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Salon des Refusés - The Exhibition of Rejects

Defining the success of an artwork through the strict classification of subject matter has always been fraught. With an endless diversity of artistic styles, experiences, materials and audiences, it's clear that there is no single formula that automatically equates to artistic accomplishment. Nevertheless, there are long-lasting attempts to classify the value of art based on genre and content.

Diana and Actaeon | Titian | 1556–1559 | A classic history painting | Wikimedia Commons
Diana and Actaeon | Titian | 1556–1559 | A classic history painting | Wikimedia Commons

In 1669, the art-theoretician Andre Felibien articulated a ranking system for the prevailing artistic genres of the time. History painting won the most favour, followed by portraiture and genre painting. Landscapes ranked fourth while still-life was regarded as the least valuable artistic field. This assessment was based on attributes such as the expression of morality, or the presence of an uplifting message based on religious, allegorical, mythological or historical context. Because it was perceived that historic paintings could better convey artistic skill and moral narratives than still-life, the latter was regarded as lacking in terms of execution and content. Above all, however, the hierarchy placed the notion of man as the most significant of artistic subjects, and history was regarded as the most prestigious in content because it elevated the plight of human history.

The hierarchical evaluation of paintings was employed by the great European Academies, including the Academy of Art in Rome, the Academy of Art in Florence, the French Academy in Paris, and the Royal Academy in London. For a long time, many artists had little choice other than to conform to the established echelons. In addition, the theme, layout, composition and colour of an artwork was highly regulated by academies looking to project a singular aesthetic. Artists who did not comply with the conventions of the Academies were excluded from any recognition on lists for official posts in teaching or other official commissions. This culminated in a climate that discouraged experimentation or artistic innovation. During the 19th century, however, some artists began to rebel against the rigid academic establishment.

The Paris Salon, sponsored by the French government and the French Academy of Fine Arts, took place annually and was held as a showcase of the best of academic art. Artists who won a medal from the Salon saw the guarantee of a successful artistic career bolstered by governmental and private commissions. From at least the 18th century, the pervasive influence of the hierarchy of genres dictated the acceptance or rejection of submissions, with idealized realism that conformed to the hierarchy expected of artists looking to participate. As a result, mediocre and repetitive history paintings were favoured over brilliant landscapes or still-life renderings.

Edouard Manet - Luncheon on the Grass - Google Art Project
Edouard Manet | Luncheon on the Grass | Google Art Project

Artists excluded from the Paris Salon began to view the event as a figurehead for the restrictive artistic climate. In 1863 the Salon jury refused at least two-thirds of the paintings presented as candidates for the exhibit. Spurned artists included Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Antoine Chintreuil, and Johan Jongkind. The outraged artists and others protested the Salon, leading the office of Emperor Napoleon III to issue a statement:

Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry

In an effort to open up new avenues only barely explored by the avant-garde, the artists generated enough momentum to form one of the most pivotal exhibits in art history. Two weeks after the official Salon, on the 15th of May, 1863, the Palais de l'Industrie opened its doors to exhibit the artworks of the rejected artists, titled the Salon des Refusés or The Exhibition of Rejects. The exhibition, as recounted by writer Émile Zola in his novel L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), was met with an emotional reception:

...a group of young people were staggering back against the archway as if someone had been tickling them in the ribs; a lady had just dropped on a sofa, out of breath with laughing... Those who were not laughing were almost beside themselves with rage

Indeed, many art critics and the public ridiculed the refusés, the strict hierarchy of the academy still deeply ingrained within the culture of the wider audience. Yet despite this, over a thousand visitors a day visited the exhibit, which included paintings such as Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe and James McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. It was at this juncture that critical attention also legitimized the burgeoning presence of the avant-garde, which put forth the impetus for other exhibitions and artworks that operated outside the established aesthetic.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl | James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl | James Abbott McNeill Whistler

The refusés proved to be a creative revolution. Artists began to work increasingly autonomously, free from commissions by the church, wealthy patrons or the state. In addition, more artists started creating innovative artworks in the hopes of establishing their own extraordinary vision.

Although no one could truly know how important the Salon des Refusés would prove to be, the event came to mark a fundamental turning point in art history. Subsequent Salons des Refusés were held in Paris in 1874, 1875, and 1886, by which time the popularity of the original Paris Salon had withered in light of the public's enthusiasm for other artistic genres - an artistic democracy whose inception was largely set in motion by the rejects of Academic art.



Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.

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