The Nationale Salon

Palais des Beaux Arts

The National Society of Fine Arts (Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) was established in 1862.

In 1864, it organised a retrospective exhibition of 248 paintings and lithographs by Delacroix, just after his death, but then temporarily ceased its exhibitions.

Then, in 1890, under the leadership of Ernest Meissonier, the Société began to hold annual exhibitions. These were sometimes referred to as Salon du Champs de Mars, or Salon de la Nationale, but soon became known as the Nationale, at Champ de Mars. Other key committee members were Puvis de Chavannes, Jules Dalou, Auguste Rodin, Carolus-Duran,  Bracquemond, and Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse.

Membership in the society was gained only through official invitation. Founding members of the Nationale selected artists to become societaires. These members, in turn, invited associate members. (In contrast, membership in the Société des Artistes Francais was dependent solely on whether an artist had been admitted to the Paris Salon in the past. Any artist whose work had passed jury inspection automatically became an associate member.)

The Nationale committee rethought everything from jury selection and awards to the decoration of the exhibition hall and the appearance of catalogues. It created a rotating jury system so that the same jury members wouldn’t be elected year after year. It also aimed to create a Salon that was more selective, prestigious and noticeably more modern than that of the Paris Salon, administered by the Société des Artistes Francais from 1880.

The exhibition space at the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champ de Mars was divided into a series of small galleries where paintings were hung at eye-level, reaching only half-way up the walls. Artists could submit as many works as they like, which were often grouped in a complementary fashion. This enabled visitors to gain a much better overall view of an artist’s stylistic range and ability.

In this way, the Nationale Salon imitated the intimate, relaxed atmosphere of the private exhibitions of dealers such as Durand-Ruel or Georges Petit, replacing the crowded walls of the Paris Salon. As the London Times reported,

‘the [Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts on the] Champ de Mars is a true artistic exhibition, contributed to by most of the recognised masters of the French School, while the exhibition of the [Societe des Artistes Francais on the] Champs Elysees is an arena open to the crowd.’1.

The Salon of the Nationale was a modern and responsive institution which looked to the growing dealer-critic system and private exhibitions to find new ways to adapt and improved its exhibitions. As a result it provided many significant artists with a prestigious venue in which to show their works in a more sympathetic setting than the Paris Salon, and was less open to criticism than other Salons of the period, and remained among the most important art venues in France well into the twentieth century.

  1. The Times, 15 May 1890, p. 5, column 2

This is an excerpt from my  online Introduction to Modern European Art art appreciation program

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