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Modernity vs. Tradition: Art at the Parisian Salon 1750-1900

Named after the Salon carré at the Louvre, where it was held between 1725 and 1848, the Salon’s rise as the world’s preeminent regular exhibition of contemporary art was intertwined with the rise of a modern viewing public. Early presentations—first at the Palais Royal and then in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre by the 1690s — were of comparatively restricted attendance. Yet already contained in them was the tension between the rule-bound tradition of academic pedagogy and the more progressive tendencies of venturesome artists pandering to popular taste.

What had begun in the 1670s as the French Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture’s desire to foster artistic competition and thus progress, and as an invitation to a nascent public to scrutinize and judge the products of its Academicians, had evolved by the mid-eighteenth century into one of the most charged public forums for the exchange of aesthetic and political ideas. A catalyst was the emergence of the new literary genre of art criticism in the 1740s, which from the outset contained a strongly partisan wing highly critical of official art and of the Crown’s management of national art production. Aesthetic judgements were in this way often of a piece with political critiques, thus compounding the meanings and public impact of artworks and their interpretation.

As an arm of the French Crown, the Académie suffered a similar fate during the Revolution, being abolished in 1793 only to re-emerge as the Institut national and, later, as the École des Beaux Arts. These successive institutions managed the Salon fitfully. It endured in close alliance with official arts policy during the Empire and benefited from the more permissive era of the Bourbon Restoration. Later, having fully entered the popular imaginary through the explosion of modern press coverage after mid-century, it became the defining context that gave rise to modern art. Indeed, if the number of exhibitions and visitors doubled during Napoleon’s reign, by the last quarter of the century the Salon had reached an altogether different level of impact. Now featuring thousands of works viewed by tens of thousands of visitors, the Salon as an international cultural phenomenon can be seen as the precursor of today’s many biennales.

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