The Origins of the French Salon

When one considers the “society” aspect of the art world, images of highly educated, art professionals and dreamy-eyed, flamboyant artists may come to mind. Whether or not this may represent a true picture of the art world (hint—it doesn’t), it leads to the question “How did this exclusive atmosphere originate?” The world of art and philosophical discussion was borne in the French Salon.

French Salon Born in Greece?

Athenians used gatherings to bring together both influencers and commoners to bridge the gap between their lives; discussing the arts and philosophy, music and history. Romans continued this tradition, providing an opportunity for those outside of the Emperor’s glance to share ideas and opinions without the Emperor’s steely glance (and disapproval). The openness of these events helped them to continue into the Renaissance and spread throughout Italy and France.

The Word “SALON”?

The first true “salon” was held in 1610 by Italian-born French aristocrat Catherine de Vivonne, the Marquess de Rambouillet, organized as a literary event (possibly like a book club) where ideas about books, art, music, and even philosophy were shared, along with games and social activities. These were home to artistic critique, informal schools of social etiquette (especially for girls entering society) and provided opportunities for the well-to-do to exhibit their style, grace, and intellect.

The Queens of the Salon

In a world dominated by men, the salon was one place where women ruled. Led by Catherine de Vivonne, the salon’s influence on life outside its walls was immense. Those who were nobility (but not royalty) could use their training in etiquette, create rules of social norms and incubate intellectual conversation in relatively safe locations, where royalty had no input and members were free to speak their minds and share their artistic and philosophical ideas. This was one occasion where women educated and directed men on appropriate behavior.

One may imagine that the conversation remained lighthearted and fun, but there existed an aura of seriousness to the salon, where leading women took their roles as philosophical, political, and social conversation leaders, truly understanding the long-term effects of these gatherings to society and history. The favorable atmosphere of the salon, ideal for political discussion and critical analysis of creative works, was soon noticed by men, and it became an appropriate setting for both genders to have open discussion.

The Beginnings of Enlightenment

The conversations found here led to what we later coined enlightenment. As the popularity of the salon for political discussion grew, so did its popularity among those disenfranchised by the nobility. One of the core values of salons was the theory that all members were considered equal (a departure from the hierarchy found in traditional society). Gatherings were being held by groups in all social circles, and although talk evolved into political disagreements, the rules of civility (and unspoken desire to appear refined) were so well entrenched in the salon vocabulary that confrontations were all but avoided. In a world where industrialization was developing quickly, these activities provided a framework of acceptable behavior, creating a haven for “theories,” both in scientific and political thinking. In fact, the term ‘je ne sais quoi’ was used widely in salons, where participants found themselves in agreement on an issue after a lively conversation and realized they shared a pleasant relief of arriving there.

Loss of Support for Monarchy

The salon began with belief in the confirmation of the monarchy, but emerging Enlightenment thought developed as those outside of nobility but well-educated began to take over salons. While monarchy pitted noble families against each other, salon gatherings provided a venue where science and philosophy, critical thinking and modern ideas could be shared without discomfort, establishing these gatherings as the real center of society.

The movement away from monarchy established hotbeds of more radical thought and homes to critical (positive and negative) activity. The salons evolved from nobility-led gatherings were the perfect culture to grow bourgeois sentiment, and there were periods of time when it was downright dangerous to be associated with anti-monarchist sentiment. Later, in the 18th century, political careers were heavily influenced by salon discussion, partially due to the open nature of political discussion and the realization by men of the salon’s value.

The Art Salon

At relatively the same time, the Art Salon was established. Beginning in 1667, the Art Academy of Paris began to host an art event, using the word “Salon” when Louis XIV sponsored the art exhibit in the Salon d’Apollon of the Louvre Palace. It soon became an annual or biennial event, representative of any French artist’s success, and the premiere art event in Europe.

In 1748, the event became juried, putting even more pressure on artists to prove their abilities and “success” by garnering the approval of the monarchy. After the French Revolution, other artists were invited to participate, and the affair soon became public, with ticket sales and elegant opening events.

Traditionalists Rule the Salon

After the French Revolution, new styles of art, like the new attitudes about society and political power, began appearing around Europe. However, although French society was forever changed, leaders in the art world were not. They simply did not approve of the new Impressionist works or the artists. Instead, they maintained the status quo, focusing on maintaining traditional art styles. In the mid-1900’s, many of these artists and their supporters broke away from the traditionalists, establishing their own shows. In the middle of this revision, a new art society was established, which helped to improve the permanence of Impressionist, and then Avant Garde, art.

1890, a few of the art society leadership modified the purpose of the salon, focusing on emerging artists. Others, in disagreement, left the organization and created their own.  A similar break occurred in 1903 when another group seceded to create their own salon. Additional art societies were born, further ensuring that the idea of juried art shows remain a permanent part of the art world.

Modern Salons

Although the world of salons has changed deeply in modern times, there has remained a more contemporary form of the salon, where intellectual and visionaries of all types have gathered to share ideas. From artists to scientists, mathematicians to authors, these events have remained an opportunity for conversation and ideological thought to be explored in neutral surroundings.

The early art salons have transformed into today’s art shows, in a variety of styles. From juried art contests to local art fairs, joint shows for emerging artists to exhibitions by leading artists in every genre, the ideology behind the art salon remains today, with opportunities worldwide for enjoyment and critique of art.

The influence of the salon in art history is deep. From establishing what is now considered a juried art show to the significance of the art critic, the salon’s long history has helped to create a critical and exclusive atmosphere within the art community.