Art, Artists and Society: Origins of a Modern Dilemma ; Painting in England and France, 1750-1850

By Geraldine Pelles | Go to book overview

THREE
Art as an Institution

Despite the inspiration of their mission and the spiritual rewards of associating themselves with high ideals, artists had to face the stringencies of economic reality. Under the new social and institutional arrangements, art became a displaced element of culture many years before the idea of art-for-art's-sake was well developed.

In the Renaissance the idea of l'art pour l'art had been implicit in the production of easel paintings, created for an elite group of connoisseurs rather than for a large public. These paintings often had no religious or didactic content or purpose, and the patrons enjoyed them for their own delight. Under the accelerated changes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, painters almost completely lost their old function of serving the vital needs of social institutions by making decorations for palaces or altarpieces for churches.

Nevertheless, art did not lose its attractions as a profession. Indeed, the numbers of painters in the early nineteenth century kept pace with and may even have exceeded the rate of the population explosion which had been set off by improvements in sanitary and medical conditions and by the Industrial Revolution. The rate of increase of painters exhibiting in the Salons of France almost doubled over the previous period and continued to mount also during the monarchy of Louis Philippe.1 Artists continued to find sustenance in the apparently unfavorable environment created by the new hegemony of the middle classes.

The new markets for art were as uncertain as its uses. By the first half of the eighteenth century, French painters were already in dire straits. Through the increasing secularization of life, a sharp decline in church patronage began at that time. In the Salon of 1789, before the outbreak of the Revolution, few religious works appeared; most were mythologies or subjects based on antiquity or French national history.2 The church continued to commission works after the secular

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