The Salon, Paris’s Premier Art Exhibition

July 10, 2020

The first-ever exhibition taking a format of an annual or biennial art event in the Western world was the iconic Paris Art Salon or simply The 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.

With a tradition of almost one hundred and fifty years, The Salon nurtured an array of talented artists and made quite an impact not only on French art but also internationally, by practically dictating the stylistic tendencies and taste for visual arts at the time. The Salon was an important site for presenting different approaches, but mainly it served as a catalyst for the traditions of academic art dating from the Renaissance, and gradually it became immensely conservative.

Francois-Joseph Helm - Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon
Francois-Joseph Helm - Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre, 1827, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image via creative commons.

The Facts

The exhibition's aim was to present the works of members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture) and the recent graduates of its school (École des Beaux-Arts, an institution founded by the chief minister of France, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1648).

The first Salons were held in different places, and after it moved to the Salon Carre in the Louvre in 1725, it became officially known as Salon or Salon de Paris. In 1737 the exhibition became public, and any artist could exhibit if approved, while in 1748 a jury of awarded artists was introduced.

The paintings were exhibited floor-to-ceiling and the artworks in general covered every inch of space available, which is featured on numerous paintings such as Pietro Antonio Martini's Salon of 1785. The exhibition was accompanied by printed catalogues; critical overviews of the Salon written by the likes of Denis Diderot and Charles Baudelaire were published in the print marking the development of art critique.

For decades the frequency of The Paris Art Salon varied, either it was being annual or biennial; however, once the continuity was established, the exhibition became the most important art event visited by all leading art collectors, dealers, curators, and patrons. Furthermore, it had an immense impact on the development of artists' careers meaning that the ones who did not comply with the standard and the expectations of the French Academy could be easily dismissed from the art system. Such policy resulted in rebellion and the launching of counter salons to be mentioned more further in the text.

B Perat - Showing a real vernissage
B. Perat - Showing a real 'vernissage' (note the workers in the background), Salon de Paris, 1866. Image courtesy of creative commons.

The Decline of the Paris Art Salon and Salon des Refuses

After the French revolution in 1789, the Paris Art Salon started accepting works by foreign artists. The vernissage or the opening night had a grand social role, gathering an array of people. Although another important revolution in 1848, better known as the February Revolution (which led to the creation of the French Second Republic), liberalized the Salon, and the amount of refused works was greatly reduced, the Salon was still a highly conservative environment.

The main dispute came when the Impressionist painters attempted to apply and their works were bluntly rejected, or inadequately presented if accepted. Namely, the Salon disliked the Impressionists' innovative technique and the Plein air approach and found it disgraceful concerning traditional painting styles.

For instance, the Salon jury rejected three thousand of the submitted paintings in 1857 including works by Cezanne, Whistler, and Pissarro, as well as now-iconic Dejeuner sur L'Herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet. That caused an uproar especially from regular exhibitors whose works were turned away.

To balance this discontent, in 1863 Napoleon III brought a democratic decision and founded the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of rejects), which included the works that the Salon rejected that year, and this particular event marked the emergence of the birth of the avant-garde, especially the shows in 1874, 1875, and 1886. The appearance of this alternative exhibition ultimately empowered the artists to start organizing their own shows.

Jean-Andre Rixens - A Opening Day at the Palais des Champs-Elysees
Jean-André Rixens - A Opening Day at the Palais des Champs-Élysées (1890). Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts of 1890. Right: Tigress bringing a peacock to her young by Auguste Cain. Image courtesy of creative commons.

The Significance Of The Paris Art Salon

After the French School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) withdrew official sponsorship from the annual Salon in 1881, the group of artists took over and immediately organized the Société des Artistes Français. In 1884, the Paris Salon got a rival and that was the Salon des Independants conducted by the Society of Independent Artists (Societe des Artistes Independants) founded by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Odilon Redon, and others. It was the most progressive salon in Paris and the center of the avant-garde where Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and other modern art movements, debuted along with the works of de Chirico, Archipenko, Kandinsky, Malevich, and others.

In 1903, a group of painters and sculptors led by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin organized the Salon d'Automne as a response to what was perceived at the time a bureaucratic and conservative organization. This annual exhibition was indeed an alternative to the official Salon and a more discriminating alternative to the Salon des Independants that established the reputations of both Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin.

After all stated above, it is apparent that this particular phenomenon, although multiplied and run by different associations, left a strong mark on the art history by determining various models of selection, curation, and representation that are still present in the contemporary exhibition practices; made possible for some artists to become famous; affected the development of art criticism and ultimately made a huge social impact on the society which gradually changed from monarchy to republic.

Featured image: Alexandre Brun - View of the Salon Carré at the Louvre. Image courtesy of creative commons.