In order to understand Salon criticism, one must understand the Salon itself. This page will provide a brief history of the Salon.
France was the first nation to officially sponsor an exhibition of the fine arts. In 1633, the royal household organized a display of paintings, sculpture, architectural work, and engravings executed by members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Originally, its purpose was to display works that exemplified the aesthetic criteria for paintings, sculpture and ornaments suitable for glorifying the monarch. These exhibitions were held in the Galerie d'Apollon and the Salon Carré in the Louvre, and became known as "the Salon." After the revolution of 1848, the Salon was no longer held at the Louvre, and in 1857 was moved to the Palais de l'Industrie.
Image: Béroud (L.), Au Louvre (étude) from P.H. Burty, Salon 1883. Ed. Ludovic Baschet. Paris: Librairie d'Art, 1883.
This image shows visitors attending the Salon of 1883. Notice the arrangement and the number of paintings on the wall--there were often so many artworks that they needed to be stacked up the wall in order to be displayed.
The artists who exhibited in the Salon were professors or students of the Académie royale; however it was not until 1791 when the French Revolutionary Assembly decreed that the Salon of the Académie royale would be open to all artists, French or foreign, whether members of the Academy or not. The Salon was the steppingstone for French artists to lucrative state commissions and awards and for foreign artists to recognition and patronage. Through the Salon, the Académie royale came to dictate taste in art throughout Europe.
The Salon was a very selective exhibition, and only the best of the best works of art were exhibited, and those that were selected met specific criteria per juried opinion. Due to protests and an overwhelming number of artists that were excluded from the Salon, the emperor Napoleon III instructed the Minister of Fine Arts to hang all rejected work that was not withdrawn by the artist. This was to be known as the "Salon des Refusés."
In 1874, the Third Republic assigned responsibility for the Salons to a Conseil Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, a group similar to the seventeenth century academicians. In 1878, the government, at the suggestion of this council, assigned the management of the annual Salon to a committee of the Société des Artistes Français. The first Salon managed by this group was in 1881. Then in 1882, the council left all the arrangements and organizations of the yearly Salons up to the artists themselves. The French government continued to support the Salon by lending them space in the Palais de l'Indusrie and by providing a subsidy of 16,000 francs every year. In 1883 the Société des Artistes Français was constituted by decree as an establishment of public utility with the power to regulate annual Salons.
After 1890, a group split off from the Société des Artistes Français and, calling itself the Société Nationale des Artistes des Beaux-Arts, organized competing Salons that were displayed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champs-de-Mars. These two Salons eventually joined together in 1900 during the universal exposition after the demolition of the Palais de l'Industrie in 1898. For almost two hundred years the Salon was a phenomenon that was synonymous with the Académie royale and of artistic taste; it was not until this time that the Salon was no longer associated with all that was officially acceptable in the world of art.