The very first International Exhibition was held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations or simply The Great Exhibition, as it was nicknamed, welcomed over six million visitors, including Queen Victoria herself. (It was her beloved husband, Prince Albert, that co-organized the event.) A designated, temporary building, called the Crystal Palace, was constructed specifically for the exhibition, a grand cast iron and plate glass structure that was a feat of exceptional engineering and artistry in and of itself. The Palace housed over 13,000 exhibits representing the absolute best creations by artisans from across the globe.
Some of the most notable and popular items on display included the Koh-i-Noor (the largest known diamond at the time, weighing over 100 carats), the velocipede (a precursor to the bicycle) and even the first public flushing toilet that visitors could make use of for the low price of one penny. But it was the fine art and decorative arts on display that have best lasted the test of time. For instance, famed American sculptor Hiram Powers showed his best-known sculpture, The Greek Slave, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, at the art exhibition. Also on display were an enormous and intricately detailed micromosaic depicting the Roman Forum by Domenico Moglia and an incredible expanding table by Samuel Hawkins of London demonstrating innovation in furniture design.
This inaugural International Exhibition was an undeniable success, leading to a string of similar cultural fairs the world over that still take place today. While themes of environmental stability and international relations now prevail, their goal remains the same — to celebrate progress and to exhibit the best of the best.
The Exposition Universelle – Paris, 1889
The late 19th and early 20th century were a golden age for these great international exhibitions, and one of the most awe-inspiring and influential was the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. By this time, these exhibitions had only increased in their prestige. For an artist or craftsman, to be featured at an International Exhibition represented both a remarkable honor and the unique opportunity “to see and be seen” on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the Exposition Universelle attracted an astounding 32 million visitors from around the globe.
This particular exhibition is best remembered for its contributions to the art of architecture. Most notably, this exhibition gave the world the iconic Eiffel Tower, designed by architect Gustave Eiffel, which interestingly beat out a proposal for a 300-meter-tall guillotine. Fine art made a lasting impact at the exposition as well, housed in a spectacular dedicated structure called the Palace of Fine Arts featuring a lavishly decorated dome.
The Salon des Refusés – Paris, 1863
The Salon des Refusés was so-called because it consisted only of artwork rejected by the Paris Salon, the world’s premier showcase of traditional Academic art. In 1863, a record amount of works were rejected by Salon officials — around two-thirds of all the artworks submitted. Artist complaints reached Napoléon III, and the French government agreed to host an exhibition of these “refused” works to test the complaints’ validity. Among the artists represented were Édouard Manet (with his famous painting, The Luncheon on the Grass), Gustave Courbet, James McNeill Whistler and Camille Pissarro.
Public interest was overwhelming, and the exhibition averaged more than one thousand visitors each day. While much of this interest was mocking in nature from a public still partial to traditional painting, the exhibition went a long way to legitimize an emerging modernist style of painting.
The Academy and the Salon thrived up until the end of the 19th century when new modernist exhibitions inspired by the Salon des Refusés, including the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne, gained in popularity and the public’s artistic tastes changed. The Salon des Refusés was in many ways the beginning of the end for the unquestioned hierarchy of traditional art academies.
The First Impressionist Exhibition – Paris, 1874
When discussing famous exhibitions that changed the course of history, any conversation must include the very first French Impressionist art show of 1874. This groundbreaking 19th-century exhibition was organized as a direct, critical response to the long tradition of the Paris Salon. At the exhibition, the paintings of some of art history’s most notable and enduring figures, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro appeared, inviting a slew of negative reviews. One reviewer in particular referenced the perceived lack of finish and polish of one of Monet's paintings, Impression: Sunrise. In his review for the newspaper Le Charivari headlined Exhibition of Impressionists, Louis Leroy wrote, "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape." While Leroy intended the title of his article as an insult, the artists embraced the name, thereafter referring to themselves as the Impressionists. Thus was born one of the most innovative and popular styles in the whole of art history.
The Armory Show – New York, 1913
Perhaps the most important showcase of modernist art ever assembled, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, commonly called the Armory Show, took place in Manhattan in 1913, introducing avant-garde styles to Americans and establishing New York as the new epicenter of the art world. With over 300 artists represented including such greats as Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, the Armory Show was a veritable who’s who of early 20th-century modernism.
The show was the brainchild of a new group of progressive artists called the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and was meant to “lead the public taste in art rather than follow it.” With that description, it may come as no surprise that the response was mixed from an American public that was still accustomed to realism in art. One of the most groundbreaking and provocative paintings at the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which depicted a highly stylized man in a series of movements composed of fractured, angular forms. One reviewer likened it to "an explosion in a shingle factory."
Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme – Paris, 1938
One of the most notorious and talked-about art exhibitions in the history of art was the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1938. Organized by the preeminent figures of this avant-garde movement, including André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, the show shocked and awed. Although it was not the first collective exhibition of Surrealist works, this particular show was the group’s most ambitious. It employed an all-new style of presentation, creating an immersive surrealist environment in an early form of installation art.
The show consisted of 229 works by 60 artists and was segmented into three rooms. The first, arranged by Dalí, included a real automobile covered in ivy. The second featured surrealistically arranged mannequins. The third, which was conceived by Marcel Duchamp and Wolfgang Paalen, included revolving doors and an artificial pond. More than 3,000 people attended opening night, attracted by the spectacle of it all, which included a performance by actress Hélène Vanel who leaped out naked and chained from a pile of pillows. Today, the exhibition is remembered as highly conceptual, experiential and completely original.
What is surrealism? Learn more about this art movement and its influence over time.
You can explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of important exhibition works on our website.
“Behind the Scenes of the Legendary International Surrealist Exhibition.” Widewalls, https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/international-surrealist-exhibition-1938.
“Crystal Palace.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Crystal-Palace-building-London#/media/1/145293/5089.
Magazine, Smithsonian. “Document Deep Dive: The Most Influential Art Show You've Never Heard Of.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 14 Feb. 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/document-deep-dive-the-most-influential-art-show-youve-never-heard-of-17801629/.
“Paris Exposition of 1889.” Paris Exposition of 1889 (Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress), https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/250_paris.html.