Reality Check: Tissot and the Salon des Réfuses, 1863

The next Salon was in 1863.  Charles Gounod’s grand opera, Faust, was revived in Paris in 1862, and on the heels of Tissot’s success at the 1861 Salon, he exhibited two Faust-themed paintings, The Departure and Departure of the Bridegroom (Depart du fiancé) as well as The Return of the Prodigal Son.  But the critics had had enough of Tissot’s medieval paintings and began to satirize him.  One prominent critic advised Tissot to “look at the calendar” and wrote, “When he has done enough archaeology, we will do as the father of the prodigal child he showed this year:  we will kill the fatted calf, and we will forgive him.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by James Tissot.
Courtesy http://www.jamestissot.org

That is not to say the critics were ready for contemporary subject matter.  Nor was the all-powerful Director-General of Museums, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, who decreed that artists could submit no more than three paintings to the Salons from now on.  He despised the Realism movement that was gaining ground, preached by the subversive Gustave Courbet.  Nieuwerkerke supposedly said of paintings in the Realist style, “This is the painting of democrats, of men who don’t change their underwear.”  He preferred that artists concentrate their efforts on a masterpiece, preferably one that was morally uplifting.  There was an outcry from painters who felt that the limit on submissions further reduced their chance of earning a living by having their work displayed at the Salon.

Courbet exhibited regularly at the Salon from the time he was 29, when he had ten paintings accepted.  The following year, the State bought his life-sized After Dinner at Ornans, and he was awarded the second-class gold medal; he won additional medals at the Salons in 1857 and 1860.  Courbet’s reputation extended to Berlin and Vienna, and his career was profitable.  He enjoyed defying convention and offending prevailing taste, as he did at the Salon of 1850-1851 with Burial at Ornans, his realistic depiction of his great-uncle’s ordinary, small-town funeral on a 10-foot by 22-foot canvas as if it were a historical painting of a heroic subject.

Burial at Ornans, by Gustave Courbet (1849-1850). Oil on canvas 10′ 3 1/2″ x 21′ 9″ (314 x 663 cm). Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

Courbet said this painting was really “the burial of Romanticism.”  In 1863, amid rising fury over the number of paintings rejected from previous Salons and his own lost respect for the jury, he submitted Return from the Conference, a picture showing a merry little band of drunken priests stumbling down a country road.  It was refused by the 1863 Salon jury “as an outrage on religious morality” – and Courbet boasted, “I made the work to get it refused.  I’ve succeeded.  That’s the way it’ll bring me in money.”

In 1863, painters vociferously protested the rejection of 2,783 of the 5,000 canvases submitted to the Salon jury.  The Emperor, Napolean III, authorized the display of the rejects in an adjacent gallery; at the Salon des Refusés, visitors could judge these paintings for themselves.  Many artists did not want to subject their work to public derision and reclaimed their paintings; in the end, fewer than 500 artists participated.  But Whistler wrote to friend, “It’s delightful, it’s delightful for us, this business of the rejects’ exhibition!”  While he gleefully showed The White Girl, Manet merely resigned himself to showing his three paintings, including Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) in this embarrassing and risky venue.  Whistler’s painting provoked hilarity from the 7,000 visitors who streamed through, but Manet’s was condemned.  Though his painting seemed calculated to offend, Manet craved approval from Paris’ art Establishment.  Whistler, on the other hand, relished the public recognition of his picture that had been rejected by both the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon, and now had become a major attraction for whatever reason.  Yet he and Manet each earned the respect of many educated, influential critics, some of whose eyes were opened to the injustice of the Salon jury.  Some even perceived that these “rejects” showed the future of art.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), originally titled Le Bain (The Bath), by Edouard Manet. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

As for Courbet, his painting of drunken priests was even rejected by the Salon des Réfuses – but he proudly displayed it to the enthusiastic admirers and defenders visiting his studio, and an American entrepreneur helped him capitalize on the scandal it created by showing the work in England that summer.  (The painting is said to have been bought in 1909 by a private citizen who, as a strict Catholic, destroyed it.)

Interior of the Office of Alfred Emilien, Count of Nieuwerkerke, Director General of the Imperial Museums at the Louvre, by Charles Giraud. (Photo: Wikigallery.org)

The Emperor, who didn’t care as much about art as politics, instituted some reforms.  He announced that the Salon now would be held annually instead of biennially,and that the Salon des Réfuses would be repeated the next year.  He granted the Académie des Beaux-Arts independence from the government, and it was renamed L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  And he promoted the Comte de Nieuwerkerke to the position of Superintendent of Fine Arts at the request of his cousin, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, a powerful woman James Tissot would have reason to be grateful to within five years.

© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012.  All rights reserved.