What Was the Salon des Refusés?

This article gives a history of the Salon des Refusés and describes the impact it had on the future of the art world.

Jul 1, 2024By Shannon Berry, MA English, BA Art History

the salon des refuses Palais de industrie


Beginning in 1667 under Louis XIV, the Paris Salon historically had a famous – or infamous – history of reflecting academic and political power. Guarded by an organization that only made room for an exclusive few, the Salon’s restrictive ways were met with anger from artists. But what was the Salon des Refusés, and how did it revolutionize the art world?


A Brief History of the Paris Salon

Caricature view of the Salon des Refusés, 1863. Photograph by Camille Rensch, Photographie de la Madeleine, Paris, of a drawing by Fabritzius. Albumen print. Source: private collection


The origins of the Salon were rather simple, displaying work created by graduates of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. However, the event showcasing artwork from floor to ceiling grew quickly and by 1748, a jury was introduced. The Salon was a massively popular social event, attracting 500,000 people during its 8-week run. It then operated as a monopoly by the government agency, suppressing any alternative exhibitions. Only members of the Académie could participate, and works were often refused for not meeting stylistic or subject requirements. 


History paintings were prioritized and art was submitted in one of five categories. The impossible hierarchies and inequitable structure of the Salon came to a head and was temporarily abolished in 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution. Although salons were eventually reestablished, the work that made it on the walls was still very much regulated by the Académie. Acceptance to the Salon meant exposure to buyers and dealers, directly affecting the livelihood of working artists. In 1863, less than half of the works submitted to the Académie were accepted, and it was the artists’ outrage that prompted the birth of the Salon des Refusés.


The 1863 Salon des Refusés

Palais de l’Industrie, Édouard Baldus, 1860. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


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Emperor Napoleon III was always ahead of public opinion in his authoritarian government, his reign after 1860 dubbed “the liberal Empire.” He issued a statement: “His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.” Thus, the Salon des Refusés began. This was the largest of the Salons des Refusés, with 410 artists exhibiting works. 


The initial reaction to the new exhibition was abysmal. Visitors could reportedly be heard laughing outside of the building, ridiculing the rejected works. Émile Zola, one of the few who praised the exhibition, documented in L’Œuvre, “…a group of young people were staggering back against the archway as if someone had been tickling them in the ribs; a lady had just dropped on a sofa, out of breath with laughing… Those who were not laughing were almost beside themselves with rage.” 


Artists who are remarkably popular today such as Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, James McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cézanne held a place on the walls. The 1863 Salon des Refusés marked the beginning of a wider acceptance of avant-garde work while challenging the authority and exclusivity of the French government’s official Salon.


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


One particular painting exhibited by Manet caused a stir. Originally titled Le Bain (now Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe), the painting was considered indecent not necessarily because of the woman’s nudity itself – after all, images of Venus were not unheard of in the Salons. Rather, it was the context of nudity in modern daily life and her unrelenting – perhaps suggestive – stare toward the viewer. Manet’s loose brushstrokes did not win the favor of the general public either, but the outcry was firmly placed on the seemingly scandalous model.


The 1873 Salon des Refusés and Impressionist Beginnings

Allée Cavalière au Bois de Boulogne, by Auguste Renoir, 1873. Source: Kunsthalle de Hambourg


The 1873 Salon des Refusés is most notable for its collection of work that most closely resembles what we now categorize as Impressionism (a term coined by satirical journalist Louis Leroy the following year). This exhibition is distinct from the Salon des Indépendants (the first “Impressionist” exhibition), however, which was executed in 1874. Still, many of the artists who displayed work in 1873 would later join the Impressionist group: Auguste Renoir, Edouard Béliard, Louis Latouche, and Stanislas Lépine. While this Salon was smaller than the first with only 277 artists, primarily landscapists, it nonetheless left a mark in history.


The Impact of the Salon des Refusés

Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872. Source: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris


The Salon des Refusés continued sporadically until 1886. It proved to be a vital turning point in art history, one that encouraged artistic experimentation and drastically changed the way viewers perceived artworks. The public’s exposure to new stylistic choices in painting and art-making led to a shift in what kinds of works were deemed valuable. Artists increasingly worked independently and free from commission. The growth of democratization in the art world that was ushered in by the Salon des Refusés paved the way for future modern and avant-garde artists and independent exhibitions.

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By Shannon BerryMA English, BA Art HistoryShannon has an MA in English, specializing in Arts and Visual Culture from Université Paris Cité. She also holds a BA in Art History and a BSN. Her interests range from Impressionism to Medieval studies, photography, and more. She has too many hobbies and not enough time, so when she’s not researching, she’s painting, hiking, practicing aerial arts, or traveling.