The Salon System and Alternatives in Early Modern French Art

The Salon: artistic conformity and official good taste

The Salon in France was originally an 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 anually, was the most prestigious arts event in France.

Having a painting accepted by the jury for the Salon was a huge achievement for any artist. It meant an official seal of approval for artistic merit, quality and taste. Receiving a prize could mean commissions from the French government, public recognition and possibly further patronage. Most aspiring artists strove to be accepted by the Salon and so churned out art acceptable to the jury.

The Salon only approves of certain types of painting

The Salon and its jury, by the mid 19th century, had become a very conservative institution. It only accepted a certain genre of painting. These tended to be 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 what was important in painting 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 technical perfection shared by the jury of the Salon and the Academy framed the restrictive template of the approved art of the period.

The Salon and the Academy were stuck in a self-serving academic loop; teaching a certain type of art at the Academy then rewarding it with admittance to the Salon.

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.

Nudes belong in historical allegories

These established Salon artists would show their nude subjects in classical mythological settings. The convention of exhibiting a female nude in an allegorical setting rendered in a certain polished style was acceptable to the eyes of the Salon jury and the arts establishment. Female nudity set in the framework of the ancient past gave dignity to titillation and so did not undermine public morality.

Salon des Refusés

In 1863 at least half of the paintings submitted to the Salon were rejected. Emperor Napoleon III decided to allow the rejected artists an exhibition space. This was the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of rejected artists).

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 which date from the 1860s, can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Both works feature female nudes.

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (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. The figures depicted in the painting are presented as modern recognisable Parisians on a day trip to the country.

Manet went against convention. He chose to place his nude female model in a secluded setting. The nude here is not idealised, her body is more real and is rendered in a flat, shadowless, artificially-lit manner. She is in the company of modern clothed men. The men look to be bourgeois. She is relaxed, there is the hint of a smile on her face. What are these people doing?

Smiling back at the Salon

Did the smile on Manet’s nude anticipate the surprise and exasperation he knew his painting would be met with by the Salon jury, critics and public?  The painting was without surprise rejected by the official Salon jury but found a place in the 1863 Salon des Refusés.

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.

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

Olympia touched a nerve in bourgeois society because marriages were often arranged affairs for strategic, material and career advancement. A couple’s happiness was a lucky coincidence.

If the marriage did not work out then the husband could visit regulated or unregulated prostitutes. Manet shows us Olympia, a courtesan. Her name alludes to a classical past where nudity was acceptable but her role is contemporary and she tells an uncomfortable home truth to many of her married male bourgeois viewers. Manet, the bourgeois insider, by brazenly displaying a common courtesan on a monumental scale is exposing the hypocrisies of those respectable gentlemen at the forefront of modern life.

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 modeling 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’s importance

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 and employs the techniques he considers best to present the painted image. The subject matter is often contemporary with allusions to the classical tradition in painting. Manet is suggesting that his modern creations are as worthy of the same respect as the old masters and that modern scenes are just as important as traditional ones.

With Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe Manet brings to our attention something that is self-evident: that painting was always a constructed illusion and never an objective reality. In our own lives we do something similar as we construct a kind of personal reality from experience and shared culture. The central female figure in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe looks out from Manet’s constructed scene, engages us and invites us to speculate on the meaning of the picture. It is up to us and our imagination to finish the story.

Impressionist’s Exhibition

Artists such as Manet, Renoir, Monet or Pissarro were regularly refused the right to exhibit at 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.

By 1874 a collective of painters including Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarrohad set up an independent show

The first event took place at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. It featured Monet’s work Impression Soleil Levant (Impression, Rising Sun). The title eventually gave the entire movement its name – the Impressionists.

Most critics influenced by the Salon system considered these works to be unfinished sketches. 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.

Impressionist art

The Impressionists often painted in the countryside. Deserting the optimal light conditions and artificial control of 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. They painted with feathery, loose, brushstrokes and whatever colour palette they considered appropriate to best represent what they saw and experienced. The Impressionists invited the changing seasons, the countryside and the subtle effects of natural light into modern art.

By painting the shimmering glowing haze of morning mist, or the beauty of 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.

For the Impressionists to capture a moment in nature as caught by eye and mood and to communicate that atmosphere outweighed formal technique and academic guidelines. For the narrow-minded critics schooled in the Salon system these works were mere unfinished impressions and hardly painting at all.


Neo Impressionism was a style of painting where the image was built up from dots of colour. The movement’s most prominent artists were Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) and Paul Signac (1863 – 1935). Influenced by contemporary optical theory they developed a style of painting known as divisionism.

The points—this movement was also known as pointillism—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.

The central idea of divisionism is that the colours are mixed optically during the process of observing 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.

An extraordinary example of the technique is the famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte by Seurat. 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.

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

The Salon system and the academic tradition in French art stifled creativity. Find out how artists such as Monet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro set up an alternative exhibition. The Impressionists were followed by the Independents show, featuring such artists as Cezanne Gauguin and Toulouse Lautrec. The Fauves and Matisse chose the Autumn Salon to showcase their work. These were all alternative circuits to the traditional conservative Salon.
Alternative circuits for artists who did not conform to the rigid Salon system slowly developed in the later 19th and early 20th century.

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 no prizes. The Salon took place in the spring. The quality of the work was variable still 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 Independents’ exhibition of 1906 to showcase his Fauvist masterpiece Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life). I have a longer appreciation of these two works on the influences on Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon page.

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. 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 exhibition of 1905.

The Fauves

The term Fauves, which means wild beasts, was coined by a critic. It caught on because it described the highly unacademic exaggerated 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 simplicity of form in order to catch the potency, immediacy and impact of strong Mediterranean light both on the eye and on the senses. Colours no longer accurately reflected the thing portrayed but gave an expression of excitement and exaltation.

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 the Salon dAutomne in the early 1900s, these were: the Manet and Ingres retrospectives at the Fauves show of 1905; an important 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 very soon 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

By the early years of the 20th century thanks to independent artists such as Manet, networks of artists and unofficial salons such as the Impressionists, artists had the platform and confidence to defy officially sanctioned artistic taste—represented by the traditional Salon—and launch into exciting alternative realities in painting.

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.