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,1 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 outsider who frequently opposed the regulations that governed the Salon and sometimes boycotted it. He did not teach in the Academy’s School of Fine Arts, and his stock in trade, genre painting (from the French, from the Latin genus, meaning kind, sort, type), was considered a low form of art. Although there was Greco-Roman and medieval genre painting, for the nineteenth century it was Dutch and Flemish painting of the seventeenth century that influenced this category, its repertory emphasizing secular themes from everyday life as distinct from the grander subjects of fine art. Meissonier’s pictures show men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries playing cards, smoking, dining, playing musical instruments, or standing about in cavaliers’ costumes. Their works were characteristically Romantic in their nostalgia for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an imagined world of untroubled leisure that avoided the disturbing reality of modern life that Manet evoked.
Meissonier emulated Netherlandish art in conspicuously small paintings. For example, Young Man Working(Musée d’Orsay) of 1852, is only 9 1/2 by 10 1/2 inches; its seated figure is about four inches high. It was this jewel-like size in which every button and fingernail was clearly visible that gave Meissonier eminence by the 1850s as the creator of expensive portable objects, unlike the large fine arts paintings that the Academy sponsored and that Manet aspired to. His works were bought by well-known English, American, and French collectors before Manet found any patrons at all. In her book on Meissonier, Constance Cain Hungerford points out the significance of his success:
A sensational star at auctions, Meissonier was one of the most important artists involved in the development of the early modern commerce in art. His buyers, supplanting the state as the artist’s economic mainstay, brought to the fore a type of collector still with us today, a type not only buying art for aesthetic enjoyment and to display wealth and claim the status of cultural refinement, but also alert to investment potential.
The exacting realism and portable size of Meissonier’s genre works made them immensely popular, and began to threaten the livelihood of artists favored by the Academy who featured idealized figures and ennobling moral lessons, cast in large paintings destined for the walls of public institutions, churches, and homes of the rich. In fact, Meissonier’s many emulators created a “school” of their own. John Mollett, a leading English critic of French art, wrote that he
is essentially, if I may use the expression, a party painter, and, as the permanent victory of his school would represent the overthrow of the whole system of theories and principles which the lovers of the “Ideal” call the Renaissance of Art, so the history of his success, in the judgment of the academic writers of his own country, offers only a new application of Voltaire’s celebrated mot, “Demandez au crapaud ce que c’est que la beauté.” [“Ask a toad what is meant by beauty.”]2
The leading anti-academic artist of the 1850s and 1860s was Courbet, whose broken brushwork, tauntingly unorthodox nudes, and subjects drawn from modern life were, along with his use of Hispanic themes, the chief forebears of Manet’s work of the 1860s. Courbet, however, was within what became the canon of modernist artists, so by giving prominence to Meissonier, outside both the vanguard and the Academy, King complicates the issues. It’s true that in 1861 Meissonier was elected to the Academy, but grudgingly and only because of his remarkable fame and high prices.
King’s juxtaposition of Manet and Meissonier enriches our understanding of Manet’s struggles to establish himself. His parents were a highly placed government jurist and the daughter of a diplomat; he was well supported by his mother after his father’s death so that he could pursue his art without a need to sell it. Tall, witty, well traveled, an upper-class élégant, friend of Baudelaire and Zola, and well known in Paris’s bohème, he was Meissonier’s opposite. The older painter, son of a petty bourgeois merchant, was conspicuously short, argumentative, proud to the point of arrogance, and lacking in social graces. He was famous for constructing a large nouveau-riche estate in Poissy, thirteen miles downstream from Paris, into which he stuffed an eclectic mixture of pre-modern furniture and bibelots. He modeled some rooms to serve as settings for his archaizing genre pictures. Unlike Manet, who had six years of study with Thomas Couture, a notable painter, Meissonier had only a few months of professional training, and was very much the self-made man so prized by the bourgeoisie. He exhibited at the Salon at age nineteen and won a government prize when twenty-five, whereas Manet only began exhibiting when he was twenty-nine.
