Mary Cassatt’s Paris: Beautification, the Salon, and the Impressionist Movement

by Sara Krauss

In the 1860s and early 1870s, while painter and American expatriate Mary Cassatt lived in Paris, the city was reinvented aesthetically and artistically. The government controlled beautification of Paris and the popular art exhibition influenced the artistic movement Impressionism. Both the reconstruction of Paris and the government’s strict control of the Salon inspired Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt to defy traditional painting methods in their work.  Napoleon III, nephew of the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte, ruled the Second Empire in France from 1852-1870. In 1853, Napoleon III appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine. Haussmann’s most acknowledged accomplishments were his construction projects. He extended and built new roads that passed beautiful Parisian landmarks, such as the Arc de Triomphe. He built opera houses and theatres, and demolished residential slums to construct cleaner, more reputable office areas. Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris streets and buildings later became the subjects of Impressionist paintings.

The Artist's Studio by Gustave Courbet

In the late 1800s, the Parisian art scene was dominated by the annual springtime Exhibition of the Works of Living Artists, most commonly known as the Salon. The Exhibition displayed thousands of art pieces in the Palais de l’Industrie on Champs-Elysees, located on the right bank of the Seine. At a time when art was a hobby for women, not a career, only twelve percent of the pieces shown in the Salon were made by women such as future Impressionist Mary Cassatt. The jury that chose the art pieces displayed in the Salon was extremely selective. In 1855, painter Gustave Courbet created his own exhibition for his realist paintings after his piece The Artist’s Studio was rejected by the Salon. His realist work focused on the ordinary events in the lives of peasants and the lower class. Many artists accused the French government, which controlled the Salon selection jury, of being overly strict and conservative in the face of changing artistic methods and focus. Finally in 1863, painters could no longer endure the selectivity of the jury. Compelled by angered artists, Napoleon III created the Salon des Refuses, which means “Salon of the Rejected,” to display all the artwork that had been rejected by the Salon jury (Jones, 338). The Salon des Refuses was short-lived, however, and the Salon selection jury continued to prefer traditional paintings over realist work. In 1866, several modernist artists such as Paul Cezanne and Edouard Manet were outraged that the Salon’s hierarchical and corrupt jury did not choose their work. By 1867, painters like Manet, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir had their own exhibitions in protest of the Salon’s selection process. Thus, they defied the standard painting methods accepted by the Salon and created a new artistic movement: Impressionism.

Claude Monet's Impression: Sunrise

Impressionism became a way to flout the authoritative clutches of the Salon and the ruling French government, the Third Republic. In 1872, critic Louis Leroy derided Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, sarcastically claiming he was impressed by the simple brush strokes and image. This critique coined the term Impressionism (Roos, 214). Critics were unsure of how to interpret this new movement. They described it as “an optical, rather than ‘imaginative’ approach to painting,” which “sought roughness, fragmentation, and transience in preference to the academic norms of finish, self-sufficiency, and permanence” (Roos, 214). As Colin Jones observes, the Impressionists “openly rejected the established convention of viewing history, religion, and mythology as the substance of painting,” and painted snapshots of ordinary life (338). Many of them were inspired by the buildings, streets, and open areas constructed by Haussmann years earlier. Arthur Lubow writes that Impressionists “rejected the conventions of black shading and gradually modulated tones in favor of….patterns of light and color” (218). Lubow asserts that the Impressionists had a “clearly shaped identity as an antiestablishment, protesting force….they were considered political artists” (218). Most criticism of this new movement stemmed from fears that such rebellion would create political and social disorder. Yet rejected painters like Cassatt continued to defy traditional painting methods and created the artistic movement of Impressionism.

Works Cited

“Gustave Courbet.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Oct. 2010

“Impressionism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Oct. 2010>.

Jones, Colin. Paris : biography of a city . New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

Lubow, Arthur. “Americans in Paris.” Smithsonian 37.10 (2007): 78-86. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.

Munson, Steven C. “Mary Cassatt, Modern Painter.” Commentary 108.2 (1999): 55-57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.

“Realism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Oct. 2010

Roos, Jane Mayo. Early Impressionism and the French State (1866-1874). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

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