Attention les E’tudiants!
That means you, students. Don’t despair if your work didn’t make it into the Annual Student Exhibition. As an exhibitor relegated to the Salon des Refusés, you are joining some illustrious historical company: Edouard Manet, Paul Ce’zanne, Camille Pissarro, James McNeill Whistler. These artists, known today for putting Western painting on a new path in the 19th-century, were all “refused” entry to the official French Salon in 1863—their works shunted off to an annex, where the public, for the most part, greeted them with laughter and derision.
A little historical context might help here. If you were one of the thousands of artists working in Paris in the 1860s, your success was very much connected with your work being accepted for exhibition at the Salon, the official exhibition space, sponsored by the E’cole des Beaux -Arts. To be accepted was no easy thing. The jurors who selected the works were a conservative lot, with a preference for art that generally looked something like “watered down” versions of Italian Renaissance masterpieces. If you were a friend or protégé of a juror, you had an edge up on those who weren’t fortunate enough to have any official supporters. And, friends in high places really mattered in this environment since the number of competitors for a spot in the exhibition space reached into the thousands. To make matters worse, if you did compete and were rejected, your work would be stamped with an “R” for “refused”—try to find somebody to buy that!
In 1863, things came to a head: that year over 4,000 works were rejected, many of them by painters whose work deviated from the accepted academic styles. Rather than quietly accept the verdict of a system stacked against them, the rejected artists, along with their supporters, lashed out. They created such a storm of controversy that the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, had to step in; after all, for the French, unlike their American counterparts, art was no mere luxury commodity but a potent political force. Napoleon III decided to compromise—and, in the process, to keep the oppositional artists under control. That year, there would be two Salons, the official academic Salon and a second exhibition space, the Salon des Refusés (the Salon of the Refused).
If it had been possible for Napoleon III to send out a tweet announcing the Salon des Refusés, it might have read something as follows:
In reality, Napoleon III wasn’t quite that direct; he put out a statement to the effect that the Salon des Refusés would “ . . . let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints” for themselves. And judge they did. The exhibition drew enormous crowds, most of whom greeted the works with laughter and/or indignation. And who’s to blame the 19th century French public for that response? Works like Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’ herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) ran counter to everything they had been taught about good painting: the space was illogical, the contrasts were so bold that the figures looked as if they were pasted onto the surface of the canvas, the brushwork was extremely obvious in an era which prized almost invisible paint handling–the list of faults could go on and on. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see that Manet was practicing a new way of painting, one that would help usher in a new era of art with a name of its own: modernism.
So, in the end, Manet and company had the last laugh, even if they weren’t around to enjoy it. No one today (except for a few scholars of 19th-century French painting) remembers the names of the vast majority of those who exhibited in the official Salon—while anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of Western art will quickly learn the accomplishments of the painter named Edouard Manet (even if he will, at times, be confused with Monet, but that’s another matter).
Moral of this story: time will tell, or something to that effect, so take pleasure now at seeing your work displayed in our very own CSN Salon des Refusés. Who knows what the future holds?
Text credit: CSN Professor of Art, Dr. Linda Angel