Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Salon and the Royal Academy in the Nineteenth Century

The most significant professional art societies in Europe in the nineteenth century were the Royal Academies of Art in France and England, established in 1648 and 1768 respectively. They ran schools of instruction, held annual or semi-annual exhibitions, and provided venues where artists could display their work and cultivate critical notice. Here, young artists could find themselves promoted to prominence through patronage connections and collectively seek protection of artistic interests. From the late eighteenth century, as dominated by Jacques Louis David (31.45) in France and Sir Joshua Reynolds (20.155.3) in England, such institutions had a virtual monopoly on public taste and official patronage. Academic art, whose standard was ancient classical art, the European tradition, and historical subjects (2009.423) rendered predominantly in painting and sculpture, retained sway through the nineteenth century, and was sustained by its presence at the world’s fairs that proliferated in the West from the 1850s.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century, academies across Europe were undercut by what would later be seen as avant-garde movements. Some artists sought change from within, exhibiting their radical works at these official venues. In many cases, the academies showed a rather enlightened openness to the institutional critique offered by the Pre-Raphaelites in England, or the Realists in France represented by Gustave Courbet (40.175), Jean-François Millet, and Édouard Manet (29.100.51), and repeatedly accepted their works for exhibition. By the later nineteenth century, alternate exhibition venues challenged their hegemony. The Grosvenor Gallery on New Bond Street in London (1877–90) was where Edward Burne-Jones showed his majestic Aestheticist painting, The Love Song (47.26), along with eight other works in 1878. In Paris, the first of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, initially called the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc., was held from April 15 to May 15, 1874, at 35 boulevard des Capucines, in the former studios of the photographer Nadar. While artists in England, like Frederic Leighton and George Frederick Watts, simultaneously showed at the Royal Academy (RA) and Grosvenor Gallery, in France the Impressionist exhibit constituted a dissenting and independent gambit—participants were not allowed to submit works to that year’s Salon (although this was not such a risk—the Salon jury had rejected most of the submissions by artists like Monet in the late 1860s). Audiences in England were, perhaps, more open to the alternate conceptions of art found at Grosvenor Gallery, and the artists of the Aesthetic movement who showed there found immediate success. By contrast, the first Impressionist exhibition attracted 3,500 visitors, as compared to the 450,000 attendees of the Salon that opened two weeks later.

But it is wrong to suggest that advanced art was absent from the RA and Salon walls. J. M. W. Turner showed consistently at the RA in the first half of the century. The Metropolitan’s Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (99.31) and Whalers (The Whale Ship) (Tate, London) were exhibited at the 1835 and 1845 shows respectively, the former at Somerset House on the Strand, and the latter at the RA’s former home in the East Wing of the building on Trafalgar Square that is now fully occupied by the National Gallery. In 1895, Leighton showed Lachrymae (96.28), one of his final paintings, at Burlington House on Piccadilly, the Academy’s address since 1868. The former Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, who would succeed Leighton as the tenth president of the RA in 1896, was the institution’s most stalwart defender and greatest product, having entered its schools at the age of ten. However, in 1886, he elected to send Portia (06.1328) to the commercial gallery of the dealer and printer Thomas McLean on the Haymarket. Portia is similar to Leighton’s Lachrymae in that both reprise Sir Joshua Reynolds’ dictum of the Grand Manner—the study and adaptation of the old masters to enliven portraiture and history painting. Millais painted the real-life thespian Kate Dolan in the role of Shakespeare’s rich heiress and barrister from The Merchant of Venice, while Leighton’s model was Mary Lloyd, who also posed for his masterpiece Flaming June (1895; Museo de Arte de Ponce) as well as for Millais. While Millais’ bravura style and psychological intensity approached that of advanced contemporaries in France, in Lachrymae Leighton hewed to the typical smooth, clean finish of Salon paintings and the continental academic tradition, which he had learned under the Nazarene follower Eduard Jakob von Steinle at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt in the 1840s and 1850s, and in further study in Paris and Rome (he grew up and lived abroad the first twenty-nine years of his life). But the abstract narrative and depth of loss suggested in the pose and mood, and the surprising impasto in the sunset, is greatly evocative and represents a novel classicism. Leighton’s contemporary Gustave Moreau was engaged in a similar resuscitation of traditions in the French Salons.

