Musée d'Orsay: Artistic Context

Artistic Context

The Académie des Beaux-Arts

Henri GervexMeeting of the Jury© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR
Heir to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the Royal Academy of Architecture and the Royal Academy of Music (founded in the 17th century), the Académie des Beaux-Arts, thus named in 1803, made up the Institute of France together with the Académie Française, the Academy of Science, the Academy of Literature and the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.

The role of the Académie des Beaux-Arts was to safeguard and develop France's artistic heritage in all its forms. It was made up of members who were elected for life, and who were usually chosen for their adherence to traditional values. Some of these academicians made up the juries who controlled the Salon, the Prix de Rome, and the nominations for public commissions.

In L'Oeuvre, Emile Zola looked at the work of the jury: "Every day the gallery attendants put out an endless row of paintings on the floor, propped up right across the rooms on the first floor [...] They made decisions without much thought, getting the job done as quickly as possible, rejecting the worst paintings without a vote; Yet sometimes the group would stop to discuss something, and would argue for about ten minutes [...]."

The Salon

François Auguste BiardFour hours at the Salon© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Daniel Arnaudet
The first Salon of 1667, organised by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, brought members of the Academy together for a joint exhibition.
The jury, preferring conventional painting, gradually became a symbol of conservatism. In the second half of the 19th century, the selection criteria for admission to the Salon were challenged. Other independent Salons and exhibitions began to appear alongside the official Salon (for example Courbet's Pavilion of Realism). The most famous was the Salon des Refusés of 1863: in that year, 5,000 works were submitted to the jury of the official Salon, and 3,000 works were refused. Faced with the anger of the many frustrated artists, Napoleon III gave an exhibition space for the rejected works.

Courbet and the Salon

Gustave Le Gray  
 Salon of 1852, large north gallery (centre: "The Village Girls" by Gustave Courbet)
 Salted paper print from a paper negative, glued on card
 H. 19.4; W. 23.6 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Gustave Le Gray Salon of 1852, large north gallery (centre: "The Village Girls" by Gustave Courbet)© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The painter tried unsuccessfully to show his paintings at the 1842 Salon. He achieved his aim in 1844 with Courbet with a black dog, painted two years earlier.
Courbet continued to participate in the Salons until 1870. He was met with other refusals from the jury until 1849 when he received a gold medal for After Dinner at Ornans.
At the 1850 Salon, Courbet caused a scandal with Burial at Ornans. Whilst making certain compromises to rules of the Salon, Courbet clashed with the jury again in 1863 with Return from the Conference and, in 1864, with Venus and Psyche, which were rejected amidst a furious outcry.

Academic painting

Alexandre CabanelThe Birth of Venus© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
For the majority of the 19th century the style of painting promoted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts dominated artistic production: following its precepts was the route to the Salon, to receiving commissions and prizes or even having one's work bought by the State and placed in the Musée du Luxembourg.
Academic painting was the expression of a craft where an apprenticeship in drawing took precedence, and which demanded "a perfect finish" and attention to detail. This was a meticulous style of painting, where every detail was included, down to a gaiter button or the reflections in the silver metal of a fireman's helmet. Academic painting was also characterised by prescribed subjects taken from history, mythology or religious texts.


Eugène DelacroixThe Lion Hunt© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Romanticism appeared during the 18th century in Great Britain and Germany, then later in France, Italy and Spain. In France, it spread quickly during the Restoration and the July Monarchy, when the taste was for Neo-Classicism. It was the sudden development of the individual, the supremacy of personal experience, and in particular the expression of suffering of the heart and soul.
Painters and musicians adopted the aesthetic values and themes recently developed by poets and writers: the exaltation of the mysterious, the fantastic and the morbid, the quest for the sublime. Passion and melancholy dominated the Romantic spirit. The major figure in French Romantic painting is Delacroix.

Universal Exhibitions

Jean Camille FormigéThe 1889 Universal Exhibition, Palais des Beaux-Arts© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
From the second half of the 19th century enormous exhibitions attracting millions of visitors united "all countries East and West": they were called the Universal Exhibitions.
Each country presented its latest technical inventions as well as its artistic, cultural and social achievements. At first they were dedicated to industry and technology, but gradually the Universal Exhibitions opened up to the Arts.

From 1851 to 1867, these exhibitions were organised alternately by England and France who imposed their hegemony on the rest of the world. The first Universal Exhibition, in 1851, was held at the Crystal Palace in London. Paris hosted the next one in 1855 at the Palais de l'Industrie. Fifty three countries took part, with some including their colonies. Then came the Universal Exhibitions of 1867, 1878 (construction of the Trocadero Palace, destroyed in 1937), 1889 (erection of the Eiffel Tower), 1900 (building of the Petit and Grand Palais, and the Gare de Lyon and the Gare d'Orsay).

At the Universal Exhibition of 1855, the building for the Fine Arts section (painting, engraving, lithography, sculpture and medals, architecture) welcomed 2176 artists of whom 1072 were French. Their works were seen by a million visitors.
The painters Eugene Delacroix, Dominique Ingres and Ernest Meissonier were among the French prize-winners, whereas Gustave Courbet got himself noticed by exhibiting his works at the "Pavilion of Realism", outside the official exhibition.

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