If you’ve been in the European galleries in the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed a dramatic transformation in Gallery 10!
The gallery has been reinstalled as part of the celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Layton Art Gallery, which laid the foundation for what would become the Milwaukee Art Museum. We’ve decided to call it Mr. Layton’s Gallery, after Milwaukee philanthropist Frederick Layton, who started it all.
You’ll find some paintings that are familiar (and part of the original gift from Frederick Layton): Old Stagecoach by Eastman Johnson, Hark! The Lark! by Winslow Homer, and Homer and His Guide by William Bouguereau. Other visitor favorites are part of this installation, such as The Last of the Spartans by Gaetano Trentanove and Le Père Jacques (Woodgatherer) by Jules Bastien-Lepage.
But what might be a surprise that you have probably never seen many of the paintings because they are usually stored in our paintings vault. The result is a luscious gallery with 52 paintings and two sculptures. In this post, we’ll look at the history behind salon hangs, and show how we decided to use it for Gallery 10.
The dramatic, floor-to-ceiling installation, mixing European and American paintings, is set against a dramatically colored wall and has no individual labels. This is often called a salon-style hang and evokes the experience of attending an exhibition at the Layton Art Gallery’s original home near Cathedral Square between 1888 (when the gallery opened) and 1919 (the year that Frederick Layton died). Clearly, artwork was displayed very differently than it is today.
A Salon-style Hang
Why is this called salon-style? The term derives from the regular exhibition of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which began in 1667 in Paris. It showed the artwork of students of the Academy, so in order to fit everything in, the paintings were hung as close as possible from floor to ceiling. In 1725, the exhibition moved to the Salon Carré (Square Salon) of the royal palace known as the Louvre, and from that point on was known as simply the Salon.
If an artist was shown in the Salon, they essentially were given official approval by the French Royal Academy–thus, the Academy had the power to make or break artists. By the mid-19>th century, the Academy’s role in defining what art should be was challenged by French artists, most famously the Impressionists, who put together their own exhibitions in direct protest.
Despite the Salon‘s negative connotation in the progress of modern art, the regular exhibition was a critical step in the development of public museums. Previously, it had been difficult for ordinary citizens to see artwork because it was owned by private collectors. But because the Academy’s exhibitions were free, anyone could see the Salon, regardless of class, wealth, profession, or gender.
After the French Revolution (1787-1799), the collections of the French Royal Academy were installed in the Louvre, which became a public museum. It was considered a symbol of the triumph of culture and liberty.
Meanwhile, in London the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 in order to raise the status of the artist in England. Just as the French Academy offered annual exhibitions of their members, so did the Royal Academy. The hangs for these exhibitions were just as crowded as their French counterparts. In fact, in 1780 although the exhibition moved to specially built rooms at Somerset House, the same salon display persisted.
For these exhibitions, the smaller works were hung lower on the wall with larger paintings above. Many artists were displeased with the placement of their paintings, and many protested to being “skied,” or hung high on the wall, where they could not be seen well. After all, these exhibitions were vital in an artist’s career because they needed publicity to get patrons. The painter Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) was so angry at the placement of his paintings at one Royal Academy exhibition that he refused to show his paintings there after 1784.
Because the salon-style hang was what people were used to seeing, it was used by public art museums in Europe and America during the 19th century and into the 20th century. A great example is the National Gallery of Art in London, which first opened in 1824. But this wasn’t a museum as we would think of it today. The paintings on display were given to the nation by the banker John Julius Angerstein, and the Gallery was in his townhouse in Pall Mall—with a salon hang used in home decorating.
The Gallery moved to its permanent, purpose-built home in Trafalgar Square in 1838. Here’s a painting of the National Gallery of Art in London from 1886 that shows the stacked paintings in one of the galleries.
You may notice, however, that the wall is not fully covered from floor to ceiling with art. This reflects a new approach to art display proposed by Charles Eastlake (British, 1836-1906). Eastlake is famous for the interior decoration style named for him (derived from his book Hints on Household Taste, which has become synonymous with “Victorian”), but he was also the first director of the National Gallery, serving from 1855 to 1865. He felt that paintings should be hung at eye level to allow for contemplation by the viewer.
The Layton Art Gallery
This individual interaction with art went hand-in-hand with the belief of gallery founders that exposure to art was crucial for making responsible citizens—a goal that Frederick Layton saw was essential in Milwaukee, which in the 1880’s was bursting with new immigrants and those who moved to the city to work in industry.
We have photographs of the Layton Art Gallery that show this type of installation. The European trends in art installation would not have been lost on Frederick Layton; not only was he raised in England, but he returned to Europe 99 times!
The modified salon-hang opened a new question for art installation—now that you can see more of the wall, what color do you paint it?
The earlier preference was for a neutral color, such as grayish-green. By the mid-19th century, the preference was turning to reddish colors, because they tended to set-off the paintings better. Red tones were an attractive foil to the elaborate gold frames, which is obvious in Gallery 10. In fact, the frames almost become the focal point because of their bright color and sculptural presence.
But this kind of art installation is still very different from the way most museums install art today. After visiting Gallery 10, the rest of the European Galleries almost seem empty! Why did this happen?
The most dramatic shift in art installations occurred after World War I. A key part of this change can be traced to the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition in 1929, Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh. Alfred Barr, the founding director, decided to use a new technique he had seen in exhibitions in Germany: generously spaced paintings (as we are used to seeing now) and display on light neutral walls (which look practically white, the most common color used for contemporary art installations to this day). By the time of MoMA’s 1935 exhibition on Vincent Van Gogh, Barr decided to hang his paintings with juxtapositions that were meant to educate the viewer in art historical concepts—and included explanatory labels. Clearly a departure from the installation of art as interior decoration!
This type of installation allows the visitor to appreciate each painting on its own, a manifestation of the concept that each one is a “masterpiece” with something to impart to the viewer. The painting has breathing room, which encourages the viewer to spend time in front of it and reflect upon its meaning.
Neutral walls were considered a modern way to cleanse the palette for the eye. At the turn of the 20th century, the interiors of dark woodwork and walls were being replaced with lighter tones, and white was commonly used in bathrooms and kitchens as a way to encourage hygiene and fight dirt. Even the Layton Art Gallery adopted this installation style, as you can see in this photo from the 1950’s.
This was quite convenient as the 20th century progressed, because art became more diverse in style and size. In the 19th century, most artists, even those of the avant garde, painted within a familiar art tradition, so paintings set side-by-side would be fairly easy to fit together. This isn’t quite as simple with contemporary paintings and photographs (although modern museums do experiment with salon-style installations with modern art, such as in this exhibition at the Walker Art Center).
And the Milwaukee Art Museum isn’t the only one using this historical installation method. Many Museums have experimented with the salon-hang: the Renwick Gallery at the National Museum of American Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the Frye Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, to name a few!
An unusual installation of modern art in salon style can be found at the Barnes Foundation—the collector, Albert C. Barnes, was a self-made millionaire who had a particular vision in how best to educate people about art.
So take some time to immerse yourself in Gallery 10. It is a great opportunity to appreciate Milwaukee’s past, look forward to its future—and just enjoy something beautiful.
Next month, I’ll highlight some of the paintings that have come “out of the vault” for this installation.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.