The Paris Salon was the annual (from 1863) exhibition organised by the State. It attracted up to 500,000 visitors during the six weeks in which thousands of paintings and sculptures vied for the attention of critics and the public. Its rigid hierarchy of genres placed history painting at the top followed by portraiture, genre, landscape and still life. But during the 1860s the growing popularity of landscape painting and changes to the Salon jury system allowed landscape painters greater opportunities. Salon landscapes tended to be large (and thus more visible), deeply conservative views of an unchanging French countryside, images to reassure a bourgeois, urban audience of a world unaltered by modern life.
Charles-François Daubigny, The Beach at Villerville-sur-mer (Calvados), Sunset, 1873. Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 143.5 cm Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA. Gift of Walter P. Chrysler Jr, 71.635
A Spring by the Sea by Jules Breton (1827–1906) depicts an idealised vision of women returning from washing clothes in a freshwater spring. The figures, influenced by Italian Renaissance painting, have a statuesque solidity as they move across the rocky foreshore. A similar processional motif can be seen in Jules Héreau’s (1839–1879) image of shrimp pickers returning across the beach. Treated more sketchily, the women take second place to the play of light through drifting clouds. In canvases by Jules Dupré (1811–1889), Jean-Charles Cazin (1841–1901) and Antoine Guillemet (1843–1918), the predominant mood is of sombre, storm-tossed, cloudy skies and a sense of hostility emanating from the sea. Critics who accused the Impressionists of catching merely ephemeral sensations found here ‘the aspects of nature best suited to nurture moral life’.
‘It was the usual opening-day rout, with everybody looking for his own picture and running round to see everyone else’s, bursting with resentment, and with voices raised in furious and apparently unending complaints – they were hung too high, the light was bad, their effect was killed by the pictures on either side, they had a good mind to remove their pictures altogether.’
The Masterpiece, Emile Zola
Charles Daubigny (1817–1878) was a leading member of the group of painters who gathered at the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau to the south-east of Paris, and whose approach to plein-air painting provided a powerful example to the Impressionists. Daubigny exhibited regularly at the Salon, where his interest in the changing aspects of nature, captured with light and fluent brushstrokes, was criticised for its lack of finish and detail. The critic Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) wrote in 1861: ‘it is really a pity that this landscape artist having so true, so apt and so natural a feeling for his subject, should content himself with an ‘impression’ and should neglect detail to such an extent. His pictures are no more than sketches barely begun.’ Yet four years later he added, ‘the impression obtained by these most perfunctory means is nonetheless great and profound for all that.’
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide Impressionists by the Sea: An Introduction to the Exhibition (712 KB) , by Greg Harris.