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ART LIFE IN FRANCE : 1870-1914

ART LIFE IN FRANCE : 1870-1914

Under the Third Republic, Paris continued to prosper as a center of artistic production, through both private and public enterprise. Throughout this period the artistic population grew, fed by the provinces and foreign immigration. Paris offered artists better support, more opportunities and greater freedom than any other European city: it remained, consequently, an unrivalled creative center both in terms of quantity and quality and as the principal home of international 'modernist' art.

Artists congregated in several districts of the city, mainly those close either to the commercial districts around the Bourse or to the art institutions of the arrondissement-the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Musée du Luxembourg. The grandest artists' residences were found near the Parc Monceau in the northwest, but several successful figures, including Auguste Rodin and William Bouguereau, chose to live on the Left Bank. The Impressionists' generation favored the districts between the Gare St Lazare and the Place de Clichy: by the end of the century many artists had migrated even further north in search of cheap rents, into Montmartre. A similar development occurred in Montparnasse, the southern areas of which became a well-known center for poor foreign artists in the years before World War I.

Most young French artists continued to aspire to success through training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although the pressure of numbers continually made this more difficult to achieve. The basis of progress within the Ecole remained the competitions ultimately leading to the Prix de Rome. Many students could spend several years working either in a studio attached to the school-for example that of Gustave Moreau, which Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault attended in the 1890s-or in a private establishment such as the Académie Julian, undertaking competition projects but without proceeding to this ultimate academic test. Private schools also catered for the large numbers of foreign students and for those who sought a less traditional art education. Many such students were women, who were denied access to the Ecole until 1897: the rising number of female artists seeking to become professional artists was one of the features of the period.

From the late 1870s, as a result of the Republicans' wish to distinguish their regime from its authoritarian predecessors, liberal principles were applied to artistic organizations, while state power was used to foster a republican ideology, through education and patronage. The Expositions Universelles offered the grandest opportunities to do this: in 1878 stress was laid on the resurgence of France after the crisis of 1870-71; in 1889 the Republic was celebrated as a motor for progress; and in 1900 design was used to promote an 'organic' concept of society in keeping with current trends in political thinking. In each case the fine arts were used to add prestige to the event and assert France's unique contribution to Western civilization.

Major public commissions included murals in the Panthéon (1874-8; 1893-8), the Hôtel de Ville (1887-92) and the Petit Palais (1898-1900). The Panthéon decorations included a frieze of saints by the highly influential Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The State also continued to purchase work at the Salons for display in provincial museums and at the Musée du Luxembourg. In the art world, official acquisition policy was a matter of controversy, since it inevitably became involved in disputes over the status of different currents in modern art. In 1913 the Musée du Luxembourg owned five works by Albert Besnard, a well-known portrait painter and leading member of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, as against two by Paul Cézanne. These, together with almost all the other Impressionist works in the collection, formed part of the Caillebotte bequest of 1895. The hesitation shown by the acquisitions committee in accepting all the works in this collection has often been cited as evidence of the 'retarded' taste of officialdom at this time, although the level of resistance put up to the bequest has sometimes been exaggerated. It is true, however, that the main representation of the modern school in state collections was due to gift rather than purchase. Claude Monet had been instrumental in 1890 in obliging the State to accept the gift of Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863; now Paris, Mus. d'Orsay) for the Musée du Luxembourg. In 1907, again through pressure from Monet and his contacts, the painting was transferred to the Louvre.

Under the Third Republic, the quasi-monopoly of exhibition held by the Salon was finally broken. The republicans decided that market forces should regulate this aspect of artistic life: in 1881 the State relinquished its tutelary role and placed responsibility for the Salon entirely in the hands of the Société des Artistes Français. Within 25 years the pattern of Salon exhibition had changed dramatically, in response to pressure from artists both in terms of numbers and diverging artistic trends. In 1884 a group including Paul Signac and Georges Seurat founded the Salon des Indépendants, based on the principle of jury-free exhibition. This made for a very mixed-and large-exhibition, in which the self-consciously avant-garde was shown next to the work of amateur painters and weak exponents of orthodox styles. One of its most regular exhibitors was Henri Rousseau, who celebrated it in Liberty Inviting Artists to Participate in the 22nd Exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. The Société des Artistes Français split into two rival associations in 1890, more as a result of professional rivalry than other causes, although the new Salon de la Nationale sought to organize rather smaller and more coherent exhibitions and was more tolerant of innovative artistic trends. These, including the movement to revalorize the decorative arts, acquired their own venue in 1903 when the Salon d'Automne was founded. This Salon quickly established itself as a showcase for non-academic fine and applied art, a position it asserted through a policy of retrospectives, including the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1905), Manet (1905), Paul Gauguin (1906) and Cézanne (1907).

Other exhibiting opportunities existed for artists outside the Salons. Throughout this period the number of private galleries grew: many of these could be hired by groups seeking exhibition space; a number of them sponsored individual and group exhibitions; and a few were prepared to support artists by buying up and promoting their work. The Impressionists in particular established a group identity by exhibiting outside the Salon (see Impressionism) in the eight Impressionist exhibitions (1874-86), the last of which contained a room devoted to Neo-impressionism. Exhibitions of individual Impressionists were also held by such dealers as Paul Durand-Ruel. By the turn of the century a powerful commercial infrastructure existed. At its center was a group of dealers-including Durand-Ruel, Georges Petit and Alexandre Rosenberg-who were prestigious suppliers of modern French art to the international market. Their galleries were complemented by smaller establishments, including those of Ambroise Vollard, Eugene Blot and Berthe Weill, partly dedicated to promoting innovative artists, as with Vollard's support of Cézanne and the Nabis.

The 19th-century academicians had resisted the removal of the Salon's monopoly because they believed that commercialization of art would lead to debased standards. From their point of view this decline had taken place, but a concomitant of the market-led system was the promotion of such avant-garde art as Cubism, which, far from being geared to the lowest common denominator of taste, appealed only to an 'exclusive' group of consumers who were ready to accept a radical redefinition of aesthetic conventions. During the decade before World War I the avant-garde attracted a great deal of publicity. Fauvism and Cubism both acquired a public identity through a mixture of Salon exhibitions and dealers' backing. It was symptomatic of the changed Parisian art world that Pablo Picasso was able to make a reputation without participating in a Salon at all, although the Cubist movement as such was largely promoted through the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne. Despite its exceptional influence, however, the avant-garde was only one particular subdivision of the Parisian artistic community. By the end of this period several thousand artists exhibited at the Salons, mostly drawing on well-established genres. By no means all of these could hope to live well from their work, but their presence itself is an eloquent indicator of the size and potential of the Parisian art 'machine' after four decades of the republican regime.

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