Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Today I want to continue my research on censorship in art and how it’s lead us to where we are today. I referenced today’s topic in part one, and that is the collapse of the Salon des Paris (Paris Salon). The Paris Salon is an incredibly interesting institution because for about 150 years (1740-1890), it was art. This event could make or break an artist’s career, and not in the cliche way we often use that phrase, you couldn’t be successful as an artist if you weren’t accepted into the Paris Salon. Even more amazing than the idea of it was how its strictly traditional ways caused it to collapse upon itself and essentially change art forever.
So let’s start at the very beginning, the Paris Salon was founded and run by the French Academy for Fine Arts and its first event was held in 1667. But the event would grow and take prominence, becoming a staple and massive status symbol in the art world. The Salon was the only major show in France after all, so the institution would literally decide France’s presence in art. Although the event had grown, it’s initial timing was sporadic and the approval process had yet to be refined. But in 1748 the Academy instituted a jury of hand selected members who would decide what was shown and what wasn’t moving forward. The event grew even further following the French Revolution (1789-1799) when its walls were opened up to foreign artists and by 1820 the timing had been figured out, making it a major annual event. The Salon was being staged in massive commercial halls and art was displayed from floor to ceiling. The importance of the curation grew so much that a secondary committee was created to decide what levels paintings were hung at. The event was a hub for art critics and journalists to report on and judge the work themselves and In 1849 a number of awards and medals were established. The mid-19th century was undoubtedly the high-point of the Salon’s success and influence. Once foreign artists were allowed in, the Salon didn’t just decide what French art was, but what all of Europe’s art was. But their conservative views and unwillingness to develop with art would eventually be its downfall.
1863 was the beginning of the end for the Paris Salon following a particularly harsh year of rejection from the jury. The Academy consistently rejected the avant-garde and it showed this year when around 3,000 paintings were rejected, including works by Manet, Whistler, and Cezanne, which outraged not only artists but the public. These artists who we all know weren’t at their beginnings, they were big names in art and people wanted to know how they could possibly not be selected. So, in a rather snarky move, French Emperor Napoleon III decided he would allow the public to judge the validity of the rejections by putting on the Salon des Refuses (Exhibition of Rejects). This show would be a massive display of the works rejected from that year’s salon at a venue right next door and although it was met by harsh critical review, its mere existence would change the art world and alter the validity of the Paris Salon forever..
As previously mentioned, the Paris Salon was the only major art show in France and that exclusivity was a crucial part of its influence. Artists were tired of their conservative ways but there wasn’t much that could be done, it would take ages to establish a competitor institution and it could fail completely. But suddenly there was an in, the Refuses was built by the French Emperor and although it was a joke, the name carried. After that 1863 show, any art show held outside of the Salon carried the same name (with the most notable shows occuring in 1874,1875, and 1886) and its mere existence undermined the Paris Salon and its influence. The Refuses gave home to the avant-garde, allowing abstract movements like impressionism to flourish and the Salon suffered greatly because now their rejects weren’t locked away, they were being seen.
Although they were being hit hard, the conservative ways of the Academy persisted and it ultimately accelerated their decline. In 1881 the Academy passed control of the Paris Salon to the newly established Society of French Artists who would try to maintain the pillars set up by the Academy but would ultimately fail. In 1890 the leader of the Society of French Artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, proposed that the salon only be a show for young artists who had not yet been accepted. This proposal was met by near universal rejection and caused a splinter effect in the art world as competing Salon’s began being established, each pushing their own agendas. Although, these other salons had mild success, some dominating certain time periods, this splintering was the ultimate downfall of the Salon industry.
The whole idea and power behind what the Paris Salon was, was exclusivity. Exclusivity is power and when your jury is deciding what is shown at the only major art event in France, it carries a lot of weight. But when exclusivity is eliminated, competition arises and in a competition you can’t just do whatever you want, you have to make compromises, which is why the continued conservative ways of the Academy collapsed the Paris Salon. Once a competing industry takes prominence over another, that industry has to do something to make itself relevant again, otherwise it will collapse, and this is the idea that shut down the Salon industry. Today, Salons, surprisingly, still exist but they’re just a name in the slew of annual and biennial art shows that exist all over the world. These institutions aren’t as powerful now because as its been established, anything can be art, all sorts of movements are considered good by different viewers and institutions. If Salon A doesn’t like my work, then Salon B might, and that A vs. B battle is why an institution that decides what art is good doesn’t work anymore. There are so many different institutions putting forth different work and different agendas so anything can be good, you just have to go to the right place. Who would have thought that an almost sarcastic move by Napoleon III, putting on an art show of “rejects,” would splinter the entire industry he thought he was promoting and give artists working in the avant-garde a continued and growing list of artistic institutions to thrive in. We as artists now accept rejection, because it doesn’t make or break us, there will always be other opportunities as long as we’re making and seeking them out.