The Salon System and Alternatives in Early Modern French Art

Salons (art shows) timeline in late 19th century and early 20th century French art

A vertical infographic timeline giving text details of the salon system and the alternative salons that eventually provided an alternative. These were the Impressionists exhibition, The Independents’ show and the Autumn show. These alternative arts exhibitions allowed the leading experimental artists to short circuit the traditional salon system.
Alternative circuits for artists who did not conform to the rigid Salon system slowly developed in the later 19th and early 20th century.

If you are using a mobile device on the walk and for some reason the image has not loaded or become inaccessible, here is the text from the Salon infographic timeline:

The Salon since 17th century:

– The official state authorised arts exhibition
– For the students of the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Academy)
– Long established going back to 17th century
– Becomes a conservative inflexible institution
– Accepts only highly technical and finished academic art; refuses evolution or progression in artistic expression
– Refuses exhibition space to many now famous painters

Salon des Refusés 1863 (Exhibition of rejected (artists)):

– For those artists whose works were rejected at 1863 Salon; authorised by Emperor Napoleon III
– Takes place in same building as official Salon
– Manet shows Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Lunch on the Grass)
– Mixed critical reception and some public laughter

The Impressionist Exhibition 1874:

– Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot; set up first rival regular show to Salon 1874
– First 1874 show takes place 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris
– Monet’s painting Impression, Rising Sun
– Some critics call work unfinished sketch or impression
– Comes to be known as the Impressionist’s Exhibition
– Meets 8 times last show 1886

The Salon des Independants (Independents’ Show) 1884:

– Set up 1884 by Seurat, Signac, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec
– Open platform new art no jury
– Important challenge to official Salon
– Two influential works for modern art premiered here by Matisse:
– 1905 Luxe Calme et Volupte (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure)
– 1906 Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life)

Amplifiers and influencers; new art galleries from 1870:

Paul Durand-Ruel from 1870
– Shows Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, Renoir
– Galleries also in London, Brussels later New York
Ambroise Vollard opens gallery 1893
– Shows Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso
– The Steins and Barnes among his clients
Berthe Weil shows Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso
Père Tanguy a colourist and arts supplier 1870s – 1890s
– Helps, encourages especially Cézanne and van Gogh in lean times
– Takes paintings as credit for colours saves many Cézannes
– As for most of artist’s life no market for Cézanne at that time

The Salon d’Automne (Autumn Arts Show) 1903:

– Set up in 1903 by Belgian architect Frantz Jourdain
– Stage for modern innovative artists has jury
– Features the Fauves (Wild Beasts) Exhibition of 1905
– Other retrospective exhibitions important for the development of modern art:
Manet retrospective show of 1905
Gauguin homage 1906
– Extensive Cézanne exhibition 1907

The stylistic and technical innovations of artists showcased in these Salon d’Automne retrospectives help set the agenda in the development of modern art.

The Salon: artistic conformity and official good taste

The Salon in France was an official exhibition for the students of the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) in Paris. Its roots go back to 17th century royal patronage. The Salon, held in Paris, was the most important yearly and prestigious arts event in France.

Acceptance of a painting by the jury of the Salon meant an official seal of approval in terms of artistic merit, quality and taste. Receiving a prize could mean official commissions from the French Government, public recognition and possibly patronage. Most aspiring artists strove to be accepted by the Salon and so churned out art acceptable to the jury.

The Salon and its jury, by the mid 19th century, had become a very conservative institution. It tended only to accept paintings of a certain genre conforming to strict technical conventions, for example, mythological allegories or historical recreations painted in as technically pure a way as possible. Technique was more important than originality or any kind of dialogue or engagement with the viewer.

Pompous, academic, unrealistic, studio-bound art

For the jury of the Salon and the Academy the idea was to try to mirror nature by perfectly representing it. This meant perfecting design and perspective, working in the optimal conditions of the studio, accurately translating anatomy, correcting and finishing every detail on the canvas. The doctrine of polished technical perfection shared by the jury of the Salon and the Academy framed the restrictive template of the approved art of the period.

Some prime examples of Salon art can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris. These include: Emile Lévy’s The Death of Orpheus, William Bouguereau’s Youth and Love and most famously of all Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus.

