The origins of the Salon go back to the 1670s, when the crown-sponsored Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) began mounting semi-public exhibitions of the work of recent graduates, where they would hang all the paintings in one room, closely next to and atop one another so as to fit them all in (image 2).
In 1737, the Academy opened the exhibit up to the public. This had two significant results: not only was this a place where the social classes mingled in considerable quantity and proximity, but now the culturally important act of having an opinion was open to the rabble (images 3 and 4). And the rabble made themselves heard, often through the publication of pamphlets where members of the audience would record their thoughts on the event, picture by picture (pamphlets were huge in 18th-century France, a cheap and accessible mode of mass-communication, kind of akin to blogging). Suddenly, art was being consumed - not purchased, but visually and culturally consumed - by a different audience, one that was not bound by etiquette or friendship or tradition to the royal artistic agenda.
Coinciding with an era in which the king, Louis XV, had lost much of the cultural supremacy of his predecessor, Louis XIV, this development had a big impact on where cultural power lay. Even while the pamphleteers were denounced and even censored for their supposedly uneducated opinions, the shift of critical authority was irrevocable. Some artists began changing what subjects they painted, or the manner in which they represented them, in reaction to the public opinion. Similarly, the artistic tastes of the elite patrons of the arts were swayed by the public voice, which would either praise or condemn their purchases.
The Salon was so popular, and so important to artists, patrons and the public audience, that it endured in much the same form until the late-19th century, when the renegade Impressionists presented too much of a challenge to Academic ideals and the government withdrew support. Until then, each year, the Salon was characterized by (and caricatured for) its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling rumpus of paintings. Smaller paintings were hung lower, the largest were highest, and the canvases were angled toward the floor for slightly easier viewing.
The art historian Thomas Crow presents the Salon as a turning point in the French social structure: the public viewing and judgment of artwork, which had always been the domain of the rich and powerful, was both a reflection and a precursor of the changing relationship of the 'masses' and the elite. Before the Salon, the Academy of painters fell under the bureaucratic jurisdiction of the crown; painters were limited as to what subjects they could paint (military history and mythology were two of the biggies), and were kept within certain protocols. With the Salon, the public registered their opinions not only of the individual painters and works, but also with the system itself - a part of and a metaphor for the Monarchy. And the public opinion's clear influence on the art world was a demonstration of the new and formidable power of the people in the decades leading up to the Revolution.
These days, the popularity of Salon-style displays probably has less to do with politics or history than with the undeniable charm of having a bunch of smaller pieces break up an expanse of wall space. Above are some contemporary examples to consider for some modern inspiration (images 1, 5-8).
Sources: The best book on this topic is Thomas Crow's Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, available at Amazon. It's a scholarly text, and I read it in grad school, but if you're interested in this stuff, I recommend checking it out. I also like Robert Berger's Public Access to Art in Paris: A Documentary History from the Middle Ages to 1800, available but pricey at Amazon.
(Images: 1 Lindsey and Kristen Buckingham's home, designed by Kristen, in last March's Elle Decor, photo by Simon Upton, via stylecourt; 2 The Salon of 1699, not yet open to the public, and not yet taking place in the Salon Carré, engraving by A. Hadamart, Bibliothèque nationale de France, via this lovely article on the Salon as the ancestor of contemporary art school grad exhibitions, by Julian Myers at the SF MoMA blog; 3 Salon of 1785 by Pietro Antonio Martini, at the Bibliothèque nationale; 4 Cartoon by Honoré Daumier from 1852 satirizing the crush of people of all classes typical of the Salon in the mid-19th century, National Gallery of Australia; 5 Anna Hoffman; 6 Cottage Living, via AT: Chicago; 7 Sunset Magazine photo by E. Spencer Toy; 8 shayometz.blogspot.com).
(Re-edited from a post originally published 09/10/09 - AH)