In 1863, where King begins his account, Meissonier refused to submit work to the Salon because of its restrictive practices. His decision, and Manet’s relegation to the Salon des refusés, put both temporarily outside the Salon. They both appeared in the next year’s Salon, Manet with a bullfight scene and The Dead Christ with Angels (Metropolitan Museum), Meissonier with 1814, The Campaign of France (Musée d’Orsay; see the illustration on page 30) and Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino(Musée de Compiègne). King contrasts their very different kinds of realism. Manet’s religious painting was roundly attacked because its Christ seemed like an all-too-human cadaver, again painted flatly; if he was hoping to find acceptance among traditionalists, he was instead found guilty of a provocation.
As for Meissonier, his two battle pictures (large for him, at thirty inches wide) were a stunning change from the genre scenes that Salon visitors would have anticipated. Upon his election to the Academy in 1861, Meissonier had indicated his intention to become a history painter, and he began to work on compositions showing the two Napoleons by applying his usual exacting realism of detail. For 1814, which represents Napoleon and the army in a wintry terrain, the painter needed to view snow. Therefore, King writes,
across the expanse of furrowed clay he had sprinkled handfuls of finely granulated sugar and, to give his snow its glitter, pinches of salt. With a shod hoof, likewise executed in miniature, he then meticulously pressed the imprints of the horses’ feet. The leadership of the Grande Armée was thereby devised in perfect effigy against a snowy landscape.
Meissonier also made small sculptures of his horses so that he could examine them from all angles, and commissioned an artisan to make tiny replicas of harnesses in leather and metal. His carefully modeled forms are too realistic to have pleased the idealizing eyes of academic tradition, but who could object to such patriotic images? Meissonier climbed to an even higher place on fame’s monument, while Manet only earned another empty purse of notoriety.
King points out that in the Salon of 1865, both artists were placed as usual in the same room because of the alphabetical hanging of pictures but Meissonier’s two tiny genre pictures were eclipsed by the uproar over Manet’s Olympia (Musée d’Orsay), a saucy reclining nude staring directly at the viewer. Borrowing from T.J. Clark’s convincing analysis of the picture,3 King summarizes its reception as scandalous not just for the implicit recognition of a kept prostitute, but also because its unorthodox modeling seemed linked to the low life of the street. Notoriety was not translated into sales, however, whereas Meissonier’s prices continued to climb upward from already giddy heights.
In 1867, Meissonier was recognized as France’s great national painter when thirteen of his paintings, including genre panels, Solferino, and 1814, appeared in the vastly popular Universal Exposition. Manet, knowing that he would be rejected, used money from his mother to set up a temporary structure near the Exposition in which he showed fifty-three of his paintings. Not only was there competition from the Exposition’s display of Meissonier and more than two hundred other artists, but also Courbet had erected his own pavilion nearby (he had already done that in 1855). His show did not attract many visitors but, unlike Manet, he had by then acquired a number of well-to-do patrons, several of whom bought paintings from his pavilion. Manet, in the short catalog to his show, said that rejections by Salon juries, beholden to “the traditional teachings concerning composition, technique and the formal aspect of a picture,” attacked his livelihood and so he had to address the public directly. Although Zola defended him in a separate pamphlet—the writer’s own avant-garde position would not have pleased conservatives—rather few entered his pavilion.
Throughout his book King concentrates on his two painters, but he smoothly includes the leading events of a given year as well. In twenty-five closely written pages devoted to 1867 he deals with all of the following circumstances, each of them summarized in a few words that are so well arranged that we hardly notice their brevity: the Universal Exposition that put Paris at the center of Europe, including a retrospective of the work of the recently deceased J.A.D. Ingres; Manet’s painting A View of the Universal Exposition; the streets and squares of Haussmann’s remodeled Paris; Monet’s paintings from the balcony of the Louvre; the Salon, from which Manet abstained; the frustrated appeal of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and others for another Salon des refusés; Courbet’s and Manet’s one-man shows; Zola’s pamphlet praising Manet; the execution of France’s puppet emperor of Mexico, and Manet’s paintings of that highly charged event, in contrast to Meissonier’s patriotic display of thirteen pictures in the Universal Exposition.
