Salon Criticism: A Short History (1770s-1880s)
“In its infinite variety, artistic literature also says much of the topical issues and social customs which have always conditioned those who write, no less than their reading public…"
~ W. McAllister Johnson
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the central focus of criticism was the Salon. The Salon was constructed in written criticism as a symbolic and practical site for the display of the Académie’s work. The first printed and published salon criticism first appeared during the 1740s in the form of unsigned newspaper articles and books and pamphlets. By 1783 there were approximately 30 critiques of the salon per year; art reviews, descriptive, laudatory or critical, became an accompanying feature of art exhibitions in this period.
Criticism existed in a symbiotic relationship with art production. The Salon held an important role in the French artistic community and to those artists who had access to it. Exhibiting in the Salon promised, if not guaranteed, enhanced reputation for artists and the possibility of future patrons and commissions. Criticism informed and reinforced artists’ and French society’s sense of the significance of the works in the Salon of the Académie.
In the context of French artistic culture, criticism had a historical mission to assess the degree to which standards had lapsed. Greater laxity in artistic standards demanded greater censure. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, it was no longer possible to discuss the Salon and the state of French art without reference to criticism and its judgments. Criticism had become inextricably interposed between official claims for the exhibitions and the audience’s perceptions.
Salon criticism changed over time to not only include text but also accompanying engraved illustrations. This was initiated by Charles Landon’s Annales du musée et de l’école modern des beaux-arts (1801-8) which included images of the artworks being described in the text. The artworks that were reproduced from the hundreds on display in the Salon, were selected through specific criteria that would not provoke controversy; for exmample only those works ‘honorés des suffrages public’ and ‘couronnés par le jury des arts' would be included. At first, only history paintings were reproduced, but eventually there were also reproductions of different genres of painting and sculpture as well. This innovation in the form of Salon catalogs contributed to the pleasure of viewing and studying artworks, and was imitated throughout the nineteenth century.
The official Salon, with its system of selection, was important for determining the future of many artist’s careers. In the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the critic could only promote artists’ work, regret the absences and scandals of the Salon; however during the nineteenth century, the critic became an active participant in the Salon and a figure to be reckoned with. This lithograph from Le peintre-graveur illustré, XIXe et XXe [i.e. dix-neuvième et vingtième] siècles (Call No. NE96 .D42 1906 v.20/21), The Passage of the Influential Critic (1865) by Honoré Daumier, gives us a sense of the art critic’s reputation in the mid/late-nineteenth century. Furthermore, the 1880s saw a reorganisation of the Salon and the art market, which allowed the art critics to become masters of aesthetic interrogation, social regulation and the guardians of artistic standards. This created a healthy self-critical society.