judgment-of-parisA reading of Ross King’s fascinating and magisterial The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave Us Impressionism makes clear how the ascent of the Impressionists almost didn’t happen at all.

For French painters, having one’s work chosen to appear in the Paris Salon was crucial for the advancement of one’s career. Begun in 1667 as a way to showcase the paintings of the graduates of the sanctioned Ecole des Beaux-Arts school of painting, the Salon had grown in prominence and influence over the years until it had become the single most important event in France’s art world.

Competition was fierce among artists, especially when the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the powerful and ruthless aristocrat in charge of overseeing the Salon, began changing the rules for participation. In 1855, for instance, he decided that the previously annual event would be held biennially in odd-numbered years, effectively cutting in half the number of opportunities for artists to have their work seen (and sold!).

Comte de Nieuwerkerke

Two years later, in 1857, he further decreed that the painting jury would no longer be made up of painters selected by their peers, but instead would be comprised only of aging members of the conservative Academie des Beaux-Arts, a “self-perpetuating elite of forty ‘immortals’ whose duty it was to guide and protect French art. With these wise and venerable men acting as gatekeepers, Nieuwerkerke believed,” King writes, “only works of the most compelling aesthetic and moral standards would be permitted into the artistic sanctum sanctorum that was the Paris Salon.”

To make matters considerably worse, in 1863 Nieuwerkerke made another change to the rules. “Whereas previously artists had been allowed to submit an unlimited number of works to the jury, the latest regulations stated that they could submit no more than three.” Unsurprisingly, the artists were irate — their career and livelihoods were at stake. Ten days after the announcement of these rules, a petition was sent to Nieuwerkerke’s superior complaining that the new rule would cripple the advancement of French art and artists. The signatories argued that “the Salon was intended to operate as a kind of shop window for collectors, and so exhibition in the [Salon at the] Palais Champs-Elysees was absolutely vital to the well-being of artists.” It was signed by many of the most prominent and successful artists in France.

They were ignored.

Even with these rules in place, over 5,000 works were submitted for judging over the course of ten days in 1863, which meant that the eight aging artists who comprised the jury were able to spend less than a minute on each work before making a final, irrevocable decision. Any work they found wanting was stamped on the back with a red R, which stood for “refuse,” or “rejected.” This not only meant that the painting would not be displayed in the Salon, but also that any chance the artist might have of selling it to a private buyer was severely reduced. To make matters worse, as the judging began, Nieuwerkerke instructed the jurors that they were to judge the works “severely.” They happily complied.

As a result, only 2,217 works were accepted. Of the 3,000 artists who had submitted work, only 988 heard good news.

Napoleon Bonaparte III

Artists were outraged, gathering in cafes around Paris to drown their sorrows and discuss strategy – with little results. However, soon their loud complaints made it to the ears of the Emperor Napoleon III, who was coming up for election in the following month and whose public support had been dropping precipitously thanks to an ill-advised war with Mexico and his absolutist and illiberal attitudes toward governance. He set out for the Palais Champs-Elysees where he demanded to be shown examples of both accepted and unaccepted work. After consulting with several advisors (but not Nieuwerkerke, who was reported to be in hiding), Napoleon decreed that there would be a separate exhibition of the rejected work also to be mounted in the Palais Champs-Elysees, which would allow the public to decide whether the judges had been wrong in their opinions.

What became clear to artists and critics alike was that “the jury was systematically barring from the Salon a particular style of painting in favor of the sort of art practiced by many of its own members and taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” Indeed, those whose works were shown in what came to be known as the Salon des Refuses included Edouard Manet, Gustav Courbet, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissaro and James Whistler.

Had the the cultural gatekeepers of the Academie des Beaux-Arts prevailed, the arrival of a new form of art might never have happened and the world would have been deprived of a great deal of beauty, imagination, and innovation.

And while, in retrospect, we can sneer at the reactionary jury trying to hold back the advance of art which now seems inevitable and necessary, my question is this: why did it take the actions of an Emperor for a group of rebellious avant garde artists to conceive of success outside of the the Paris Salon? Why did it take the most powerful man in France to empower these artistic geniuses?

And why today do artists find themselves in the same position? What can we do to empower ourselves, instead of waiting for the Emporer’s blessing?

That is the subject of this blog.

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