King gets away with such historical references because he writes with a fluid ease that successfully recaptures the excitement of contemporaneous Paris:
The crowds assembled in the Champ-de-Mars on the first of April in 1867 could have been forgiven for suspecting themselves of having become April Fish, the victims of some cruel prank. For the previous few months the weather in Paris had been atrocious, with constant rains turning the Champ-de-Mars into a quagmire and preventing the 10,000 workmen on the site from completing their tasks. This dire weather, along with various other delays and impediments, meant barely half the goods to be exhibited at the Universal Exposition had reached Paris by the eve of its opening…. The opening ceremony, conducted by Emperor Napoleon on a muddy foreground amid packing cases, tarpaulin-shrouded exhibits, and crews of frantic workmen, therefore seemed something of a mockery.
After 1867, Meissonier, secure in his fame, did not exhibit in the Salon for ten years, although he sometimes had a significant influence as a member of its juries. Manet, however, still courting public acceptance in the Salon, had two paintings accepted in 1868 and again in 1869. In the latter year, The Balcony (Musée d’Orsay), loosely inspired by Goya, in which he gave the figure of Berthe Morisot a rather Spanish head, was greeted with consternation even among his few defenders. It was almost a genre picture but not quite, because it lacked Meissonier’s kind of explanatory anecdote. It appeared to be a modern scene but it has no narrative; its three figures looking out on the street are enigmatically detached from one another behind a stark green railing.
Manet and Meissonier met in 1870, apparently for the first time, during the Franco-Prussian War. King is at his best when describing the two artists during the war, the siege of Paris, and the Commune that followed. Both men sent their paintings to places of safety and enlisted in the National Guard. Meissonier was given a high rank; Manet was one of the junior officers who served under him in the periodic inspection of the circuit of fortifications surrounding Paris. Theodore Duret, one of Manet’s friends, said years later that his relationship with the older and successful man was at best frosty, but no contemporary evidence tells us how they got along. Both artists found time for sketches and drawings, Manet for scenes of Paris in the winter, while Meissonier concentrated on studies for an allegory, The Siege of Paris (finished years later). King suggests the deprivations of the siege by quoting Manet’s letters to his wife, safely outside the capital:
“We now can no longer get café au lait,” Manet wrote to Suzanne on the last day of September, adding that people began queueing at the butcher shops—which were open only three days a week—at four o’clock in the morning. “Horse meat is sneaking slyly into the diet of the people of Paris,” noted Edmond de Goncourt one day later. After a few more weeks, Manet was reporting to Suzanne that even mules were regarded as “royal fare.”
As King shows, Meissonier, an avid horseman, was able to convince authorities to make an exception for him, and not seize his horses in Poissy for military purposes.
Manet and Meissonier were safely out of Paris during the horrific events of the Commune, the Paris uprising that spring, but they returned to the capital at the end of May after the bloody suppression of the workers. King contrasts Meissonier’s patriotic watercolor of the ruined Tuileries (private collection) with Manet’s watercolor The Barricade (Szépm?uzvészeti Múzeum, Budapest). Meissonier sat among the ruins for a week, clinically recording the fragmented Tuileries torched by the communards (see the illustration on page 26). But Manet, for his part, showed the peremptory execution of three communards in a composition taken from The Execution of Maximilian, his lithograph which was banned by the government in 1869. It was a bit of political realism that expressed Manet’s horror at the reprisals of the “Bloody Week” that ended the Commune. It was a typically modernist work because it was quickly sketched, not carefully observed in reality, as Meissonier would have done, and therefore more patently an artistic invention.
