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Marketing and Modernism
During the 1600s, there was a gradual shift of art patronage from commissioned work to that done "on speculation" (meaning it was sold either by the artist or through agents of one kind or another). This was largely the result of the gradual decrease in church sponsorship of the arts and the rise of Protestantism in Europe, which took a much dimmer view of such expensive "decorations" than did Catholicism. Concurrent with this trend was the widespread use of printed material in place of strictly visual forms in religious education. This was because of a gradually improving (and institutionalised) education system and with that, gradually increasing literacy. This chain reaction also was at least partly what triggered the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes (or bourgeois, as the French would have it).

Through most of the 1700s, there still remained widespread government support of the arts (which meant commissions) but in Holland, France, Germany, and England, where were the most upwardly mobile middle classes, their purchases easily made up for the loss of church commissions. Often, of course, this meant simply more commissions rather than work purchased "off the shelf" so to speak. But with the founding of the French Academy in 1648, and the associated annual Salons, even though still tightly controlled by officialdom, these affairs were basically high-classed "art markets" as much as showcases. An artist had to have major works accepted into Salons in order to sell them. With acceptance came commissions of course but an artist might do dozens of smaller paintings to sell himself between big commissions. Thus the Salons helped spawn and drive the free market in artwork. By the nineteenth century, as hated as they were by those seeking to broaden the definition of art, these Salons still served a very important sales function and could not be ignored, even by those who wished to.

The poor, put-upon Impressionists, of course, were prime examples of this. The problem with Impressionism was that the work was largely hated and scorned by the rising middle class. A funny thing happened to the bourgeois on their rise to relative comfort and prosperity. They tended to imitate the aristocracy in matters of art and taste. And, they relied on the decisions of the Academic Salon jurists and art critics/journalists of the time to tell them what they liked. And while Impressionism may have sparked some increase in the reliance on the open market, it was such a small part of all art sales at the time as to be almost negligible. Academic art was mainstream, be it Romantic, Rococo, or Classical, and it was the open sale of these works, which had started a good two hundred years before, that had become the tail wagging the dog-eat-dog commissioned art market by the 1880s and the dawn of Modernism.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 June 1998

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