Salon des Refusés

In 1863 at least half of the paintings submitted to the Salon were rejected. Emperor Napoleon III decided to allow those artists whose works had been rejected an exhibition space. This was the Salon des Rufusés (Exhibition of rejected (artists)). It was here that Manet showed Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Impressionist’s Exhibition

By 1874 a collective of painters including Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and others set up an independent show which came to be known as the The Impressionist’s Exhibition. The first show took place at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. It featured Monet’s work ‘Impression, Rising Sun’ to be seen in the Monet Marmottan Museum in Paris. The title eventually gave the entire movement its name – the Impressionists.

Eight exhibitions took place the last being in 1886. Critics influenced by the Salon system considered these works to be unfinished sketches; others saw them as a necessary renewal in style and subject matter. Appealing to the viewer to share the artist’s sense of joy and wonder before common experiences such as a sunrise or the shimmer of light reflected on water, was not considered serious art.

Salon des Independants 1884

The Salon des Independants (Independents’ Show) was started in 1884 by among others Seurat, Signac, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, it had no jury and awarded no medals. The Salon took place in the spring. Whilst the quality of the exhibitions was variable the guiding precept was to encourage artistic freedom and give artists a platform.

It was at the Independents’ Show of 1905 that Matisse showed his striking Luxe Calme et Volupte (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure). He again chose the Independants’ exhibition of 1906 to showcase his Fauvist masterpiece Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life).

Salon d’Automne 1903

The Salon d’Automne (Autumn Arts Show) which had its first edition in 1903 was again a stage for independent and especially modern artists. The guiding force behind this event was the Belgian architect Frantz Jourdain. It was an inclusive and eclectic gathering featuring not just painting but also sculpture, engraving, architecture and the decorative arts. This organisation did have a jury. The Salon is probably best known for the ‘Fauves‘ (‘Wild Beasts’) Exhibition of 1905.

Important precursors of Modern Art at the Salon d’Automne: retrospectives of Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne

Several very extensive and important retrospectives took place at this Salon in the early 1900s, these were: the Manet and Ingres retrospectives at the ‘Fauves’ show of 1905; a vast Gauguin homage in 1906, which Picasso probably visited, and the showing of many of Cézanne’s works in 1907, one year after the artist’s death.

What these timely retrospectives did was to finally secure and greatly amplify the reputation of the individual artists who featured. Manet, Gauguin and especially Cezanne were innovators; modern painters investigating new ways of representing nature, people and narrative.

These shows brought them to the centre of the stage and allowed other artists the opportunity to examine closely their technique and style. Matisse and especially Picasso were distorting and would eventually break the rules of conventional visual representation in painting. The timing of these retrospectives and the originality of the painters featured energised and accelerated that process.

The challenge to official art

Major French artists and artistic movements leading up to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in Montmartre 1907.

Major French artists and artistic movements leading up to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in Montmartre 1907.

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883)

Manet is one of the giants of 19th century French art. Two of his masterpieces Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (literally The Lunch on the Grass) and Olympia both of which date from the 1860s, can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Both works feature female nudes.

Manet was bourgeois, his father was a High Court judge. He was an insider with a privileged view of the values and conventions of his class.

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (literally ‘The Lunch on the Grass’)

In Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe the naked woman seems to engage the viewer with a relaxed glance and smile. She is accompanied by overdressed bourgeois men; one is talking and the other seems distracted even absent. A fourth female figure bathes behind this group. The figures are presented as modern recognisable Parisians on a day trip to the country.

Nudes belong to historical allegories

Looking at the works cited above by Cabanel or Bouguereau, we can see how with the examples In the accepted convention at this time was to set nudes in a mythological setting. Female nudity was traditionally associated with artistic interpretations of the ancient classical past. A nude in a mythical setting rendered in a certain finished polished style was acceptable to the eyes of the arts establishment. This traditional setting gave dignity to titillation and so did not undermine public morality.

Manet goes against convention. He chooses to place his nude female model in a far from traditional setting. The nude here is not idealised and she is in the company of clothed men. She is relaxed, poised, and in control; there is the hint of a smile on her face.

Smiling back at the Salon

Is that smile Manet’s anticipation of the surprise, exasperation and bemusement he knew his painting would be met with by critics and public? Traditionally physical form was modelled with shadow to suggest volume and dimension. Manet by portraying his figure in a flat, shadowless, artificially lit manner chooses to defy convention and traditional representation.

The painting was without surprise rejected by the official Salon jury but found a place in the 1863 ‘Salon des Refusés’ (see above). ‘The Show for Rejected Artists’ was an arts event that was organised at the demand of Emperor Napoleon III.