In the Salon of 1872, Manet had a surprising success with The Battle of the “Kearsage” and the “Alabama” (Philadelphia Museum of Art), painted eight years earlier. The picture showing the sea battle between the Union ship the Kearsage and the Confederate Alabama was generally praised, and King thinks it may have gained currency because of the “Alabama affair.” An international jury in Geneva was then examining the United States’ claims for reparations from Britain, which had violated a treaty by building the Alabama in Liverpool (the jury eventually sided with the US). Manet’s fortunes were looking up because that year the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bought twenty-five of his paintings. King slyly hints at a resemblance to Meissonier when he shows that the artist used this money to furnish his new studio, whose largest room was provided with
a piano, a cheval-glass, a Louis XV console table, a tapestry, some porcelain vases, crimson curtains, a crimson sofa covered with cushions, and a ceramic statue of a cat. More than simply the expression of Manet’s own personal taste, this elegant décor was intended to impress prospective clients with his status and sophistication—to prove to wealthy men such as Barret [a recent patron] that he was indeed safe for bourgeois consumption.
Manet’s good fortune continued in 1873, when his painting of a Falstaffian drinker, Le Bon Bock (Philadelphia Museum of Art), was a great popular success. Meissonier did not show in the Salon but had a resounding triumph in the Universal Exposition in Vienna, where his paintings included genre and military pictures, chiefly another patriotic homage to Napoleon I, the monumental 1807, Friedland(Metropolitan Museum). Although he was widely acclaimed the first painter of Europe, he had by then become the target of modernist critics like Zola. Despite his continued success until his death in 1891, he was increasingly ignored by those who admired the younger artists grouped around Manet.
King ends his history with the first exhibition of the “Impressionists” in 1874, so labeled by a hostile critic that year but soon accepted by the artists and the critics. Manet chose the Salon rather than exhibit with his young friends, but in the summer of 1874 he worked alongside Monet and Renoir in Argenteuil and adopted their broken brushwork and brilliant hues in outdoor paintings. From then on he was seen as an Impressionist, as was Degas, despite their being primarily painters of modern urban life and not landscapists.
King’s subject is clearly art, but he doesn’t write as an art historian. When art historians study the origins of Impressionism in the 1860s and early 1870s, they conceive of an evolution, not King’s “revolution.” Manet and Degas were both beholden to mid-century artists, Manet to Courbet, Degas to Ingres, and so were Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir, who slowly assimilated Barbizon painting. King chose Meissonier and Manet because he conceives of history as biography, whereas art historians use biography as an aid in interpreting art and the history of its subjects, techniques, and forms. If I now suggest how an art historian would write about Meissonier and Manet, it’s not to diminish King’s accomplishment or to tell him how to write, but to explain something of the divide between lay historians and specialists in art.
King has read widely in art history, but takes from it only what serves a rather old-fashioned narrative kind of history, long on description, short on interpretation.4 He acknowledges debts to Constance Hungerford and T.J. Clark, but he doesn’t pass their findings on to his readers. He doesn’t see, as Hungerford does, how Meissonier’s work fitted so well into the ideology of the Second Empire and then suited the Third Republic’s conservative republican government. He borrows from Clark’s analysis of Olympia but omits Clark’s insistence upon Manet’s nude as the embodiment of the corruption and hypocrisy of Second Empire capitalism. When writing of Manet’s Balcony, he records the picture’s lack of psychological cohesion without linking it to the blankness and fragmentation of modern urban life that Clark also writes about persuasively.
King is apparently ignorant of the ways by which feminists have altered art history. He introduces Berthe Morisot as a friend of Manet but he treats her solely as the subject of his portraits, never as an artist in her own right. And because he’s not aware of questions about gender as understood in art, he doesn’t think of looking into why Meissonier’s genre pictures (and, of course, his battle scenes) are entirely dominated by men, without a single woman present. Sensuality may reside in his love of leather, glinting metals, and porcelain, but not in the erotic that is so central to Manet.
Art historians, trained in interpretative vision, write about how the structure of a painting creates the illusions or effects that we see. King will enumerate a picture’s objects, but not how we see them, so nowhere in his book will we find anything like Hungerford’s description of Meissonier’s characteristic use of light:
He usually depicted an interior diffusely lit by daylight, often admitted from a window seen just at the picture’s edge. This light focuses the eye on the figures, especially their expressive faces and hands. It articulates detail, sculpting the folds of clothing, drawing the edges of tattered and bent pages littering a table, glinting off wine goblets, pewter serving vessels, metal armor, polished furniture, buckles, and buttons.
