2.1 Paris : Art World
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) claimed that Paris was the capital of the world with brains full of genius, leader of a civilization, the most attractive home one could have.1 As far as art was concerned, he was not that far off the mark. After 1815 Paris became the center of artistic activities due to state aid, the role of critics, salons and art dealers, the importance of studios, prizes and so on. As the painter Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) observed, the perfection of art in Paris was a collective accomplishment.2 The history of art in Paris must be seen in the wider context of complex cultural exchange. Another aspect of the attraction is the conception of modernity: Art works made in France during the nineteenth century were seen as particularly modern.
First of all, the intervention of successive governments throughout the nineteenth century, financially, but also on an organizational and political level (and obliquely on art in general), created a centralized and well-oiled machine in which artists were trained and became successful. To have been a student of the state sponsored École des Beaux-Arts was a virtual guarantee of professional prosperity. Nevertheless there were enough other options in privately owned drawing schools and academies.
Success, however, was mainly dependent on the reception of the artworks exhibited in the Salons, which were organized by either the Institut de France or the Académie des Beaux-Arts and sanctioned and paid for by the government. To refuse to participate in the Salons was the equivalent of career suicide: The number of visitors was enormous. Government heads usually gave out the prizes and bought works for themselves or for the state, settling reputations at one fell swoop. In short the Salon was the place to be seen. Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) pointed out that visitors to the Salons included all manner of potential buyers, not only the dealers and the art collectors, but also the nouveau riche– French and foreign – who were interested in embellishing their châteaux and town houses.3
Within the art world, as in any other, money mattered a great deal. The Parisian art system was not only a machine for manufacturing and exhibiting, but also a market for selling works of art. Artists were quite rational in their approach to this matter: once their work was accepted at the Salons, they could sell to private buyers and possibly even to the state. Art dealers served as the critical link between the artists and the public. Although art dealers were active in Paris in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was not until circa 1830 that this aspect of the Parisian art system really became successful. By 1861 more than a thousand art dealers had set up shop in the capital.
The art critic was the final key element within the nineteenth-century Parisian art world. They provided a varied and ever-changing discourse on the nature of art, so that every artist in Paris could immediately situate himself in relation to the reigning aesthetic theory.
This system of interrelations and interdependence attracted a growing populace of French and foreign artists and people related to the art world, such as art dealers, models, frame makers and colourmen.
1 Paris est la tête du globe, un cerveau qui crève de génie et conduit la civilisation humaine, un grand homme, un artiste incessamment créateur, un politique à seconde vue qui doit nécessairement avoir les rides du cerveau, les vices du grand homme, les fantaisies de l’artiste et les blasements du politique’, Honoré de Balzac, La fille aux yeux d’or in Œuvres complètes de H. de Balzac, IX, Paris, 1855, p. 247, http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/La_Fille_aux_yeux_d%E2%80%99or (last consulted on 17 October 2012).
2 Patrice Higgonet (translation by Arthur Goldhammer), Paris. Capital of the world, Cambridge MA/London 2002, p. 401
3 Idem, p. 417.