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Establishing the Modern Art Market

Many hands make light work, the Modern Art Market

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The Salon

Since its publication in 1969, Canvases and Careers by Cynthia A. White and Harrison C. White has been a cornerstone publication in art market studies. It remains, upon a recent re-read, a to-the-point history of the French art market from c. 1676 to c. 1900, focussed on explaining "institutional change" from one "institutional system" to another: the State-sponsored Academy's annual "Salon" exhibition to the "dealer-critic" system (spurred on by the Impressionist art movement). The authors write:

By institutional system we mean a persistent network of beliefs, customs, and formal procedures which together form a more-or-less articulated social organization with an acknowledged central purpose - here the creation and recognition of art (2).

Consequently, the book sets out to provide an example of how "tastes" in art are not only philosophical or aesthetic, but can be explained by changes in social formations and contexts. The resulting implication is that art history as it has been widely taught — as a chronology of formal art styles — is ultimately underpinned by sociology.

The authors do not contort themselves (or their arguments) trying to justify a sociology of art in the way that Janet Wolff does in The Social Production of Art. Wolff's equally interesting book remains more focused on untangling, and thereby justifying, what a sociology of art looks like. The Whites, comparatively, progress through their study at speed, relying on quantitive data to support their claims and approach; in what feels like a robust and legitimate method.

I can't at a glance see mention of the Whites in Christopher S. Wood's A History of Art History, Peter Watson's From Manet to Manhattan, Malcolm Goldstein's Landscape with Figures or Philip Hook's Rogue's Gallery: A History of Art and It's Dealers; but it difficult to imagine that these writers were not aware of Canvases and Careers, given the ground it broke at the time, and the attempts of these writers to document changes in the art market and art history.

In the Preface to their study, the Whites ask "Why did the Academic system die?"That is, why or how was a state-supported art school-affiliated annual exhibition replaced by commercial art galleries run by dealers. However, in 2022, we might look at the cadaver more closely, for it is difficult to believe the Academic system is indeed dead and buried. Instead we could browse Academy websites (RA in UK, RHA in Ireland, NCD in USA as examples) and acknowledge them as co-existing with equally (or more) powerful privately-run for-profit companies dealers, agents, advisors, curators, galleries, etc. These Academies, some with state support, others with royal affiliations, thrive in the 21st century though their power is not as unquestionable as it once may have been. Crucially, there are now, more than ever, a range of ways for artists to reach their audiences; one does not need to become an Academician to do so. The internet, online shopping, and social media are our century's seismic paradigmatic shift, perhaps more game-changing than the emergence of the dealer-critic system outlined by the Whites. Here I provide just one example: the Artist Support Pledge which emerged at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; a social-media-led art market/eco-system which replaced (in part) that of the bricks and mortar trade.

Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers (1865) by Édouard Manet

Figure 1. Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers (1865) by Édouard Manet, unsold in the artist's lifetime.

For the Whites, the French Academic system the preceded the Modern Art Market had its days numbered. It was incapable of adapting to the quantity of artists flooding Paris in the second half of the 19th century and to the growth of interest from expanding middle-classes. Additionally, for the Whites, the Salon and the Academy that produced it, promoted a number of rigid outdated practices including:

1. It defined the social role of the painter (4),

2. The academy/artists/ art reflected back to the state their ideology (18),

3. Competition was rife (in the Beaux Arts school; for inclusion at the Salon; for position of work at the Salon; for customers and patrons) (19),

4. The official training programme was "narrow", creating a division between "art" and "craft" and somewhat limiting the career opportunities of the artist as a result (27),

5. The system was implicitly censoring, a "watchdog" for morality (29)

This rigidity is one reason why works such as Édouard Manet's (1832–1883) Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers (1865) was negatively reviewed and unsold during the artist's lifetime (Figure 1), and also why the system gave way to more fluid matrices such as the Dealer-Critic matrix.

There were other holes in the academic system. For instance, painters bore the costs of their materials, and payments on artworks, particularly those bought by the state, were often delayed or never fully made. There was no legal contract on purchase and often artists had to settle for two-thirds of the agreed sales price (68). Additionally, given the Ministry of Culture was using public funds to buy work, which for the most part was destined for provincial museums, they tended to support inoffensive ideological works thereby perpetuating and promoting a taste for morally Catholic, highly-finished Neo-Classical paintings (69).

Academicians and exhibitors at the Salon bemoaned these shortcomings (any artist who does not get paid is more than aware of the shortcomings of such a system) but government imprimatur remained essential for wider acceptance in the market. And so, when the Impressionists "rebelled" against the Salon (more on this, below) stylistically and by aiming to sell direct-to-market, a irreversible step was taken, sounding the apparent death knell for the two-hundred-year-old institution.