Burne-Jones’ Love Song (47.26), one of the most important Victorian pictures in a U.S. collection, represents a branch of the Aesthetic movement, with its subject derived from no literary source, its dreamy medievalism, and its inspired blend of Gothic and Renaissance prototypes combined with a Pre-Raphaelite intensity of detail and effect. There is a subtle religiosity in the twilight sun shining through the stained-glass windows of the church in the background and falling on the organ pipes. And the contemporary blended conceptions of female and male beauty, as well as literal musicality echoed in the mood, presented both a challenge to traditional historical art and a rarefied transformation of the early concerns of Pre-Raphaelitism.

The Frenchman Jules Bastien-Lepage, in his most ambitious picture, Joan of Arc of 1879 (89.21.1), straddled the line between acceptably grand historical and nationalistic themes and the broken brushwork of the avant-garde. The picture was a critical failure despite its topicality: a call to arms for a country that had been soundly bested in the Franco-Prussian War using the perennially inspiring image of the Maid of Orléans, a peasant girl from the very region that Bismarck had wrested from France nine years earlier. At its exhibition in the Salon of 1880, Émile Zola castigated the thirty-year-old artist for the seemingly contradictory vision of airy saints in a plein-air milieu. Today, the picture seems a key transition to the aims of later pan-European Symbolism, and one of the supreme achievements in late nineteenth-century Salon painting. It was a particularly prescient purchase by the American Erwin Davis, who paid the artist $4,000 for it and then gave it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1889.

A more literal casualty of the Franco-Prussian conflict was the Parisian Henri Regnault, whose Salomé (16.95) was begun in Rome, finished in Tangier, and exhibited in the Salon of 1870 mere months before the onset of hostilities, and less than a year before the artist’s death on the battlefield at Buzenval. A student of Alexandre Cabanel, Regnault used fabrics bought at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 to create his Orientalist picture, an archly humorous and artificial image of a plucky female model, draped in a New Testament tableau, who seems far removed from the more serious and threatening conceptions of Herod’s bedeviller in both theater and music of the period.

Images of women were dominant in the Salon in the second half of the nineteenth century, in a marked change from the ubiquitous classicized male nudes of Davidian Neoclassicism. These came in the form of pearlescent goddesses, as in Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, shown at the Salon of 1863 and represented in the Museum’s collection by a smaller version of 1875 (94.24.1), or Jean-Léon Gérôme’s mythological artistic fantasy Pygmalion and Galatea of around 1890 (27.200). This is also evident in erotic couples, as in Pierre-Auguste Cot’s Neo-Rococo melodrama The Storm of 1880 (87.15.134), loosely based—if at all—on Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Romantic classic Paul et Virginie (1788), but more fully concerned with clinging drapery, lustful glances, and mock heroism than the sublime.

Another option was the watered-down Second Empire bourgeois populist realism of Jules Breton, Rosa Bonheur (87.25), and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, evident in the latter’s Young Mother Gazing at Her Child (1993.402) and Breton Brother and Sister (87.15.32), both of 1871, where an official style combining a porcelain surface with provincial religious piety replaces the matter-of-fact, direct, and radically composed and painted social commentary of Courbet and Millet. More compelling is Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret’s The Pardon in Brittany, shown at the Salon of 1887 (31.132.34) and then at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889, in which a local Catholic custom involving traditional costume and a procession (le pardon) to receive indulgences is represented with a naturalism and contemporaneity marked by interests in physiognomy, eclectic lighting, and anti-academic composition. In addition, the artist’s direct use of photography in creating his pictures represents a particular aspect of technological advancement that would only gain steam into the next century, and presents a strand of modern painting very distant from that of Impressionism and Aestheticism.

Salon art, like Impressionism, was also concerned with the modernity of urban life. While academically trained artists such as James Tissot and Edgar Degas first specialized in historical imagery, they then exclusively concentrated on contemporary life, as in Tissot’s Tea of 1872 (1998.170). Similar to Degas’ later series of women in millinery shops (29.100.38), Tissot pursued the genteel, but with an active surface that shows his awareness of Impressionist facture and the type of domestic subject that Mary Cassatt would depict continuously in succeeding decades (23.101). But from 1871 to 1882, his subject was the English—Tea shows a scene in the port of Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames—and, like John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, Tissot made the transition from a French to an English artistic and social milieu with great success, and with no small effect on advanced painting of the subsequent generation of European and American artists.

In France, by the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, new Salons were ascendant, including the Salon des Indépendants in the spring and the Salon d’Automne later in the year, which showed the works of modernist artists like Henri Matisse (1975.1.194) and André Derain. The importance of traditional academies largely waned, but in places like Austria, artists such as Gustav Klimt taught in the venerable Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, preserving its advanced thrust well into the new century.