For French post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, early rejections from the artistic mainstream of the day may have helped to mould him into the genius that straddled Impressionism and Cubism, and who would eventually being described by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso as “… the father of us all”.
As it was for much of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, Paris was the centre of the art world in the 1860s when Cézanne was an emerging artist. He had recently moved to Paris and struck up a friendship with Camille Pissarro, who was to be a significant influence on the work of a young Cézanne. As painters, sculptors, writers, poets, musicians and their various muses all mixed together, new artistic movements and styles were constantly emerging and struggling to gain credibility and prominence.
At the centre of this creative melange was the Salon de Paris, more commonly referred to simply as the Salon. Its origins can be traced back to 1674, and during the period from 1748 and 1890 the Salon, which took place annually or biannually in Paris, became the final word as to what was in vogue. The Salon had originally started life as a semi-public exhibition for graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts at the Salon Carré, but in 1725 the Salon had been moved to the Palace of the Louvre and by 1737 the exhibition had been fully opened to the French public as a whole.
It was in 1748 that a jury was introduced for the first time, and from then on the Salon was able to rule over the Parisian, and therefore global art scene, with an iron fist. Display and the acclaim at the Salon could elevate an artist from struggling wannabe to an in demand fixture in the highest Parisian social circles. Conversely, rejection and criticism at the hands of the Salon probably broke the careers of many a budding artist. For a young Cézanne it was unfortunately more of the latter.
The jury at the Salon rejected Cézanne’s oil paintings every year from 1863 until 1869, but while previously this may have spelled the end of Cézanne’s credibility in Paris, the newly created Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects) provided a platform on which to shine. In response to mass protests from artists who had been rejected by the Salon, the French government under Napoleon sponsored the alternative exhibition, saying, “… let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints.”
The new exhibition was critically derided, but the extensive coverage it received in the French press helped to bring to attention the work of Cézanne, as well as that of Pissarro, Édouard Manet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. They couldn’t have asked for better marketing, and as the Salon des Refusés positioned their work and the Impressionist movement outside of the jurisdiction of the Salon, they were able to flourish without the pressure to conform.
The influence of the Salon waned over the next few decades, and while Cézanne’s work was never truly accepted by the Parisian bourgeois, this position outside of the mainstream allowed him to develop and innovate, becoming one of the biggest and most important influences on early 20th Century art.