Art Competitions

Understanding the Importance of Art Competitions

A Studio in Batignolles Quarter by Henri Fantin-Latour, oil on canvas, 1870, 80 x 107.
A Studio in Batignolles Quarter by Henri Fantin-Latour, oil on canvas, 1870, 80 x 107.

An artist grows by leaps and bounds when he or she puts artwork in the public eye for feedback, and that is what art competitions are all about. Historically, patronage, commissions, and incredible opportunities have all been prizes afforded to winners of major art competitions.

Nowadays, drawing and painting competitions continue to allow artists to display their work among their peers, have it reviewed by esteemed judges, and sometimes receive exhibition opportunities and monetary incentives.

But more than the competitive spirit drives fine art competitions. These venues or events (at their best) showcase noteworthy emerging artists, those with unique perspectives, and artists with technical acuity.

Viewers walk away from a great art competition with a real sense of what art-making looks like right now, and participating artists are able to make a statement—whether it is cultural, political, aesthetic, or formalist—to the art world at large.

History of Art Competitions & Art Contests

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Lorenzo Ghiberti, gilded bronze relief, 1401-02.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Lorenzo Ghiberti, gilded bronze relief, 1401-02.

Throughout Western civilization’s history, art competitions have gone hand in hand with the creation of some of the most moving artwork of the day. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth road for the participating artists. Here’s a timeline of some of the most interesting (even notorious!) highlights having to do with historic art contests and fine art competitions.

Zeuxis and Parrhasius
Zeuxis was a famous Greek painter during the 5th century BC. Pliny the Elder writes, in his Natural History, that Zeuxis and his fellow painter Parrhasius entered into an art contest to see who was the greater artists. For his art contest contribution, Zeuxis painted a cluster of grapes that were so tempting and lifelike that birds flew down from the sky to eat them. Parrhasius painted a curtain that so deceived his opponent that Zeuxis conceded defeat by saying, “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”

Florence’s Baptistry Doors
The art competition that every art history student studies came in 1401 in Florence, Italy, where the Baptistry of St. John, the oldest church in the city, held an art competition to find an artist to make a pair of bronze doors for one of the entrances of the building. In the end, the two contenders for the commission were Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti won the art competition, and his first set of Baptistry doors took 27 years to complete (he was eventually commissioned to do a second set).

The Prix de Rome
In France in 1663, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture instituted the Prix de Rome, an art competition award that offered the winning artist a stay of several years at the Palazzo Mancini, in Rome, at the expense of the king.

The prize afforded an artist of exceptional promise the opportunity to reside in an important cultural metropolis and refine and expand his professional, artistic, and scholarly aptitudes. By instituting this award, the stewards of French culture were tactically recognizing and seeking to address a significant challenge: how to provide for the continuing support and education of artists and secure the continuance of the visual arts for future generations.

Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1863.
Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1863.

Manet and the Salon des Refusés
The most famous and first “exhibition of rejects” came in 1863 when many of the 3,000 works that had been passed over by the fine art competition officials of the Paris Salon were shown in a nearby gallery hall. To many, this marked the creation of the avant-gard. Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass was among the paintings shown in this group, as was Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl.

Sargent’s Strap
In 1884, Sargent shocked the Paris Salon in an art contest controversy by exhibiting a portrait he titled Madame X, in which one of the straps of the figure’s gown has slipped down her shoulder. The detail was interpreted as quite sexually suggestive at the art competition’s opening. Sargent lauded the painting as one of the best he’d ever done, but it was not well received by the public at large.

An Art Competition Success Story

Rossina's Apple by William Rose,2007, charcoal on museum board, 28 x 20.
Rossina’s Apple by William Rose,2007, charcoal on museum board, 28 x 20.

Artist William Rose is the winner of a previous Drawing magazine cover art competition. The events that came out of his winning the drawing competition and having his work on the cover of the magazine (and, therefore, on newsstands all over the country) speaks to how entering American Artist art contests and putting your work in a public venue can give your artwork incredible visibility, with exciting results.

The following is Rose’s abridged letter describing his success. By the way, the film Rose mentions, which features his work, is Carmel-by-the-Sea. Rose’s artwork can also be seen in the Summer 2010 issue of Drawing. Bravo, Bill!

From: William Rose
To:
American Artist
Subject: Cover Winner Feedback

Hi…I was the winner of the Drawing magazine cover art contest (for Rossina’s Apple) and I wanted to relay briefly what occurred shortly after the publication.

I was contacted by a film director in Carmel, California, about a project he was working on with the Eastwoods (Clint and his wife, Dina). He was beginning preproduction of a film about a teenage art prodigy who gets involved in international forgery, and they were looking for an artist to work on the film.  They spotted Drawing magazine with my cover at a local bookstore, and after visiting my website they apparently determined my charcoal work was exactly what they were looking for.

So here I am-an artist from Prairie Village, Kansas, having only inadvertently stumbled across a talent for drawing a few years ago-getting a request to come out to Carmel for three months and produce all of the artwork that appears in the film as the work of the kid prodigy. As you might imagine, it was quite a surreal experience. In addition to producing all of the artwork-which included dozens of drawings, a few paintings, and a 16′-x-12′ figurative mural on a hotel-room ceiling-they asked me to be the on-set still photographer for the entire shoot and put me up in a multimillion dollar home in Pebble Beach. The movie stars Lauren Bacall, Alfred Molina, Josh Hutcherson (as the teenage prodigy), and Hayden Panettiere, as well as Clint’s wife, Dina, and his son, Scott.

Since the filming, my career has really shot off the ground with numerous shows in and around the Kansas City area and my work being represented in multiple galleries. Needless to say, I owe all of this to entering and winning your art competition.  There is no way I can begin to express my gratitude to you for providing the exceptional opportunities with your publications to artists like myself who scratch and claw to find ways to gain a little recognition in a world filled with outstanding artists.

All my best,
Bill

William Rose was given an exceptional opportunity in the wake of his winning the Drawing magazine art competition. The American Artist, Drawing, and Watercolor magazine competitions are currently underway, and entering them could bring your work amazing exposure and bring you the opportunities and visibility you so richly deserve.

Choosing the Right Art Contest

Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre by François Joseph Heim, 1827.
Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre by François Joseph Heim, 1827.

There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of art competitions held worldwide every year. Some art contests are local, some regional, and some accept submissions from those all across the globe. There are drawing competitions, sculpting contests, painting competitions, and more. Artist contests can be juried, peer evaluated, or simply critiqued. Because there is so much variety among the art competitions out there, it is good to keep a few pointers in mind so you choose the art competition that is right for you and get the most out of any art contest experience from beginning to end.

Read the fine print. Many contests have stipulations that you need to be aware of, whether specifying who can submit work, how work can be submitted, fees, deadlines, and more, and it is always smart to read rules and regulations before you take any other step.

Look who the judges are. To get your artwork in front of gallerists, curators, editors, and artists who can positively impact your career, make sure to research who are the judges or jury members for any art competition you enter. This can sometimes give you a sense of what kind of works to submit and what kind of works the powers that be might be more open to.

Free is free. Free art competitions are great, but they also may not be the best proving ground for an artist with a professional career in the art world in mind. In the same vein, make sure any art contest fee is worth the price. Art competitions online abound, so it should be easy to find info on past winners, prizes, and issues for any art competition you are considering, so you can get a sense of who else is submitting and the quality of their work, and what you can expect from the process as a whole.

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About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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