Inaugurated in 1667 by the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Salons were celebrated public exhibitions displaying contemporary pictures, sculptures and works of art selected by juries comprised of the city’s artistic elite. The Salons were housed in various galleries of the Louvre from the late 17th century, and the Palais de l’Industrie from 1855, and held for short periods, generally on an annual or biannual basis.
These exhibitions were the source of great public discourse as artists’ works were variously revered and vilified, simultaneously generating extensive written commentary, to say nothing of the occasional scandal. Although they brought about artists’ celebrity and downfall in near equal measure, the Salons were at the centre of Parisian sculpture circles in the 19th century.
Why were Salons so important to sculptors of the time?
For sculptors, the Salons were crucial platforms for securing the acquisition of their works by the French state as well as important private commissions. While painters who exhibited at the Salons often collaborated with assistants and ateliers, sculptors were obliged to do so on account of the immense physical effort and technical complexities inherent in the creation of their full-scale works. Indeed, the sculpting of large marble blocks and the casting of bronze groups in foundries were both laborious and expensive, and the Salon was often the manner in which these complex operations were linked with the patronage they required.
Marius Jean Antonin Mercié’s plaster group Gloria Victis was first shown in the Salon of 1874, where it was received to great acclaim, and purchased by the City of Paris for 12,000 Francs. The City of Paris then commissioned the casting of a full-scale bronze from the celebrated Thiébault Frères foundry which was shown in the Salon of the following year and is today in the Petit Palais. The plaster preparatory model first admitted to the Salon would have been considerably less expensive for Mercié to create than a bronze, and it is likely that the full-scale sculpture so cherished today might never have come about were its preparatory model not shown at the Salon.
When works such as Mercié’s Gloria Victis, above, enjoyed a particularly great success at the Salon, they were often created in smaller reductions so that the art-buying public — which expanded significantly in the late 19th century — could acquire smaller versions of celebrated works for their personal collections. One of an edition, Lot 7 in The Opulent Eye sale is a particularly fine example cast by the Barbedienne foundry.
How did successful artists meet the demands of the art-buying elite?
Advances in sculptural techniques in the late 19th century enabled the more rapid creation of reductions of celebrated groups shown at the Salon in materials other than bronze. For example, when Jean Coulon showed his full-scale marble of Hébé coelestis in the Salon of 1886 (265 cm high), it was received to great acclaim and awarded a médaille d’argent. Today it is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice and, owing to its popularity, it was reproduced in half-scale on a limited basis so that it could be more easily incorporated into the opulent interiors of the age. Lot 156 in The Opulent Eye sale, above, which measures 104.5 cm — less than half the size of the original marble — is a fine example of this practice.
When private collectors were particularly enamoured of sculptures shown at the Salon, they could purchase works on the same scale and in the same medium for their own collections. Such was almost certainly the case with Lot 133 in The Opulent Eye, above — a beautifully cast pair of bronze models of hunting dogs by Ferdinand Pautrot, Épagneul et Sarcelles et Chien Braque et Lièvre (Spaniel with a Teal and Pointer with a Hare), of the same description and size as those shown by the sculptor at the Salon of 1863.
Thanks to to technological advances in sculptural production, the Salons ensured the lasting impact of the masterworks of the age through to the present day.