In the nineteenth century, the annual “Salon de Paris” was the most important art exhibition in the world and a social event par excellence. Hundreds of thousands of visitors came to admire the diverse work by the leading artists of the period. Now, for the first time in Germany, the Kunsthalle München takes up the phenomenon of Salon art. Featuring over one hundred paintings, sculptures, drawings, and applied art objects from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibition shows how the classical tradition in art encountered modern life. Most of these works have never been seen before in this country.
From the Classical Ideal . . .
The Paris Salon was a venerable institution. Established by Louis XIV (1638–1715), the exhibition was meant as a venue at which the members of the royal art academy could present their works. Beginning in 1725, the show took place at the eponymous “Salon Carré” in the Louvre. Yet despite great social changes and the nationalization of the Salon following the French Revolution (1789), an overly powerful jury determined throughout the nineteenth century, which artists could participate. The jurists remained committed to the traditional academic point of view: works of art were supposed to express the good and true in the form of ideal beauty.
. . . to Modern Life
For the longest time, artists were required to prove their technical expertise, in particular with large-format, highly ambitious depictions of ancient mythology, biblical scenes, and historical events. But what significance could the beautiful goddesses and noble heroes of this so-called history painting still have for the modern individual in the Industrial Age? The classical ideal and modern life came into conflict. History painting had to be renewed.
Against this conflicted background, world-famous painters of the day, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), or William Bouguereau (1825–1905), created works that were celebrated at the Paris Salon but also the subject of controversial debate. The artists succeeded in linking the old tradition with the Zeitgeist. Their originals were collected around the world; more affordable reproductions sold in droves among the middle class. Never before had artworks achieved such popularity and range.
Goddess or Pin-Up Girl?
Salon artists lent new impulses to history painting. While they continued to use large formats for their paintings and to represent scenes from Antiquity along with other subjects—they did so with an important difference. They brought opulent scenes of gods or heroes down to a human scale and depicted the everyday. Young Greeks Attending a Cockfight (1846) by Gérôme is one such painting with an ancient flair but entirely devoid of grand heroic gestures.
Even so, many attempts at renewal were sharply criticized. While Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil (1850) was painted according to all the rules of art, its violent physicality exceeded the bounds of acceptability. His Birth of Venus (1879), too, was chided as vulgar and voyeuristic. This criticism was perpetuated by art history: Bouguereau’s Venus was not a goddess but a pin-up girl.
The exhibition at the Kunsthalle München aims at illuminating just how diverse and pioneering the work of the now unjustly forgotten Salon artists was. Here, visitors can rediscover this essential aspect of nineteenth-century French art.