, I don’t ever want to paint that again”.

Daniel’s legacy will be to bring the fragments of a very strong tradition, the pockets, the individuals that have carried the torch forward, together into a structured programme and at the same time he will keep defending mastery in an art world where everyone seems to want something new and exciting instead of the continuing evolvement of centuries of tradition. The academy is maintaining that it’s necessary to master creative techniques in order to achieve a work of universal relevance. He likens their teaching methods to how a student would learn to play the Piano: when students arrive they are given ‘scales’ before they are given an ‘instrument’, “You know, you study the piano because you want to make music, you don’t give someone a piano and let them bang on it, you need the training, you need that”.

“…all these individuals were carrying the torch forward but they were all fragments of a very strong tradition that did exist in the late 19th century, but during WWI and WWII these academies were disbanded and they became relics. They no longer were able to find students and so they closed. So the exciting part is we’re putting this back together, it would be like classical music not being played for 100 years and then somebody saying look I found some sheet music and an instrument, let’s try and do this! That’s exciting and it’s going to be part of the history of this movement, those individuals who carried it forward and put it back together. And now it’s getting more and more interesting because we are seeing what can be done with this art, with this vocabulary if you will”.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

The great challenge now is finding the people who would really appreciate what artists like Daniel, Nelson and the students of the academy are doing. They describe how although Realist artists like Robert Ferri have amazing taste and incredible technique and are doing extraordinarily well in the contemporary art world, it is proving a great challenge in the context of the traditional world of classical Realism to get the kind of exposure that artists are enjoying in the mainstream commercial market. This perhaps isn’t helped by the rapid shift in the way we buy and sell art. The contemporary art environment is such that the internet is opening out the market, reaching more people and making art immensly more accessible, but at the same time it has meant that the traditional gallery is much under threat.

“I mean, Facebook, the internet, just the contemporary environment, the way you sell paintings has just completely changed. Nelson and I grew up in a time where galleries would approach you, you would sell your work with them on a longterm basis, the galleries took a very modest fee and it was a pretty standard arrangement. They’ve all closed and the few that are still open are stuggling because young people today sell their work through the internet, they reach a much broader range of people and some are highly effective”.

By nature though online art sales platforms are often impersonal and are a poor substitute for real life encounters with works of art. Although the academy recognises the power of the online art market Daniel is hesitant to see it as the be all and end all. He says “We as painters make paintings, we don’t make images that are meant to be projected and photographed and put into media form. To appreciate a painting to actually see a painting, you have to see the painting: it’s an object, it’s not an image only. There are a hundred things that will change your opinion about the painting by actually seeing it in the flesh. That you can move around it, see it at all angles, see the surface of it, the way the colours reflect, the transparencies, all of this can be lost even on the most high resolution images…even though you think you’re seeing it as detailed and as specific as you possibly could, even more so with the naked eye…Do we need to appreciate paintings under a microscope that’s another question! I am a firm believer in going to see exhibitions, going to see paintings, going to galleries, going to museums and actually remembering that experience, that is unique and you take away with you. Of all the paintings you’ve seen, all the sculptures, especially sculptures, no image of a sculpture will ever replace your walking around it”.

A project Daniel has been trying to promote for the last 25 years is the return of the Salon, “not a virtual Salon, a real one, to have a building and bring all of the paintings in and have people invited not just to submit work. Then really high callibre (artworks) that could be kicked off with the leading realists of the world and then slowly expand as the exhibition grew as a group of painters. But it’s a gamble, you put everyone’s paintings in front of every one elses, seeing the true value of what they’re creating”. He believes that this is missing from the art movement, that nobody really has real art exhibitions where you actually go and see the paintings in person anymore. “What I’m thinking is of a much grander scale and artists young and old would literally make paintings for that, rather than things to hang over the sofa. You would actually do multi figured compositions, great works to be displayed in a proper environment, where people are looking for that”.

Courtesy of The Florence Academy of Art

Turning the spotlight away from conceptual art back onto classical works of art is proving to be a huge challenge, but Daniel believes it will happen, it’s only a matter of time. The movement needs it’s champions, its connoisseurs, to draw not only art collectors but the public’s attention back to the value inherent in craftsmanship over what is “new”, with newness being the overvalued concept. Indeed art is and always has been, derivative of what has gone before, there is in fact nothing new in the true sense of the word.

Daniel recalls, “Look what happened with wine back in the seventies, nobody drank wine in America and even in England it was red or white that’s it, so why then would you have paid £10 a bottle or $10 a bottle, rather that £2 or $2 for another? Then a kind of connoisseur came out and they started to explain and laid out the reasons why and people became educated". The motivation for a rebirth for classical art in the contemporary market is there, because he says, "not only can they enjoy their purchases, not just by drinking them, but when you have a work of art it’s something that’s kind of eternal, it can go from generation to generation, it doesn’t lose value. The bottle of wine, you drink it and it’s gone, I mean the painting, you’ll appreciate forever".

The rise, the fading and the return of the appreciation of the arts has long been a cyclical process. And here thanks to all those individuals who carried the torch and to Daniel Graves and his contemporaries who protect that flame now, what was lost has been found again. Because of such individuals, I believe that the conversation about craftsmanship will enter and feature centre stage in the public consciousness again, and soon, and the way that we understand art and the value of beauty and meaning in art will be completely revolutionised.

Copyright 2018 Zoë Atkinson Fiennes, Daniel Graves and Nelson H. White

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Accademia Di Belle Arti (Italian) & École des Beaux-Arts/Académie des Beaux-Arts (French) are the equivalent Italian and French translations of the English - Academy of Fine Arts.

An écorché is a figure drawn, painted, or sculpted which shows the muscles of the body without the skin.

Conceptual art or conceptualism, is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the artwork take precedence over more traditional aesthetic, material and technical concerns. The idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object.

The concept of Contemporaneity is understood by Philosopher Peter Osborne and Art Historian Terry Smith as being the interconnection of different hetergenous times, histories and temporalities in the same present.

The Salon was originally the name of the official art exhibitions established by the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture) and later its successor the Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux Arts). In the 18th & 19th centuries it was arguably the greatest art event in the Western world.


Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was an emminent French painter and sculptor in the style we now know as academicism. He is considered to be one of the most important painters of his generation, having also taught numerous students who went on to become well known and respected in their own right.

Filadelfo (Philadelphus) Simi (1849 – 1923) was a distinguished Italian painter and sculptor. He was a student at The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and later studied with the emminent French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Pietro Annigoni (1902 - 1988) was an illustrious Italian Realist painter. He studied at The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and would later become best known for his portrait of the British Queen Elizabeth II.

Nerina Simi a.k.a “La Signorina” (1890 - 1987) was a prominent artist and beloved teacher of painting and drawing in Florence. Pietro Annigoni considered her to be “the greatest drawing teacher of the 20th century.” She was the daughter of Filadelfo (Philadelphus) Simi.

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