Olympia stares calmly at the viewer

The second work again shows a recognisably modern scene: a beautiful naked reclining prostitute called Olympia stares calmly out of the canvas at her next client. Who is her next client? The viewer, you.

Whilst the Olympia was, surprisingly, admitted to the 1865 Salon, both it and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe caused a scandal. They seemed too direct, too indecent, both seemed barely finished with minimal modelling and visible brushstrokes.

They were too contemporary and it looked as though in both cases the female figures control the viewer’s experience of the painting. They were mocked and reviled by some of the arts establishment and much of the curious public.

Manet is important for what follows in modern art by resisting the academic precepts of a perfect polished painting. He insists on the artist’s full control of subject matter and employs the techniques he considers best to present the painted image. The artist can also present modern contemporary life and is surely not limited to portraying classical allegory or historical convention.

There are elements in Manet’s work that draw attention to the fact that a painting is only a particular form of two dimensional constructed illusion, and not objective reality.

Just as we in our personal day to day existence construct and reinterpret our perception through the filter of experience and culture, so painting can only ever attempt a partial representation of a kind of reality.

Manet helps free 19th century French art from constraining academic convention

Manet’s inconclusive visual narrative in for example Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe demands the viewer’s engagement. There seems no definitive guidelines or conclusion to the storyline; we have to step in with our imagination to finish it off. The fact that the female figure looks out at the viewer seemingly to engage and invite our participation would appear to support this.

Manet helped to set in motion a shift in artistic convention. The move was from representational art based on established criteria and technique to a looser, more abstract, personalised form of expression. The artist chooses and controls the subject, narrative and means of representation. Manet invites contemporary society and its hypocrisies into painting.

The Impressionists (1860s – 1890s)

The Impressionists should also be seen as a movement away from the traditional, constraining, classical, studio-bound art of the Salon tradition. That academic tradition helped stifle innovation up to the arrival of the Impressionist movement.

There can be little doubt that the Impressionists helped loosen the shackles of the traditional dominant arts establishment.

The paralyses of the institution and the system meant that artists such as Manet, Renoir, Monet or Pissarro were regularly rejected. These artists had chosen to explore alternative means of artistic expression and so did not conform to the narrow technical filter of the Salon jury’s criteria.

The Impressionists often painted in the countryside; they aimed to capture the feel of natural light in paint. By leaving the studio and going out to the countryside around Paris the Impressionists were literally turning their back on the Parisian studio and Salon art scene.

Whilst Impressionism was going on the Salon as an institution remained stuck in an academic loop; teaching a certain type of art at the Academy then rewarding it with admittance to the Salon.

The conservatism of the Salon system and the genre of painting it approved needed challenging. The salon’s refusal to consider alternative means of expression or subject matter and its resistance to change actually helped draw artists together. It encouraged them to protest and finally forced them to organise their own alternative events and networks outwith the official Salon.

Painting the transient

An Impressionists artist like Monet aimed to translate in painting the immediate and the ephemeral. By capturing the sparkle of light on water, or the glowing haze of morning mist, or a tree in flower in spring, the Impressionists attempted not only to represent what they saw but also convey the effect the scene had on them. The viewer is then invited to share the moment and experience the impression.

Moving away from the academic tradition of over-worked, perfectly defined representation of approved usually classical subjects, they tried to capture the wonder of everyday things with looser brushwork and freer colours.

Because the apprehension and communication of the atmosphere of the moment outweighs formal technique, critics, instead of sharing in the joy of existence that many of these paintings conveyed, claimed that these works were mere unfinished ‘impressions’ and hardly painting at all.

Picasso admires Renoir’s female nudes

If you visit the Picasso Museum in Paris  then you will see that works by Renoir (1841 – 1919), who was one of Impressionism’s major artists, formed part of Picasso’s personal collection. Picasso particularly admired Renoir’s rendering of the female nude as can be seen in the sketch by Renoir of one woman combing the hair of another seated female figure. The theme of women bathing or brushing hair was one Picasso would return to.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Degas shared the Impressionist’s preoccupation with capturing the moment. Unlike the Impressionists who painted in the open air and attempted to reproduce ephemeral natural light and nature, Degas preferred to paint contemporary Parisian scenes and people illuminated often by artificial light.

Degas’ career stretched for decades and much of it was spent in the Montmartre and Pigalle areas where he lived and worked. I have an upcoming second walk which looks at Degas in more detail. Some of his paintings portray performers in the local entertainment industry, others ordinary working people or café scenes; his muted Absinthe in the Orsay Museum in Paris is a fine example.

