The Toulouse Salons: a regional counterweight to the Parisian art scene? (1861-1939)  


Author: Léa Saint-Raymond (ENS-PSL, Ph.D, director of the Observatoire des humanités numériques,

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Art market studies have one point in common, that of concentrating on the major metropolises of the art market, mainly in Paris, London, New York or Amsterdam. The peripheries are therefore a blind spot in this research field. It is fairly easy to explain the historical reason for this: for the French case, art auctions were mainly concentrated in Paris, at least until the interwar period.

This paper aims at exploring the functioning of the primary art market for living artists in Toulouse, i.e. at the periphery of France, in a context where there was no secondary market nor intermediaries such as art dealers.


A dataset of Toulouse Salons

The analysis is based on a historical dataset available online and constituted manually, regarding two sets of regional exhibitions: the Union artistique de Toulouse (UAT) between 1861 and 1909, and the Société des Artistes méridionaux (SAM), between 1907 and 1939. These exhibitions or Salons intended to emancipate local artists from the capital.

Indeed, a first initiative aimed at fighting against the Parisian domination: the birth of the Union artistique de Toulouse, namely “Artistic Union of Toulouse” (which will be shortened to UAT). The first UAT exhibitions took place in Toulouse between 1861 and 1864, then between 1885 and 1909. According to its statutes, the purpose of the UAT Society was “to encourage, in Toulouse, the progress of the Arts and to propagate the taste for them through public exhibitions of painting, sculpture, drawing and engraving”. In 1905, another artistic society was formed in Toulouse, with an even stronger regionalist spirit: the Société des Artistes méridionaux, or “Society of Southern artists”, shortened to SAM. Its first exhibition took place in 1906, gathering artists and craftsmen living in Toulouse and coming from different backgrounds: painting, sculpture, architecture, glassware, decorative arts and furniture making (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Postcard displaying a room of the 1908 SAM exhibition, in Toulouse (coll. L. Saint-Raymond)


Towards an emancipation from Paris?

The UAT and SAM exhibitions differed greatly in their relationship to the Paris metropolis. The UAT exhibitions in Toulouse remained strongly linked to the Parisian art world. While nearly half of the exhibitors of the UATs, on average, resided in Paris or the Paris region. For the Parisian artists, the Toulouse UAT exhibitions seemed to provide an outlet for their production, and they enjoyed the aura of their awards and medals obtained at the official Parisian Salon. Indeed, within a same UAT catalog, artists living in Paris – and artists from Bordeaux – proposed much higher sales prices than their peers from Toulouse, or from the Midi-Pyrénées region. A medal at the Parisian Salon or an award also pushed prices up significantly.

Similarly, at the SAMs, the selling prices of Parisian and Bordeaux artists exhibiting at the SAMs were significantly higher than the prices charged by artists living in the Haute-Garonne, around Toulouse. Location thus mattered. However, she SAM exhibitions displayed a symbolic emancipation from Paris, by displaying more artworks representing Southern landscapes. In addition, 88% of the exhibitors of the SAM between 1907 and 1939 lived around Toulouse, within the limits that correspond to the former administrative region Midi-Pyrénées.


Socially conservative exhibitions?

Significant social patterns appear in the Toulouse Salons. The UATs, like the SAMs, were misogynistic, since only 17% of the works exhibited at the UATs  and 20% of the works shown at the SAMs, on average, were created by women. Despite the female catch-up at the SAM, women experienced a higher turnover than men: 40% of women who exhibited at the SAM participated only once, compared to 35% of men, and 55% of women – 50% of men – exhibited once or twice. Similarly, women were in the minority among the “regulars”, i.e. artists who participated in 20 or more SAM. Women thus stayed in SAM exhibits for less time than men. Perhaps they felt uncomfortable in this predominantly male environment. Perhaps they did not find it economically beneficial. Indeed, between 1907 and 1939, all other things being equal, the selling price of a work created by a woman was significantly lower than that of a work created by a man.

This idea of a – paradoxically – greater closure of the SAM exhibitions is corroborated by the favor enjoyed by the “sociétaires” compared to other exhibitors. These “permanent” members of the SAM offered significantly higher selling prices than others and they were more likely to have a great privilege: having an exhibited work reproduced in the exhibition catalog. The conservative aspect of the SAM was all the more prejudicial as there was no other local intermediary to propose an exhibition and sale venue. Indeed, there was no dealer in Toulouse specialized in living art until the late 1940s. The artists who wished to radiate outside the strict framework of the exhibitions of the SAM, had no other solution than to open their own space of exhibition and sale, in Toulouse. This was the case, for example, of Hélène Gasset-Ousset who opened her “gallery” in the Peyras street, in Toulouse, allowing her a “permanent exhibition” (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Advertising insert for Hélène Gasset-Ousset’s gallery, in the 1927 SAM catalog


This study is a first step in understanding the functioning of the provincial art market. In the case of Toulouse, it is necessary to enrich the data of the Salons with more extensive biographical information, such as date of birth – which is missing from the catalogs of the SAM – or with the artistic training. A team of students and academics from the ENS-PSL, part of the DatArt_Toulouse project, will finally look for the destination of the exhibited works in current public and private collections, in order to appreciate their “quality” and their “originality”: were regional exhibitions a hotbed of avant-garde and artistic innovation? Research in economic history cannot do without the expertise of art history to answer this question.