The Impressionists and the Modern Art Market
Haystacks (1890-91) by Claude Monet

Figure 2. Haystacks (1890-91) by Claude Monet.

One subtext in the Whites' study is that the change in style (e.g. juxtaposed colours) or subject (e.g. middle-class leisure, city life, domestic scenes) introduced by the Impressionists is not (alone) what lead to the move from the Salon to Dealer-Critic system. They write:

In our view too much is made of the change in painting itself, for the old institutional system had assimilated several major transformations in art, and until the end it produced great and innovative art (2).

I value that, from the outset, the Whites are not determined to place Academic realism or Neo-Classical styles in a redundant box, perpetuating a "them versus us" ideology which is prevalent in studies on modern art. The fact of the matter was that the Impressionists did not want to be seen as rebels, or to upset the Salon which they still regarded as a surest way to success and sales (indeed, many of them had been included in the Salon before their apparent rupture with it). They merely wanted an opportunity to sell their work. Taking part in the Salon des Refusés (Est. 1863) a band-aid state-approved exhibition of artworks refused by the Salon, was also not ideal because this offended the bourgeoise aspirations of the artists who did not want their art to be seen as refuse or less-than.

Here, they were inspired by one of the first enfant terrible of French art; Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), who in 1855 set up a solo-artist Pavilion outside the Exposition Universalle. In doing so, Courbet was not attacking or refusing the Exposition (indeed, many of his works were on show in the main hall) but was simply taking control of the exhibition destiny of his works, a novel approach at the time. In a sense Courbet was read as The Desperate Man of his 1843–45 self-portrait (Figure 3), and while his peers regarded the work shown at the Pavilion (including his masterpiece The Artist's Studio, 1855) as ground-breaking, not many flocked to the enterprise. Despite this, the proverbial gauntlet had been thrown down, and a precedent was set for the Impressionists and Manet who were artist apprentices at the time.

The Desperate Man (1843–45) by Gustave Courbet

Figure 3. The Desperate Man (1843–45) by Gustave Courbet.

The Impressionists were men and women (across social classes) with middle- and upper-middle-class aspirations. They could not and did not fit into the Bohemian, avant-garde concept espoused by Romanticism (112). Most of the young painters, except Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who failed the entrance examination, entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and/or the private studios of Academic painters (114) and so were products of the system they helped dismantle. It is worth pointing out in this moment in time that Canvases and Careers is primarily concerned with a key group of Impressionists e.g. Claude Monet (1840–1926). All these artists are male (Berthe Morisot (1841–1895) does get a brief mention), French, and Paris-trained. The book does not expand out to include Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) or Eva Gonzalès (1849–1883) or the vast quantity of non-French Impressionists working during the period under discussion. This is, obviously, a short coming. However, it is typical in sociological studies to use fixed samples to explore. The study does not intend to be definitive, and though this does not make it any less interesting or useful, it does make it biased.

And now to speed up the narrative somewhat: because the Impressionists began to hold exhibitions (which were geared toward sales) outside of the Salon set-up, a number of go-betweens were needed to fill the positions once occupied by Salon staff, most notably a new generation of art dealer and art critics, who together, shaped a new market and ideology.

The Dealer-Critic System
Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Durand-Ruel. Copyright DuraPaul Durand-Ruel Archives. Year and Photographer Unknown.

Figure 3. Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Durand-Ruel. Copyright Durand-Quel Archives. Year and Photographer Unknown.

According to the Whites: the dealer-critic system provided the following for the Impressionists: visibility, publicity, purchases, a more steady income, and social support. They write:

The dealers and critics, once marginal figures to the Academic system, became, with the Impressionists, the core of the new system. … This may appear to be anarchy, and the dizzy succession of new movements after Impressionism seems to bear out what has been called the breakdown of social stability in the art world. Yet, this framework provided more widely and generously for a larger number of artists and particularly for the young untried painter than did the Academic arrangements. (151)

Dealers, in particular Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922), fulfilled a number of roles in the lives of these artists; they were speculators of the new art, publicists, patrons and collectors, managers, friends and more. They founded art journals to help spread the word of the new style and to help train prospective buyers how to "read" or "interpret" the works. Writers began to pay attention to the forms and styles of the work rather than the subject matter, which was rather self-evident to the market (bathers, landscapes, city-scapes etc.) Crucially, the dealer-critic system also allowed these marginalised individuals to be understood as a group or movement (even if they had different aims and styles), flattening the complexity of the artworks/ artists to appeal to a less art-literate emerging market. [The dealers also focussed on international markets; Germany and American collectors supported the new art ahead of the French market].

