The Importance of the French Art Salons

Top Lists, Art History

March 23, 2021

From the seventeenth century to the early part of the twentieth century, artistic academies, institutions and learned societies which monitor, foster, critique and protect French cultural production, were the main force controlling the artistic production. They organized official exhibitions called salons, featuring artists that needed to be received by the Académie by first submitting an artwork to the jury. This meant that only Académie artists could be shown in the French art salons.

First started under Louis XIV, the salon became an annual rather than a sporadic event after 1737, and in 1748, the jury system of selection was introduced. Here, young artists could find themselves promoted to prominence through patronage connections and collectively seek protection of artistic interests. Academic art, whose standard was ancient classical art, the European tradition, and historical subjects, rendered predominantly in painting and sculpture, retained sway through the 19th century.

However, in the 19th century, The Salon began inciting criticism from artists in the 19th century, mostly for their conservative nature and bland or academic quality of the works presented. While some artists sought change from within, exhibiting their radical works at these official venues, many were forced to seek alternative or unofficial exhibition sites. With the growing importance of independent exhibitions of the works of avant-garde artists, the Salon gradually lost its influence and prestige.

Here are four important French art salons that have significantly changed the course the art history.

Editors’ Tip: The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris

The world of the eighteenth-century salon has long been lauded as a meritocratic setting where writers, philosophers, and women created the Enlightenment. In The World of the Salons, historian Antoine Lilti proposes a fresh interpretation of salons in eighteenth-century Paris. Drawing on cultural history, social history, and the history of literature, he challenges the commonly accepted vision of salons as literary circles that were part of the Republic of Letters. For those who think they know what the salon meant in early modern European culture, politics, and intellectual circles, Antoine Lilti's The World of the Salons offers an important corrective of what went on behind the closed doors of the French salons.

Featured image: The Salon exhibition of 1787, etching by Pietro Antonio Martini published in "Aux armes et aux Arts" by Adam Biro, 1988. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Paris Salon

Launched in 1667 by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (a division of the Académie des beaux-arts) under the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV, the Sun King, The Paris Salon was the first-ever exhibition taking a format of an annual or biennial art event in the Western world. Between 1748 and 1890 it was visited by all leading art collectors, dealers, curators, and patrons.

Nurturing an array of talented artists, The Paris Salon not only had a great impact on French art but it also dictated the stylistic tendencies and tastes for visual arts at the time. It became officially known as Salon or Salon de Paris in 1725 after it first moved to the Salon Carre in the Louvre, and in 1937, it became public. The exhibitions displayed artworks floor-to-ceiling, accompanied by printed catalogues.

The Paris Salon was covered by the likes of Denis Diderot and Charles Baudelaire, contributing to the development of art critique. The Salon was a highly conservative environment, with the French Academy easily dismissing artists who did not comply with their standard and the expectations. Such was the case with the Impressionists, whose works were bluntly rejected, or inadequately presented if accepted.

After an uproar from the exhibitors whose works were turned away, Napoleon III founded the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of rejects), which included the works that the Salon rejected that year. Founded in 1863, it marked the emergence of the birth of the avant-garde. Soon, artists felt empowered to start organizing their own shows, but also alternative salons that rivaled the Paris Salon.

Featured image: Formally dressed patrons at The Paris Salon in 1890. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Salon des Indépendants

Formed in Paris in 1884 by the Société des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists), Salon des Indépendants was a response to the rigid traditionalism of the official government-sponsored Paris Salon. An annual exhibition where artworks were often first displayed and widely discussed, it set the trends in art of the early 20th century for the following three decades.

Salon des Indépendants was founded by a small collective of innovative artists - Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Camille Pissarro along with Albert Dubois-Pillet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. The Society vowed to exhibit the works of artists claiming a certain independence in their art, in the absence of both awards and a selection jury. In their statute, it reads:

..the purpose of Société des Artistes Indépendants – based on the principle of abolishing admission jury – is to allow the artists to present their works to public judgement with complete freedom. 

A refuge for artworks deemed unacceptable by the traditional Salon, Salon des Indépendants exhibited works by artists such as Seurat, Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Odilon Redon, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Louis Valtat, Armand Guillaumin, Charles Angrand, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh, and later on, Henri Rousseau, Pierre Bonnard, Jean Metzinger and Henri Matisse - practically all of the artists associated with Modernism and the Avant-garde. World War I brought a closure to the salon, though the Artistes Indépendants remained active.

Featured image: Georges Seurat - Une baignade à Asnières (Bathers in Asnières), 1884, retouched 1887. Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm. National Gallery, London.

Salon d'Automne

Founded in 1903 by Frantz Jourdain, with Hector Guimard, George Desvallières, Eugène Carrière, Félix Vallotton, Édouard Vuillard, Eugène Chigot and Maison Jansen, The Salon d'Automne is still held annually on the Champs-Élysées, between the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, in mid-October. It is yet another Salon that came to existence as a reaction against the conservative policies of the official Paris Salon.

The showpiece of developments and innovations in 20th-century painting, drawing, sculpture, engraving, architecture and decorative arts, the Salon exhibited artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Georges Rouault, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Marcel Duchamp.

With an aim to encourage the development of the fine arts, to serve as an outlet for young artists (of all nationalities), and a platform to broaden the dissemination of Impressionism and its extensions to a popular audience, the Salon is distinguished for its multidisciplinary approach, open to paintings, sculptures, photographs (from 1904), drawings, engravings, applied arts, and the clarity of its layout.

Although held in the poorly lit, humid basement of the Petit Palais, the first edition included works by Matisse, Bonnard and other progressive artists - it was unexpectedly successful, and was met with wide critical acclaim. In addition to the 1903 inaugural exhibition, three other dates remain historically significant for the Salon d'Automne: 1905, that bore witness to the birth of Fauvism; 1910, that witnessed the launch of Cubism; and 1912, that resulted in a xenophobic and anti-modernist quarrel in the National Assembly (France).

Featured image: View of the 1904 Salon d'Automne, photograph by Ambroise Vollard, Salle Cézanne. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Salon des Refusés

As it was already mentioned above, Salon des Refusés included the works that the Paris Salon rejected. It was organized by Napoleon III, who was sensitive to public opinion, so as to allow the public to judge the merits of these works for themselves. That year, in 1863, the Salon rejected two thirds of the paintings presented, including works by Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Johan Jongkind, Paul Cézanne, Armand Guillaumin, Henri Fantin-Latour, James Whistler, and Édouard Manet - all subsequently shown at Salon des Refusés.

The exhibition included 780 works by 64 sculptors and 366 painters, along with a small number of printmakers and architects. Although it put on view such now-famous paintings as Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe and James McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, was ridiculed by the critics and the public. Manet's work caused a scandal, officially regarded, indecent and vulgar and scandalous affront to taste. It sparked outrage, even among certain artists, including Odilon Redon, although Manet's contemporary and established writer and critic Émile Zola defended the work.

However, Salon des Refusés was significant in many ways - it undermined the infallibility of the French Academy and, by implication, Academic art across Europe, highlighted the need for alternative "unofficial" exhibitions, and, most importantly, legitimized the emerging avant-garde in painting and paved the way to movements such as Impressionism.

Featured image: Édouard Manet - Luncheon on the Grass, detail, 1863. Image via Wikimedia Commons.