Prestige, Popularity, and Progress: A History of The Paris Salon

Art needs an outlet to influence people and challenge worldviews. The Paris Salon became one of the most influential exhibitions in Europe and shaped the way most current exhibitions function.

Apr 14, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
paris salon
Details from King Charles X Distributing Awards to the Artists at the End of the Salon of 1824, in the Grand Salon at the Louvre by François-Joseph Heim, 1827; and Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787 (The exhibition at the Louvre Salon in 1787) by Pietro Antonio Martini after Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1787


Art has the power to shape the world, yet often a work may not reach its intended audience. A masterpiece must be seen, read, or heard to leave an impact. Thus, when addressing the lives of great painters, sculptors, or architects, their patrons often receive as much attention as the artists themselves. 


However, the structure of patronage and distribution of art often remains blurry. World Exhibitions and various Salons are often seen as events where works of art are showcased while, in truth, they are much more than simple milieus of entertainment. They are meeting points between the public and the artists. They write history and dictate trends, build and break careers, and, most importantly, facilitate networking. 


One of the most famous of such tales is the story of the Paris Salon. It brought several brilliant names to the fore and changed the way contemporary society views art and its distribution. The tale of the Paris Salon explains how art became accessible to all. 


The Birth Of The Paris Salon: A Tale Of Connections

exposition au salon du louvre
Exposition au Salon du Louvre en 1787 (The exhibition at the Louvre Salon in 1787) by Pietro Antonio Martini after Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1787, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The accessibility of art is intricately connected to networking. Without the necessary connections from the artist’s side, a painting or a sculpture simply cannot reach an audience. Personal connections can become valuable social capital that defines careers. When it comes to art, these connections are often with the commissioners and patrons who determine the most popular artistic trends and choose which artists to boost. For example, the abundance of religious motifs in Western painting can be seen as the outcome of the Catholic Church’s wealth and desire to promote its message across the globe. Similarly, most museums owe their existence to powerful rulers, who gathered and accommodated precious art because they had the means to acquire it and a need to sustain their prestige.


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At first, only a privileged few could appreciate the works of art that remained hidden in the mighty and influential collections and palaces. However, a new world of connections appeared with the rise of European empires in the second half of the 17th century. At this time, France was rising to its full glory and became a beacon for this new networking era.


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Vue du Salon du Louvre en l’année 1753 (The View of the Louvre Salon in the Year 1753) by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, 1753, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The appearance of what later would be called the Paris Salon coincided with the rise in literacy and of the middle class. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a non-noble Parisian could admire paintings and sculptures in churches or could see outlines of the city’s architectural highlights. And yet, those meager bites of culture no longer satisfied their artistic cravings. Thus, a new enterprise took shape – the Paris Salon, supported by the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture).


The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was established in the mid-seventeenth century. The Academy was a brainchild of the royal painter Charles Le Brun, which Louis XIV himself approved. This new endeavor aimed to seek talent outside of the stale guild system that barred certain craftsmen from ever reaching the audience. From 1667, the French monarchy supported periodic exhibitions of works created by members of the Academy. Held annually and later on biannually, these exhibitions came to be known as the ‘Salons,’ nicknamed after the Louvre’s Salon Carré, where they were held. From its inception, the Paris Salon became the most prominent art event in the Western world. Initially, the exhibitions were open exclusively to those with money and power. Later, however, the inclusivity of the Salon increased.


The Paris Salon And The Promotion Of Art

king charles awards salon 1824
King Charles X Distributing Awards to the Artists at the End of the Salon of 1824, in the Grand Salon at the Louvre by François-Joseph Heim, 1827, Musée du Louvre, Paris


Paradoxically, the initial exclusivity of the exhibitions amassed unparalleled interest in the event. As the Salon opened its doors to more and more visitors, it slowly became a renowned event. In 1791, when the Salon’s sponsorship switched from royal to governmental bodies, the event’s popularity reached unprecedented levels. As many as 50,000 visitors would attend the Salon on a single Sunday, and a total of 500,000 would visit the exhibition during its eight-week run. Four years later, in 1795, submissions to the Salon were opened to all artists willing to participate. However, the Salon jury (established in 1748) still favored the conservative-leaning and more traditional themes; religious and mythological compositions almost always trumped innovation.


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Un Jour de Vernissage au Palais des Champs-Élysées (The Opening day at the Champs-Élysées Palace) by Jean-André Rixens, 1890, via Northwestern University, Evanston


Although the Salon’s beginnings ceded originality and creativity, its later development brought something different: the widespread promotion of art. For example, in 1851, there were 65 pieces overall published in the Paris Salon. However, in 1860, this number multiplied, reaching as many as 426 pieces. This increase shows that it was not just the Salon that became popular, but, perhaps, that the Salon managed to popularize art. Middle-class and nobility alike were becoming increasingly interested in art, and the Salon was a perfect place to get a sense and a feel for it. The Salon began with the idea of exhibiting the ‘best paintings,’ but it had gradually transformed into a business ground where paintings were sold and careers were made. 


The Salon often determined the wages of artists. During the 1860s, for example, a painting could be worth five times more if it had won an award. The French naturalist painter Jules Breton, for instance, owed part of his fame to the Salon’s influence over selling rates. A man obsessed with painting the French countryside and romantic sunrays upon idyllic fields, he won a second-class medal at the Salon of 1857 for his Blessing of the Wheat in the Artois. 


This triumph helped Breton build his reputation and secure commissions from the French Art Administration and became a stepping stone to international fame. In 1886, Breton’s work The Communicants was sold for the second-highest price for a painting by a living artist at a New York Auction. For Breton, the Salon certainly served as a career-making opportunity. Although this was the norm for many featured artists, it was not the case with all painters. 


