Reader Question: “It has always struck me that the Impressionists were in their time not considered as what you could call “officially acceptable painters”, and that for instance the yearly Salon in Paris consecrating the best painters of the year regularly refused their paintings (hence the “Salon des Refusés). Could you enlighten us about who were the official painters of the time and give some examples of their works?” – asked by Myriam
Thanks for this question, because it’s one of my favourite topics! It’s fascinating how the Impressionists, who were initially excluded by the institutional art world, are now much more famous than any of the artists that exhibited regularly in the Salon. These artists really reflect the most widespread tastes, aesthetics and ideas of their time. Despite this popularity, however, most of them have now drifted into obscurity.
To be able to talk about the art world in late 19th century Paris, I need to bring up two institutions that were its backbone: the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) and the Salon. The Académie des Beaux-Arts (which still exists) was the most prestigious education for artists at the time. It was founded in 1648, as the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and would go on to completely dictate the official artistic tastes and sensibilities over the next few centuries. By the second half of the 19th century, it was becoming less and less relevant, but in the 1860s and ‘70s, when the Impressionists first got started, it still had a firm grasp on the Paris art scene.
One of the ways it maintained this grasp was through the Salon, its annual public exhibition that took place in the Louvre. Public art exhibitions weren’t really a big thing back then, so for many people, this was the only time throughout the year when they could see new art in person – and the crowds came in the hundreds of thousands. This meant that getting accepted into the Salon became the number one goal for many professional artists at the time.
Unfortunately, the jury was strict and pretty conservative. The Salon des Refusés was started in 1863 in response to the increasing number of avant-garde submissions that had to be refused because they didn’t correspond to the jury’s tastes. When we talk about “Academic art”, or “Academicism”, therefore, we generally talk about the kind of art that the Académie taught and popularised in their Salons.
The Academic art style in the 19th century is generally thought to bring together Neoclassicism and Romanticism, two opposing art movements that dominated the French art scene in the beginning of the 19th century. Neoclassicism took inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman art, while Romanticism emphasised fantasy and high emotion. As a result, Academicism focused heavily on history, mythology and allegory, with highly idealised figures.
Here are some artists who were very popular during this time and frequently exhibited in the Salons:
Ingres remains pretty well-known today. You’ll probably recognise his Grande Odalisque (1814), for example. He’s actually too old to have been working around the time of the Impressionists – he died in 1867 – but I still wanted to bring him up because he was incredibly famous and respected during his lifetime and taught many artists who came after him, including some Impressionists. His work La Source (1856) was highly celebrated when it was exhibited in the Salon.
Cabanel is known for one artwork in particular: The Birth of Venus (1863). This work is often brought up as an example of Academic painting. In one scene in the 2006 BBC docudrama The Impressionists, this work is shown in front of the Salon jury to represent Academic tastes of the time. In the scene, it’s pointed out that the work is “by one of our medalled artists, so – no vote to be taken”, implying that an artist like Cabanel would easily be accepted into the Salon without even a vote. It’s easy to see why: the work is incredibly idealised, and is a great example of the Academic female nudes I write about here.
By now you’ll hopefully have noticed that there’s a trend amongst the Academic painters: they were male, they often emphasised the nude body (usually the female one), and they loved mythology, history, and classical literature. Bouguereau was no exception. He was incredibly popular in both France and the U.S. during his lifetime and received multiple awards and honours. His painting The Birth of Venus (1879) (yep – this was a popular subject for artists at the time) is another great example of the over-the-top female Academic nude.
Bouguereau was also the leader of the conservative Société des Artistes Français (Society of French Artists). After the École des Beaux-Arts gave up control of the Salon, it passed into the hands of this organisation, before basically disappearing completely.
Jean-Léon Gérôme is perhaps best known today for his Orientalist paintings. Art historian Linda Nochlin famously used his painting The Snake Charmer (1880) as an example in her essay The Imaginary Orient (1989), building upon Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. She pointed out how the image was built up as an Orientalist fantasy for the gaze of the Western viewer. Gérôme was a highly distinguished painter in the Salons; however, after he exhibited the slightly controversial L’exécution du maréchal Ney (The Execution of Marshal Ney) in the 1868 Salon, he got on the bad side of many art critics who felt that he was bringing politics into art in a negative way. The painting was still accepted into the Salon, based on its history painting techniques, but its inclusion gives you some ideas as to how the Salon was beginning to change. Eventually it would give way to multiple Salons and public exhibitions by the end of the 19th century.
The Impressionists: Conclusion
The Impressionists started exhibiting in the 1870s, and although their art was controversial at first, it rapidly became popular and Academic art quickly fell out of favour. By the end of the 19th century, Impressionism was already starting to become old-fashioned and new exciting art movements were taking its place. However, (without me going into too much detail), it’s important to remember two things: 1) the profound impact that Impressionism had on the art scene at the time, but also 2) that there was no clean break between Academicism and Impressionism.
The Impressionists were controversial and revolutionary, yes, but they were also in many ways tied to the Academic institution. Many Impressionists, for example, were taught by Ingres, were exhibited in the Salon, and were inspired by Classical artists, and so on. The complex tastes of the art world in Paris and the art-viewing public were both traditional and rapidly evolving. (But regardless, I think we can all agree that a lot of Academic art looks pretty silly today.)