Ross King’s new book is the third in which he writes on moments in art history. His first two, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2000), and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2003), were well-regarded best sellers. He is not an art historian (he has a Ph.D. in English literature, and has published two novels), but this proves to be an advantage when he addresses the years between 1863 and 1874 in The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. He revitalizes the familiar history of early Impressionism by comparing Édouard Manet (1832–1883) with Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891), a little-remembered painter who was the most successful and highly rewarded French artist of the 1860s and 1870s. Meissonier is more than a whipping boy for King, who grants him his own accomplishments, but the contrasts between the two are so striking that King makes us look anew at Manet’s well-known art and career. Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, and others, who eventually formed the core of Impressionism, came to public attention several years after Manet, so King introduces them only gradually as the decade wears on and he never gives them equal attention.
King organizes his book around the annual Salons, the exhibitions put on by art officials, and the reactions of Meissonier and Manet on those occasions. The Salon juries, under the thumb of the Academy of Fine Arts, were notoriously conservative and rejected so many entries in 1863 that Napoleon III, aware of widespread protests, authorized a “Salon des refusés” (Salon of Refused Artists). Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Musée d’Orsay) was the star attraction among the refused works, and helped make the artist the de facto leader of young painters of modern life. Manet’s large picture of a nude woman seated alongside two fully dressed men in a wooded glade offended conservatives as much for its technique of flatly applied paint and harsh light as for its morally dubious subject.
Art historians have explained Manet’s daring by contrasting him with academic artists who, with smoothly applied paint, drew on themes from history, mythology, and religion. They have not compared him with any one artist but instead with the traditional subjects and techniques of the Academy. King shifts the grounds of comparison by juxtaposing him with Meissonier, his elder by seventeen years, first in alternating chapters, then in more direct confrontations as the Salons stretched into the early 1870s. Meissonier was an exacting realist whose subjects and technique were so opposed to nascent modernism that its historians have simply ignored him over the past century. King doesn’t make Meissonier out to be a modernist, far from it, but he accomplishes what Samuel Johnson credited Pope with doing: “New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.”
The advantage of constructing a book around these unparallel lives lies in the fact that Meissonier was not an academic artist. He was an …