Rebelling Against The Salon 

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Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) by Édouard Manet, 1863, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Traditional tastes are typically dictated by people in power who rarely strive for innovation and are interested in preserving the status quo. Thus, visionaries and unconventional minds are often delegated to the sidelines in art and politics. Yet, in some cases, instead of swallowing the bitter pill of rejection, artists become revolutionaries and build an opposition. By the 1830s, the Salon had already sprouted offshoots displaying the works of those who, for one reason or another, did not make it to the official Paris Salon. The most prominent of such showrooms was the Salon des Refusés (“Salon of the Refused”) in 1863. 


One of the greatest scandals at the Salon of the Refused, which cemented its infamous reputation, is connected to Edouard Manet and his Luncheon on the Grass. It was rejected by the Jury of the Paris Salon and hung instead in the Salon des Refusés. Manet’s painting was considered improper not because of its portrayal of a naked woman beside clothed men but because of the lady’s challenging gaze. There is neither shame nor calmness in her eyes. Instead, she almost seems annoyed at the audience for gawking at her. 


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Olympia by Edouard Manet, 1863, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


In 1863, many artists joined Manet in offering their works to the public through the Salon des Refusés because they were unhappy about the Paris Salon’s biased selection. The artists were supported by none other than Napoleon III, who allowed them to exhibit their art and let random outsiders judge them instead of the Salon’s Jury. The painters did indeed win over the general public. Abbott’s Symphony in White, No.1 first gained attention at the Salon of the Refused before becoming an internationally acclaimed painting, much like what happened with Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. The Salon of the Refused therefore paved the way to the recognition of avant-garde art and fuelled the already growing fascination with Impressionism. 


The Impressionists belonged to one of the earlier splintered-off groups and continued to hold their own exhibitions in later years. Curiously enough, Manet, who often delved into Impressionism himself, continued to exhibit instead at the official Salon. One of his most famous paintings, the controversial nude Olympia, made it to the Paris Salon of 1865. While the Salon could disapprove of the Impressionists’ innovative approach to painting and their plein air method of capturing the lively beauty of nature, the Jury could not hinder the rise of artists like Cezanne, Whistler, and Pissarro, who were all initially rejected. In fact, their reputation grew in part because of the vicious reactions of the Salon critics. In 1874, the Impressionists curated and held their first exhibition that featured the works rejected by the Salon.


Changing The World Through Art 

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Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a Hat) by Henri Matisse, 1905, via SFMoMA, San Francisco


In 1881, the French Academy of Fine Arts stopped sponsoring the Paris Salon, and the Society of the French Artists took over. The traditional Salon soon gained a more prominent and well-organized competitor than those earlier smaller offshoot exhibitions. In 1884, the Salon des Indépendants (“Salon of the Independent”) was established, featuring such unconventional rising stars as Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. Unlike other exhibitions, this salon was jury-free and did not give awards. 


Soon enough, the official Salon’s bureaucratic nature led to yet another group of artists establishing their own exhibitions. The so-called Salon d’Automne (“Autumn Salon”) was held for the first time in 1903. Located on the iconic Champs-Elysées, this subversive salon was led by none other than Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin. Here, the artists could focus more on their work than the reviews of mainstream critics. Henri Matisse, for example, ignored all the backlash caused by the portrait of his wife with a giant hat. He refused to withdraw his Fauve-style painting and join in with the rest of the Fauvist works in one room. However, despite their scandalous nature, these rebel Salons still drew inspiration from the official Salon, trying to emulate its initially innovative spirit. 


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Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, 1880-81, via the Phillips Collection


The modes of selection first applied at the Paris Salon are still present in modern-day exhibitions: a board of advisors or professionals usually pick a work that fulfills either thematic or innovative requirements and upholds the perceived standard of quality. The idea of organized curation introduced by the French elites in the late 17th century was indeed innovative for their time. 


The Salon began promoting art and various art schools, paving a path to making money and building careers. Above all else, the Salon gave opportunities to those who were marginalized. A woman like Pauline Auzou could build herself a successful career because of her acceptance at the Salon. In 1806 she was awarded a first-class medal at the Salon for her painting of Pickard Elder. The Salon allowed Auzou to secure her later contracts, including one for a portrait of Napoleon and his second wife, Marie-Louise. The Paris Salon changed the world through art, and once it became stale, other enterprises continued its mission.


The Decline Of The Paris Salon

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View of the Grand Salon Carré in the Louvre by Giuseppe Castiglione, 1861, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


The Paris Salon not only brought forward new artists but also changed the approach to art as a means of expression accessible to the public. Art criticism flourished within the Salon, creating a space where opinions clashed and discussions happened. It reflected societal changes, adjustments to new circumstances, sprouting offshoots, and becoming the mirror of artistic trends that were either welcomed or shunned. It is the initial accessibility of the Salon that made the careers of many painters, including the realist Gustave Courbet. Later, Courbet would point out that the Salon held a monopoly on art: a painter needed to exhibit in order to make a name for himself, yet the Salon was the only place where one could do so. As time went on, this situation changed and thus so did the fortune of the Paris Salon.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an influential art dealer who worked with Picasso and Braque, openly told his artists not to bother showing their works at the Salon since it could no longer promote them in any meaningful way. The Paris Salon slowly declined. However, its legacy lives on as it is still visible in the selection patterns of many contemporary exhibitions and still tangible in many recognizable works of art that are now part of this complicated history of connections and art promotion.

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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.