In practice the Academy became a closed circle of conventional talents , of men skilled equally in he manipulation of trite formulas for painting and the manipulation of advantageous personal contacts. The situation was deplorable, but it was also inevitable. Mediocrity rather than villainy accounted for the academic persecution of painters who are now recognized as the great ones of the century; the academicians sincerely believed that they were defending the purity and sanity of art against the assaults of boors and madmen.
Genius being, by definition, original, its manifestations could hardly be perceived by a group of men in positions of entrenched privilege whose elections to the Academy was part of the assumption that the formulas for great art had been crystallized once and for all. Delacroix, who was finally elected to the Academy when he was old, ill and on his last legs, and who continued to be snubbed by its officials even after election, once said that an academician taught beauty as one teaches basic math. The Salons were made up of thousands of these exercises in addition and subtraction, hung frame to frame from floor to ceiling in vast halls through which the public thronged to admire or to deride, taking their cue form the critics- and to buy.
Painting became a commodity and the Salon became a gigantic salesroom. A painter who couldn’t manage to get into it had little chance of selling his pictures for a living price, or of placing them with a dealer, or even of getting them into another spot where many people were likely to see them.
The Salon took on the nature of a life and death arena for the painter because he had become dependent upon a new kind of buyer. Before the nineteenth-century the artists, like a Watteau or Fragonard, worked for small and cultivated groups of patrons, but this class was figuratively and really beheaded in the French Revolution. As the century stumbled into the great age of the common man brought into being through the industrial changes, the painter had to find his account in this raw, and mainly artistically non-cultivated open market by appealing to an aesthetically un-evolved public on other than aesthetic grounds. An ecstatic love affair developed between the affluent purchaser with middling taste and the skilled painter conditioned by mediocre conceptions. And the Salon was their trysting place.
Two considerations above all others attracted buyers. The first was slick technique, which made the painter a kind of stunt man, or acrobat; the technical level of Salon painting was very high. The second was anecdotal interest. A painting had first of all to be an illustration , and a painter could base a long and successful career on a single anecdotal gimmick. The painter, Vibert, for instance, who was a superb technician, devoted his talent, or wasted it, to anecdote after anecdote showing Roman cardinals as lovable old codgers in humorously undignified situations, or depicting young priests being naively taken aback by worldly pranks of their parishioners.
More serious painters inflated their anecdotes with sentimental moralizing and intellectual pretension. The typical Salon painting flattered the prospective purchaser by assuring him that his favorable response was the result of his moral probity, his intellectual acumen, and his cultural elevation.
Pictures like Gerome’s “Pygmalion” filled the ticket on all the key points. The anecdote was ready-made since the Pygmalion story has always been a good appeal. It also flattered the observer by assuming his familiarity with classical legend. This was the height of culture. The fair lady, being naked for legitimate, almost wholesome reasons, could be legitimately ogled, giving the work the dimension of pleasure. And Gerome’s impeccable technique was turned to a ravishing novelty effect: the statue woman grades from luscious pink , where she has come to life- and has already started to work- down to pure white, where she is still marble. This was where the art came in, and what more could you ask? It was ridiculous, yet the publicided by popular taste and the view of art as product continued to take Gerome seriously.
Lynette Stocks: As a contributor as well as principal salonniste with Émile de Girardin’s highly successful newspaper, La Presse, from 1836 to 1853 and for many years following—whether published in L’Artiste or in Le Moniteur universel—( Theophile )Gautier was, without a doubt, one of the most read critics of his time. He was also the most colourful, the most supportive, the most enthusiastic, as well as being the most persevering in his criticism of the blindness and bigotry of the Salon jury—until its dissolution in 1848—and of its juste milieu favourites, those two ballons boursouflés de louanges, Delaroche and Vernet….
…It was to Théophile Gautier’s review of the Salon that many Parisians would first turn, and it was in his writings that provincials, travelers and certainly political exiles—of which there were often many among the artistic and literary community—would seek an in-depth and pictorially instructive account of the latest pieces of artwork. It was here too that they would be regaled with a detailed analysis of the latest developments and controversies in the world of art; as Baudelaire—who, incidentally, recognized in Gautier his Maître4—assured his readers in 1859:
He has filled, for many years, Paris and the provinces with the sound of his feuilletons, this is true; it is indisputable that numerous readers, those with literary interests, impatiently await his recent week’s judgment of dramatic works; just as indisputable is the fact that his critical accounts of the Salons, so calm, so full of candor and majesty, are oracles for all those exiles who are not able to judge and feel by their own eyes…. Read More: http://www.h-france.net/rude/rude%20volume%20ii/Stocks%20Final%20Version.pdf
…Examining Gautier’s art criticism as a whole reveals that, in general, rather than being imbued with nostalgia for the artistic glories of either the classical or the medieval or even the neo-classical past, Gautier focused his attention on “any attempt at originality.”From the first, he believed passionately in the young Romantic generation, a generation which he recognised as “ardent, studious, experimenting, always searching, often succeeding” and which had made “the French school the most beautiful in the world.” This alone distinguished him clearly from most of his fellow critics, those absurdes, détestables and monstrueux judges who were forever complaining about the decadence of contemporary French art….
…From the beginning of Gautier’s, initially reluctant, journalistic career, he avowed his intention to reveal the beauties rather than “to expound at length on the faults.” He was well qualified in this boast of his ability to reveal new beauties. Besides having a considerable technical proficiency himself, he had a profound understanding of the history and development of art. It was principally he, for example, who ardently encouraged the landscapists to study the seventeenth-century Dutch masters and, more importantly, to work from nature rather than to aspire to a “Poussin or Claude like” classical perfection of the natural world. It was also Gautier who first revealed the genius of Spanish seventeenth-century painters, often with their terrible but powerful Realism, to French readers and who most fully understood and appreciated the works of Goya. This made his criticism, technical observations and support not only welcome to young and innovative artists but invaluable. Read More: http://www.h-france.net/rude/rude%20volume%20ii/Stocks%20Final%20Version.pdf