Where King allows us to think that Meissonier’s genre pictures are faithful to their seventeenth- or eighteenth-century origins, Hungerford points out that the artist’s realistic absorption in the models in front of him led him to use poses, like crossed legs, that were characteristic of his own time and therefore anomalies. His men look like the artist’s contemporaries dressed in costume. King also fails to see that Meissonier’s genre pictures lacked what modernists valued in Dutch art and sought in their own: naiveté and sincerity. Hungerford summarizes his isolation from the avant-garde in a few well-chosen words:
Meissonier represents the polar opposite of the heroes of the canon: repetitiveness and sterility, rather than originality; craft and the literal imitation of material appearances, rather than nature viewed through a temperament, stylized, abstracted; modest and highly marketable, rather than defiantly public scale; refined and historicizing subjects, rather than the rude and the contemporary; the patronage of the rich, powerful, and conventional, rather than those congratulated for venturesome taste; and affirmation of politically conservative values like prosperity, militarism, and patriotism, rather than destabilizing analysis of social norms.
Concerned with the relationships of one subject or composition with another, art historians will automatically think of Degas’s wax sculptures when reading about Meissonier’s, but King doesn’t mention them. Degas’s sculpted horses are sketch-like, retaining the marks of his fingers, whereas Meissonier’s are illusionistically detailed. Similarly, when King writes about Meissonier’s devices to record horses’ movements (he devised a track along which a hand-pushed wagon could convey him as a horse galloped by), he makes no mention whatever of Degas’s vastly different way of representing horses in motion, which is more persuasive to the modern eye. King also ignores that Degas used two drawings based on Meissonier’s Solferino when composing Jockeys in Front of the Grandstands (Musée d’Orsay). And when he writes about Manet’s Races at Longchamp (Fogg Museum of Harvard University Art Museums), King loses the opportunity to compare this painting with any of Meissonier’s horsy battle pictures. Comparisons like these would have sharpened the perception of Meissonier’s differences from Manet and Degas.5
As an art historian, however, I want to be sure that I have given King his due. His brilliant idea to confront Manet with Meissonier has led to a book always fascinating as it evolves, and one that’s well constructed as a whole, not as a work in separate parts. He introduces it and completes it with two evocations of Meissonier. On his first page he shows Meissonier out on a balcony of his huge house, posing himself as Napoleon for his painting 1814, The Campaign of France, wearing a duplicate of the emperor’s costume while a winter snow falls on him. As a finale to his book, King takes us to the 1890s when Manet had finally reached the heights while Meissonier was beginning to slip down. He gives an empathetic description of the memorial statue of Meissonier sculpted in 1895, a poignant account, because he tells us that in 1964, Malraux ordered it removed from a garden by the Louvre; it was subsequently placed in a park in Poissy.
The base of the pedestal…features a disconcerting paraphernalia: an empty breastplate, a fallen standard, and a wreath of laurels that seems to have tumbled from the artist’s head and landed on the ground. From his armchair, Meissonier himself gazes glumly at a modern world that rushes heedlessly past his stern marble gaze. The monument is, more than anything else, an image of acquiescence and defeat, of an artist grimly accepting his unhappy encounter with posterity.
June 8, 2006
Manet borrowed his three picnickers from Raimondi’s sixteenth-century engraving after a composition by Raphael, The Judgement of Paris; hence in his title King joins those who link the Greek figure with France’s capital. ↩
John W. Mollett, Meissonier (Sampson, Low, 1882), p. vii. ↩
The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers(Knopf, 1985), pp. 83–98. ↩
He only hints at the politics of his chosen years. For that, see Jane Mayo Roos, Early Impressionism and the French State (1866–1874) (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2000). ↩
Art historians would also wish that King had made his publisher record the location and the dimensions of the art he reproduces. Museumgoers will regret that his paintings float in a geographical void, and to reproduce at the same scale a tiny Meissonier and a giant Manet is to lose some of the advantage of the text’s comparisons. ↩