Art Exhibitions

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Italy and France were the countries that primarily fostered the development of public art exhibitions in early modern Europe.


Rome: religious exhibitions. Art exhibitions in Rome were always closely tied to religious celebrations. During the first half of the seventeenth century, paintings began to be specially displayed within some churches on saints' feast days. During the Holy Years of 1650, 1675, and 1700, the lay society of the Congregazione Pontificia dei Virtuosi, composed mainly of artists, mounted juried exhibitions of paintings in the portico of their church, the Pantheon. Concurrently, great private collections of Old Master paintings were brought out of palazzi and displayed in church cloisters.

Florence and Rome: academic exhibitions. Art academies were founded in Florence and Rome in the later sixteenth century. In Florence, the Accademia del Disegno (founded 1562) authorized student exhibitions in its statutes of 1563, to be held in the church of the Compagnia di San Luca. In Rome, the Accademia di San Luca (founded 1577, opened 1593) began to hold student shows on St. Luke's Day starting in 1607; beginning in 1621, the academicians themselves also exhibited on that day for the public.

Venice. As in Rome, exhibitions were tied to religious observances. From the later sixteenth century on, paintings were shown on Ascension Day in the Piazza San Marco and the adjoining Piazzetta. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Church and Scuola of San Rocco became a focus of painting exhibitions. On the saint's feast day (and probably for a few days afterward), work by mostly contemporary artists was shown, hung on the exterior of the Scuola and adjacent buildings. By 1699 this was an annual event, recognized as a forum for young artists; it is vividly depicted in Canaletto's The Doge Visiting the Church and Scuola di San Rocco (c. 1735, National Gallery, London).


The early academy exhibitions. All developments concerning public art exhibitions in France took place in Paris. There, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (founded in 1648) was reorganized in the early 1660s under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV's minister. Beginning in 1664, students' submissions for the Rome prize competition could be viewed annually on 25 Augustthe feast day of Saint Louis and the king's name day. As had been the case earlier in Florence and Rome, the first public art exhibitions in France were of students' work.

In 1667 the academy held its first public display of the academicians' productiona show of contemporary art, as was to develop later in Venice. The exhibition took place within the premises of the Hôtel de Brion and the courtyard of the Palais Royal, of which the hôtel was a part. Later academy displays were held in these locales in 1669, 1671, 1673, 1675, 1681, 1683. In 1699 and 1704 the exhibitions were moved to the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. Unlike the short-lived Italian displays, the academy shows usually lasted one to three weeks. Sponsored by the academyan extension of the monarchythe exhibitions were sometimes linked to royal events and presided over by royal and official portraits.

The Place Dauphine exhibitions. The economic distress within France at the end of the Sun King's reign put an end to these exhibitions until 1725, but the artistic void was filled in part by exhibitions held in the Place Dauphine and on the adjoining Pont Neuf. These were an outgrowth of Corpus Christi Day processions, when pictures were hung along the processional route (a practice documented from at least 1644). The Place Dauphine/Pont Neuf exhibits were held on the mornings of Corpus Christi Day and the following Thursday (the Octave); they evolved during the eighteenth century from displays of paintings by Old Masters and established academicians to those featuring young painters and women artists, the latter group having been largely excluded from the academy. After the establishment of the salons in 1737, this outdoor exhibition (now called Exposition de la Jeunesse) continued in diminished form until 1788; a final one was held indoors in 1791.

The Duc d'Antin's initiatives. The annual twomorning Place Dauphine shows were felt to be too brief, and a demand arose for more extended public viewing of contemporary art. The Duc d'Antin (superintendent of the king's buildings since 1708)perhaps in response to a suggestion made by the academy's director, Louis de Boullongne the Youngerused the occasion of the marriage of King Louis XV to Marie Leszczynska in 1725 to mount a ten-day painting exhibition in the Grand Salon (Salon Carré) of the Louvre. The older academicians abstained from this show in deference to young artists recently admitted to the academy. The success of the exhibition led to the competition of 1727, again initiated by the Duc d'Antin. This event was held among academy history painters (the highest class of artists at the academy), and the paintings were placed on easels (an innovation in exhibition history) in another room at the Louvre, the Gallery of Apollo. The paintings remained on public view for almost two months.

The salons. Despite the public success of the Salon Carré show and the crown's purchase of three entries, academy exhibitions lapsed until the following decade. In 1735 the academy, on the election of its new officers, held a small exhibition of paintings by some of its senior professors in the Louvre space. Although closed to the general public, the display was visited by connoisseurs and art lovers, as reported in the Mercure de France (June 1735), which appealed for a public academy exhibition, noting that none had been held for a very long time. The next year an even smaller closed exhibition was held in the academy, and the Mercure reported "a considerable crowd of collectors" who again were able to gain access. These shows were proof of a widespread desire among academicians to resume exhibitions, and the publicity generated for these shows by the Mercure, as well as the publication's strong appeal for public showings, led in 1737 to the initiation of the salon tradition.

The first salon was the initiative of Philibert Orry, director-general of buildings, controller-general of finances, and vice-protector of the academy. It was mounted in the Salon Carré of the Louvre (previously used for the exhibition of 1725), which gave its name to these shows, always held in that space. The salons occurred annually until 1751 (although there were none in 1744 and 1749), thereafter continuing in odd-numbered years. Only members of the academy could display their works at these exhibitions, which always included sculpture, drawings, and engravings as well as paintings. Beginning in 1748, a jury of academicians selected the works to be exhibited by majority vote. The first salon was held from 18 August to 1 September; later ones remained open three to six weeks. Access was available to the general public and free of charge, regardless of class, wealth, profession, or gender; the doors to the salon were open from 9 A.M. to the late afternoon. All evidence indicates that the salons were heavily attended throughout the eighteenth century, providing a cultural event of high entertainment value. They were decisive in promoting the rise of a new art-world phenomenonthe free-lance journalist-critic. Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin's etching View of the Salon (1753) shows how the paintings being exhibited were closely hung in stacked registers, but it also conveys the public's animation and excitement when attending the salons.

See also Academies of Art ; Florence, Art in ; France, Art in ; Rome, Art in ; Venice, Art in.


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Robert W. Berger

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Art Exhibitions

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