Capturing motion

Degas tried to capture the effects of motion on the body. He was interested in photography. He had probably noticed the momentary contortions of the figure in motion that the camera caught but the eye missed.

His pictures of young female dancers at the ballet, bathed in gaslight or electric stage light, sometimes framed from improbable viewpoints, attempt to recreate the spectacle of movement. Many of his important works are executed in pastel.

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Vincent van Gogh lived in Paris from 1886-88 with his brother Theo in Rue Lepic, Montmartre. Before moving to Arles in the south Vincent, (who was largely self-taught), got some formal lessons in the same academy as fellow student Toulouse Lautrec.

Van Gogh also took time to study Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques. He, like many contemporary artists at the time, admired Japanese prints; these influenced his composition. His observations meant he was able to develop his technique which became much more vivid and dynamic.

Rapidly he outgrew and overpowered any movement or traditional method of painting. Jabbed contrasting bright colours and a denser application of paint conveyed movement, intensity and energy.

Van Gogh’s subjectivity and idiosyncratic style mean that he has become a cornerstone and primary reference for modern art. I’ll have a little more to say about van Gogh in his own right at point 12.

Paul Cézanne; I deal briefly with Paul Cézanne in the Influences on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon page.

Paul Gauguin; I deal briefly with Paul Gauguin in the Influences on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon page.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891), Paul Signac (1863 – 1935), Neo-Impressionism

Georges Seurat and Paul Signac influenced by contemporary optical theory developed the mosaic ‘pixellated’ style of painting known as divisionism. To achieve divisionism the pointillist technique is used by applying small dots of colour.

These dots of colour were painstakingly applied to the canvas building out form and gradually defining contour.

The technique required a patient and methodical approach from the artist and a degree of goodwill and cooperation from the viewer. Seurat and Signac and their followers soon became known as Neo-Impressionists.

The central idea of divisionism is that the colours are mixed optically during the process of contemplating the picture. The theory was that you obtained a better mixture of pure colour through the process of looking at the painting than could be achieved by the artist physically mixing the colours himself.

A fine example of the technique is the famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte by Seurat in The Art Institute of Chicago. His Circus can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Henri-Edmond Cross’ Golden Isles also in the Orsay in Paris is another nice example. All of these paintings again show that experimentation was taking place.

The Fauves

Another group of artists interested in the expressive possibilities of colour theory were the Fauves. The term, which means ‘wild beasts’, was coined by a critic. It caught on because it described the highly unacademic style of painting developed by Henri Matisse and André Derain during the summer of 1905 in Collioure near to the Spanish border in southern France.

The colour theory that interested the Fauves was the juxtaposition of opposing colours. To this they added primitivism and simplicity of form in order to catch the potency, immediacy and impact of strong Mediterranean light both on the eye and on the senses. The colour no longer accurately reflects the thing portrayed but gives an artistic expression of the excitement and exaltation for the artist of experiencing and seeing what he is representing.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901)

Toulouse-Lautrec overcame physical disability to become the leading poster artist of his day. His representations of the music hall scene were influenced by the pared back Japanese print style. The Japanese style featured contrasting expanses of paint, restricted framing, silhouettes and sharply defined contours. Toulouse-Lautrec adapted it so that it conveyed the movement of dance with the silhouettes indicating the presence of the audience.

Toulouse-Lautrec used these techniques to capture the novelty of electric light and how it lit interior spaces. Electric lights are suggested in the ‘Goulue’ (‘The Glutton’) poster for the Moulin Rouge from 1891 as a series of hovering linked yellow globes.

With the Goulue poster Toulouse-Lautrec found himself at the centre of a modern advertising campaign. Working on a two meter high format, he caught the excitement of what it was like to experience the Moulin Rouge in full swing and showed it in the blink of an eye.

He was able to rapidly develop his style to take advantage of advances in the lithographic printing technique which allowed for a wider palette of colour, better colour reproduction, clarity and mass distribution. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters became so famous that no sooner had they been been pasted up in the streets of Paris than they disappeared again, still wet, into a collection or the parallel economy.

You can see Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio at point 10 on the Montmartre Hill walk and I look in much more detail at his work in an upcoming walk around the lower Montmartre – Pigalle area.

Henri Matisse; I deal briefly with Henri Matisse in the Influences on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon page.