Role of the Salon in 19th-Century France

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  • 0:00 The Salon
  • 0:43 History of the Salon
  • 2:30 The Salon and Society
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history and position of the Salon in 19th-century France and discover how it influenced ideas about art. Then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Salon

Today, we are talking about French art, and do you know what that means? Well, obviously, it means a trip to the salon. Why? Are we catching up on local gossip or finally getting that new hairstyle? Not quite. In 19th-century France, the Salon was the official annual art exhibition in France. This is where all of the greatest artists of the day would show off their work, and where French society would gather to debate art and culture. Artists had to be invited to participate, so it was very prestigious, and as the official exhibition of the nation also indicated that your art had won the attention of the greatest thinkers or politicians, and even royalty.

History of the Salon

Back in the 17th century, the arts academy of France that was sponsored by the kings began holding exhibitions to show off the work of recent graduates. In the 18th century, these increasingly popular events, held every couple of years, became open to the public, and French citizens could come check out the newest masterpieces of painting and sculpture. By 1748, the Salon exhibitions were being held every year, and judges began awarding prizes to the best works of art. From that point on, the Salon was sort of like the Olympics of art. Admission to the Salon was the highest honor, and for almost 200 years, the job of the Salon was to select the best art in France.

The Salon reached the peak of its influence between 1784 and 1890. Throughout the 19th century, French society was centered around the Salon. With few exceptions, the opinion of the Salon was law. What is high art? What is good taste? What is trash? The Salon decided. And anybody who wanted to be a successful artist had to show at the Salon. Major 19th-century artistic movements, like romanticism or neoclassicism, were first debuted at the Salon, where Parisian society gathered around to witness the introduction of these new styles. The Salons of the 19th century were packed with art, literally filling exhibition halls from the floor to ceiling with paintings and sculptures, and the event became almost a celebrity in its own right.

Think of watching the Oscars. Half the reason you watch is to find out who won best picture, or actress, or sound editing if that's your thing. The other reason we watch the Oscars is to see the hype, the outfits, the skits, and the celebrities. Now take that excitement, but imagine if the only films we ever watched were the ones approved by the Academy. That was the Salon.

The Salon and Society

With so much attention, and so much pressure, the Salon was actually a pretty great place to make a statement. And artists did. Except instead of using their spotlight to rant about politics, they used it to make statements about the nature of art and French society. Take a look at this painting.

Olympia by Edourd Manet
Olympia

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