To categorize pictures of the Salon type, whether by any subject or criteria, one could belabor each of the many types- the noble peasant, the Oriental, the jolly peasant, melancholy old ladies, religious pictures, the allegories- but in the end we would come down to the same conclusion: that the rank and file of Salon painting was skillfully trite, obvious, and pretty vulgar. The judgement may be harsh, but it offered a field day for gibes; helpless in its awfulness, exposed in all its shortcomings, and unpardonable in its dreary sentimentality.
Yet, if an artist like Gerome is essentially ludicrous or merely dull, occasionally he did paint an anecdote like “Duel After the Masquerade” which is nicely patterned and succinct in its narratrive, and so unexpected in the nature of the narrative, that only a critic in bad faith can refuse to recognize its virtues. And if most Salon children are offensive brats, a few of them have great charm. Salon painting was based on a precise imitation of nature, in spite of all the prettying up and the artificial posing.
When children were painted directly, sympathetically, and without all the rigmarole that turned them into bad actors on amateur night, they could be attractive subjects for a kind of painting that was expert in the presentation of externals. And if Edwin Landseer’s animals are usually mawkish, he also painted Blackcock , a harmony of whites, tans and greys with a spot of red in pigment so opulently weighted that the picture would do credit with Courbet. The good Landseer’s isolated from the infection of the typical mass of his work, suggest that he was one of the best minor painters of his century, instead of one of the laughable worst.
It wasn’t all bad and a mistake to throw the baby out with the bath water. For example, there is the Moorish Chief by Eduard Charlemont, an Austrian who was born in 1848 and died in 1906, who apparently had a moderate success in his lifetime but whose name is pretty obscure today in the art world. He was in no way an innovator and appears to have painted a large number of dull, mediocre pictures. But his Moorish Chief is a beautiful work; well painted, richly colored, superbly drawn and nicely joined. The subject, a conventional bit of orientalism, is only a peg upon which to hang them and is unobtrusive because it is not forced into a pretense of more depth than it has.
Charlemont takes little more interest in his model as a Moorish chieftain than the cubists took in the violins, tables and compotes that served them as points of departure for technical exercises. But his exercise is at least as legitimate, in many ways more difficult and not more threadbare than exercises in abstraction; it is just that the abstract virtues of figurative painting are assumed to be non existent in many cases, especially if they are committed to a blanket rejection of representational painting unless its by a name brand artist. With a falsified label, say Delacroix, Moorish Chief would be sensational not only as an important picture historically, which it is not, but also as a superb piece of painting, which it is.
Despite the exceptions above,the idea behind Salon painting is still one that has a certain element of dismay: tested recipes, romantic anecdote, that allow for a formula where desirable young women are in difficulties that are stimulating to the imagination. The misogyny of sexism of Salon painting has been diluted over wider visual platforms in popular culture. Abstract aesthetic values were beyond the Salon public who like today coalesce over pictures and stories that plow through a marrow line of guaranteed cultural situations with the same laborous comedy that appeals to the vanity of the observer. Something, anything, that assures the viewer of his cultivation and depth of human understanding in search of “the ubiquitous anecdote” that arises when caught off guard by the facts of life.