Transition of the mechanism of reputation of painters: from Salon to Market

Salon, Exhibition of Rejected Art, and the emergence of Impressionism

Historically, the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated French art. Academy controlled both the content and the style. Religious and historical themes and portraits were supported, landscape and still life were not really permitted, while precise brush strokes characterized the style. For centuries, showing at the Salon was a necessary condition for establishing an artist’s reputation and career in Paris.168. A success in the Salon implied the emergence of reputation, both in terms of prestigious jobs (as teaching positions at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and awards, as the Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon, and maintained by all French governments. The selection process was led by the Salon’s jury controlled by members of the Academy. As it happens always, selection committees attempts to conserve the status quo. We cannot blame them, it is due to human nature. The reputation of artists depended on the Institution. As Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) famously stated after the refusal of all the paintings he submitted to the Salon of 1847:

It is bias on the part of the gentlemen of the jury: they refuse all those who do not belong to their school, except for one or two, against whom they can no longer fight, such as MM. [monsieurs] Delacroix, Decamps, Diaz, but all those who are not as well known by the public are sent away without a word. That does no bother me in the least, from the point of view of their judgment, but to make a name for oneself one must exhibit, and, unfortunately, that is the only exhibition there is.

The Exhibition of Rejected Art ”Salon des Refusés”) was established in 1863, somewhat as a consolation price, and an alternative pathway to show paintings that have been rejected by the selection committee. This year is refereed as the birth of ”modern art” is 1863 – as Edouard Manet (1832-83) exhibited his – than infamous -painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. (Please, don’t kill me: 1863 is also the year when the Football Association was founded in England. Football means soccer, of course. So, modern art and modern sport were born synchronously.) The breakthrough happened in 1874, when the first Impressionist exhibition was organized. Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers. The paintings were modern, still lives and portraits as well as landscapes, by adopting small, thin, still visible brush strokes. After 1874 Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat and other major artists had a different career pathway, they no longer debuted at the Salon. There was a life outside the review of the Salon’s juries!

The emergence of market-driven reputation

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) has had a reputation for discovering impressionists. As an anecdote tells ”One of his artists came in one day with a young French painter, introducing him and saying, ’This artist will surpass us all’ — and that artist was Claude Monet.”169. He made an innovative (which also means risky) business by buying a huge number of paintings of artists with low reputation. Duran-Ruel’s was also an early adopter of the single artist exhibition, called that time as ”one-man show”. He also established a journal to explain and support what later became not less, than modern art. He was not an art historian, but a businessman, a dealer. His instinct, however, led him to trust and invest to a totally new school of painters. Soon the impressionists had won initial reputations at their independent exhibitions, and Durand-Ruel bought between 1882 and 1884 a large numbers of paintings from Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. A new mechanism, the dealer-critic system produced a new social market, and gradually superseded the academic system. Art galleries emerged to became the forum for the modern art to meet its public. The slowly growing reputation of the Impressionists was not sufficient to ensure the artistic and financial success. Durand Ruel made another innovative step: he made the market from local to global, by organizing exhibition in addition to Paris in London, and in New York. In 1886, Durand Ruel produced an exhibition of 289 Impressionist paintings at the American Art Galleries in New York. The American public was fascinated by the paintings of Monet, Renoir and others. Many of the artworks sold became the core of impressionist collections in major American museums. The artistic and financial success obtained by the help of American collectors allowed Durand-Ruel to get out to debt, The reputations of the Impressionists, the first real modernists, quickly became established in the advanced art world. In the early twentieth century the number of ”for profit” art galleries grew large enough to create a genuinely competitive market. The transition from the monopoly of Academy to a market-oriented contemporary art was completed.

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