Durand-Ruel branded single-artist shows, discussing the minutiae of the evolution of one artist's style. He also gave artists stipends and advances, which offered the middle-class stability the artists craved, but also gave the dealer control over their output (which he was essentially buying). Meanwhile, the critic (for example Félix Fénéon) "invited the public to understand and admire the technique and theoretical knowledge of the artist and to make its value judgments in these terms" (120). Critics were not impartial or self-effacing; a young writer could make a name for themselves by documenting the work and scandals of news-worthy painters.

Finally, while the Dealer-Critic system, which continues to the present day, signalled a paradigmatic shift; it was at times, slow moving. For instance, from their first appearances as professional painters in the early 1860s, it had taken thirty years or so for the Impressionists to have the financial security and respectability they craved (129).

Final Thoughts
Grey Area (Black Version) (1993) by Fred Wilson.

Figure 4. Grey Area (Black Version) (1993) by Fred Wilson.

Of this paradigmatic shift from Salon to Dealer-Critic system, the Whites acknowledge that it was a "coalescence of ingredients" (160) coming together at the same time and in the same place which enabled these sea changes to occur. It was not simply magic or the will of a bunch of middle-class and reluctant rebels such as Monet and Manet. The Whites also acknowledge the limitations to the term "dealer-critic system"and "institutional system":

Now, all this makes a rather neat pattern of a very complicated piece of history […] not all the complexities and subtleties of an era can be captured by an analysis centered on an abstract concept like “institutional system.” Yet only through such abstractions can we come to understand the structural interrelations among the confusing mass of concrete events (159).

I agree that ideas or concepts such as the dealer-critic system (or paradigm as I am prone to calling it) are useful, even if they have faults. And though the Whites themselves questioned the use of the term "institution", it has proved a useful concept in subsequent art studies and practices, particularly for artists engaged in Institutional Critique in museum and gallery spaces, from Fred Wilson (Figure 4) to the Guerrilla Girls who both tackle representation and inequity in institutional settings. Likewise, given the growing use of the term (and awarenesses of the practices of) Institutional or Systemic Racism, I think the White's use of the word has purchase and potential to garner new meanings when we compare art world institutional structures with those of the state, law, and education bodies.

In an afterword to the 1993 edition, Cynthia White references the work of Howard Becker (his book Art Worlds is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read) who regards art as a cooperative activity rather than a fixed structure (164), in particular singling out Becker's conception of "drift", that is slight shifts or accidents that can lead to radical change.

White, through Becker, suggests that the roots to the radical shift that found expression with the Impressionists and the dealer-critic system can be found in the private ateliers of Charles Gleyre (1806–1874) (Figure 6) and Thomas Couture (1815–1879) (Figure 5); who, though Academicians, "advised and rewarded spontaneity, originality, freshness of approach, and study from nature" (165). The key to innovation and drift seems to be: violate conventions but be selective about it.

With repetition and exploration, drift becomes a stronger tendency; it is recognised by an art world only when it becomes a change strong enough to cause major reorganisation of the canons, conventions, and social patterns of the art world (164).
Figure 5. Portrait of a Seated Woman (1850–55) by Thomas Couture.  Figure 6. Portrait of Edmond Fournier (1856) by Charles Gleyre.

Figure 5. Portrait of a Seated Woman (1850–55) by Thomas Couture.

Figure 6. Portrait of Edmond Fournier (1856) by Charles Gleyre.

As already suggested with the Dealer-Critic paradigm "Art dealing provided a context for developments in entrepreneurial capitalism as well as a field for the genesis of professional art scholarship and writing in France" (165). It is interesting that in her closing comments, White singles out the "literature of art biography" in particular, and how it was used as a method or lens for approaching visual works on canvas. She writes:

"Paintings and even sketches [are] interpreted like scenes from the artist's life. There is a parallel in the interpretation of Romantic poetry, where each poem is seen as an event in the history of the Poet's sensibility.)" (166).

Further, any context about an artwork often includes discussion of what the artist intended, which again relates back to biography; the finished work having a somewhat causal relationship to the hand that produced it.

In my standpoint or philosophy I would change my last sentence to read "hands" that produced it; given that, as White and Becker (and more) would have it; art is in fact a socially-produced, collectively-produced product.

The hands that bring a work to market, to exhibition, to publication, to dissemination, to canonical status are not only important in the artist's life-time, but also, after their death. For hands keep works protected, conserved, circulated, visible etc. In as much as we can readily acknowledge the power of the role of a conservator in the existence of the work in our own time, so we should have no problem agreeing with (or at least debating) the claim that dealers played as an important part in the production of art as the artist.


Hook, Philip. Rogue's Gallery: A History of Art and It's Dealers. (London: Profile Books) 2018.

Watson, Peter. From Manet to Manhattan. (New York: Random House) 1992.

White, Harrison C. and Cynthia A. White. Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1993.

Wood, Christopher S. A History of Art History. (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 2021.

Goldstein, Malcolm. Landscape with Figures. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2000.


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