Salon painting?!

An exhibition of academic paintings from around 1900 by Swedish artists. Art museum Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, Stockholm

Salon Paintings

The term salon paintings refers to works of art conforming to the reigning academic principles for paintings at the end of the 19th and beginning 20th century. As such they were admitted to the Salon held by the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris, unlike e.g. impressionist or modernist paintings. The Académie des Beaux Arts and other academies of this kind held highly specific demands on motifs as well as technical execution. The subject matter was taken from classical, literary, mythological and biblical themes as well as scenes inspired by the near east (orientalism). The paintings should reflect ideals rather than reality and were designed to be edifying. On the other hand allegorical subjects allowed painters to introduce erotic and sexual content into their paintings. In their execution they showed brilliant craftsmanship and mastery of illusion in the tradition of the old masters from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A painting of this kind involved painstaking preparatory work such as life studies, sketches and drawings in the studio (in cases where architecture was involved the artist could make models and sculptures to make sure that his painting worked in the surroundings it was intended for as e.g. Julius Kronberg, Sweden’s leading artist of this genre, for his ceiling paintings for the Royal Palace or the Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm). This had been good practice for artists in earlier centuries, but by the late 1800s impressionist painters had started to complete their works not in the studio but en plein air. It allowed them to capture the light and atmosphere of the moment and thus achieve a new immediacy in their paintings. Salon paintings were valued by the critiques and bought by aristocracy and wealthy merchants and industrial magnates. These latter ones were a new class of patrons, interested not so much in high ideals as rather in ideals brought down to earth (Stockstad 2014). They opened up for experimentation within academic art, e.g. with regard to the representation of human form and emotion. Using traditional motives and techniques made for stiff competition. To be noticed, a painting had to make use of tradition in new and spectacular ways which resulted in ever larger paintings, intricate compositions and striking colours (Stockstad 2014).

Modernist critique of Salon paintings was scathing. It was seen as hopelessly traditional, slavish and tastelessly kitsch. I can well imagine that the ideals represented in salon paintings felt more and more hollow in view of the political, industrial and scientific developments of the time, especially after the great war. New ways of seeing and painting, experimentation and expression were better able to channel the spirit of the age. In the leaflet to the exhibition it says: Only recently has there been any acceptance of the salon painters’ free uninhibited attitude to mixtures of various styles, visual contexts and narrative painting (Waldemarsudde 2016).

My own Thoughts

I was impressed by the painters’ mastery of technique. However, overall I felt most of the paintings to be a bit too much. Heavily symbolic and idealistic. Maybe I felt the hollowness of the ideals? Also I was disturbed by the blatant sexism on show. Still, there were some I liked, such as this one:

Insomnad (Gone to sleep), Julius Kronberg 1883

I am captured by the subject matter here, the idea of putti wispering dreams in our ear when we sleep. It is a very peaceful painting, playful, too.

The strong elements of Art Nouveau in the following painting shows that modern developments in the arts did not go totally unnoticed by academic painters.

Vid källan (At the spring), Julius Kronberg, 1914

I like the rendering of the sunlight and shadows and also the subject somehow, in a fantasy sort of way. This one does remind me of fantasy art and maybe that makes it easier for me to digest.

There were some monumental works such as this triptych:

Vår sommar höst (Spring Summer Autumn), Julius Kronberg 1882. Source:

With this and many others I very strongly felt the anachronism between the figures and situations in the paintings and the time it was painted in. It feels very odd – especially the tiger hide in the autumn painting (a prop that turns up in other paintings as well. The artist must have had one in the extensive prop store he kept in his studio. A concession to orientalism?)

Visiting this exhibition has been educational. Although I had read about academic painting, mainly in opposition to Impressionism, I never really understood what it meant other than “traditional”. Looking at the paintings now I understood what a corset the Academy’s demands must have been for more freethinking artists. I saw a disconnectedness of these paintings with their time and discrepancies of the technique (however brilliant) with new ways of seeing and painting that were emerging. It seems to me, that this is the steppingstone from which modern art went off in new directions. I think it will help me understand what happened in Art during the 20th century.

I wonder in which way “there has been any acceptance” of salon paintings in recent years as it says in the exhibition leaflet, and why.

I found a contemporary Italian artist, Roberto Ferri, who paints in the technique of the Baroque masters. His subject matter also is inspired from that time as well as from Romanticism, Symbolism and academic paintings of the late 19th century. His paintings are very physical and extremely explicit in their symbolism, disturbingly so even. I find a strong tie to historic catholic pictures in his paintings. They feel anachronistic and yet very contemporary in their explicitness. In his curriculum on Liquid Art System’s homepage it says: [He] depicts a world in which the eye of the artist records and reproduces the order of things in a world where everything works, but there is also the space for evil. Ferri introduces dreams into reality, and the harmonic composition dominates though his subjects often strike twisted poses, with their figures both exactingly human yet triumphant and heroic.

Here are some examples.

Are these pictures like the academic paintings caught in a past era, or are they using old techniques and language to convey contemporary and relevant issues?



Stockstad, M., Cothren M.W.: Art History. Pearson Education Inc., USA 2008 (5th edition 2014)

Exhibitions Autumn 2016: Salongmåleri?! Exhibition leaflet, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Stockholm




2 thoughts on “Salon painting?!

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