At Large  January 21, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

The French Art Salon: Evolution & Impact

The Met. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1947.

Felicien Myrbach-Rheinfeld, detail of Candidates for Admission to the Paris Salon, late 19th–early 20th century. Pen and brush and black ink, graphite.

French art salons remain a fascinating fixture of the art-historical narrative as they played a huge role in shaping the art world of today and the modern system of galleries and art fairs.

Visually striking, they often featured gallery walls crammed with paintings from floor to ceiling, exuding chaotic excess that clashed marvelously with the rigid academia of their host institutions—academies.

Royal academies emerged in the seventeenth century across Europe to replace guild systems and to further the ideas of art, culture, and science sweeping across the elite circles of the continent at the time. These academies were also created to protect and foster regional styles of academic art.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the restrictions and exclusivity inherent in these academic institutions eventually led a group of artists (the Impressionists) to take subversive actions. But, this did not occur until 1874.

In the preceding centuries, salons were established, became entrenched in society, reached their peak popularity, and—despite vicious turbulence—managed to remain deeply influential on society and the art world through multiple revolutions and regimes.

wikimedia commons.

Pietro Antonio Martini, Exposition au Salon de 1787. Etching print.

The word salon has a rich history of its own and was even used to indicate several different things within France during this period including an elite social gathering often led by a woman, a large reception hall, or an academic art exhibition.

The word first began to appear with regularity in France in the seventeenth century. According to Steven Kale’s French Salons, the marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665) conceived the social salon “as an architectural framework for a new kind of sociability.” As is typical for French social conventions of the time, the structure of the social salon is fascinating and practically an art form in itself.

Although this type of salon is not the focus of this article, the unique social and ideological mobility fostered by the social salon is worth mentioning if only to offer the reader a better look at the society in which the relatively restrictive art salon operated.

The first well-known academic salon was the Salon de Paris (also Salon or Paris Salon), held in 1667. Launched by France’s Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture—which itself was established in 1648—and sponsored by the absolute monarchy of France, it featured work made by academy graduates.

The initial goal of the event was to showcase the success of the Academy’s students. The exhibition had a huge impact and became the first-ever show to run annually or biennially in the Western art world. Even so, it was not known as the Paris Salon until after 1725, when it was held in the Salon Carré, a room within the Louvre.

The Salon also gave birth to the art critic. Writers like Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) made big names for themselves by writing sometimes scathing reviews of the exhibitions.

The Met. Rogers Fund, 1922.

Honoré Daumier, Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!, from Sketches from the Salon, published in Le Charivari, May 10, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint.

Although the Paris Salon was traditional and ridged from the start, an official jury was established in 1748 to more formally uphold the taste of the Academy. More than forty years later, the Salon become slightly more inclusive when government bodies took over sponsorship in 1791.

In 1795, Salon submission was opened to all artists for the first time—it had been restricted to academy members and graduates up to this point. Despite this, the works accepted and featured in each exhibition changed very little.

Around 1830, numerous independent exhibitions began to pop up around the Paris Salon. These often featured work rejected by the Salon. In 1863, Napoleon III founded the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) to provide an exhibition space for those rejected by the Salon each year—a move that is often connected to the birth of the avant-garde

Finally, as previously mentioned, the Impressionists (then known as the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs) held an incredibly successful independent art show in 1874. The exhibition was entirely devoid of submission and acceptance—a radical choice for the time and, just like the first salons, it had a lasting impact on the art world, inspiring multiple other independent shows that still run today including the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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