During the early 1800s, the Salon de Paris was the only major art exhibition in France, and it exerted a massive influence on the career prospects of artists. Commercial galleries were very limited, so being shown at the Salon was critical to an artist’s success, as Salon exhibitions were visited by serious art collectors, dealers, curators and patrons as well as thousands of ticket-bearing visitors. Artists whose work was displayed at the Salon won prizes, gained commissions, and enhanced their prestige.
The Salon was an annual juried art show conducted by the the Académie des Beaux-Arts (which also ran schools of art instruction). The standards of the juries represented the values of the Académie.
By 1820 the Salon was staged in large commercial halls, packed floor-to-ceiling with paintings hung in a series of horizontal rows, with a ‘Hanging Committee’ determining which paintings were displayed at what level. As might be expected, artists whose works were displayed in the upper rows were unimpressed with the hanging process.
The Académie was the preserver of traditional French painting standards of content and style. Historical subjects, religious themes and portraits were highly regarded, while landscapes and still lifes were considered to be of much lower value.
The Académie preferred carefully finished images that looked realistic when examined closely. Colours were expected to sombre and conservative, and traces of brush strokes should be suppressed, concealing the artist’s personality, emotions, and working techniques.
Artists who didn’t conform with these expectations were rarely shown at the Salon, and as a result found it almost impossible to make a successful career.
However, by the mid 1800s a number younger artists were painting in a lighter and brighter manner than painters of preceding generations. They were also more interested in painting landscapes and contemporary life than in recreating historical or mythological scenes. (We’ve come to know of many of these artists as Impressionists.)
The Salon jury consistently rejected their works, and in 1863 an uproar occurred when two thirds (3,000) of the total number of paintings that had been submitted were rejected.
To pacify the critics and “to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints”, Emperor Napoleon III ordered that artists whose works had been rejected could exhibit their works in a show adjacent to the Salon. The show became known as the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects). Importantly, this decision led to a gradual opening up of opportunities for artists to show their work publicly, and by 1890, the Salon de Paris, and the Académie, no longer exerted the same level of influence on the public taste in art, or an artist’s success.
More about the Salon des Refusés and other exhibitions in posts to follow.
This has been an excerpt from my on-line modern art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com