Edited By James Kearns and Alister Mill
The Demand for Peasants: A Statistical Analysis of Rural Imagery at the Paris Salon
In nineteenth-century France, two histories – one economic and social and one cultural – ran parallel to one another. France was modernising; more cities appeared, the railroad network grew and a larger share of the French population was employed in industry. Around the same time, pictures of everyday rural life – rural genre paintings – were displayed and attracted attention at the Salon. The existing scholarly literature asserts that these two histories are in fact not parallel, but intersecting, and that the artistic phenomenon is a reaction to the social and economic one. This essay presents parts of a project that aimed to verify that assertion using rigorous quantitative analysis and an original dataset.1
From 1831 to 1881, approximately 115,000 paintings and other graphic works were exhibited at the Salon and recorded in the livrets.2 Over the course of twenty years, Dr Jon Whiteley of the Ashmolean Museum assembled an index to every Salon catalogue, the Subject Index to Paintings Exhibited at the Paris Salon, 1673–1881.3 Based on its title, each painting is tagged with one or more keywords, or ‘subject headings’ as Whiteley calls them. These keywords are specific, ranging from ‘Plowing’ to ‘Thieves and Bandits’ to ‘Jealousy’ to the specific geographic location a painting depicts. Digitising portions of this index yielded a new dataset describing ← 341 | 342 → the development of the content of paintings at the Salon, many of which have since been lost, destroyed or buried in obscure collections.
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