The Judgment of Paris

I’ve been a bit busy ’round these parts, trying to tie up loose ends. Yesterday I finished Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris (2006). The tome chronicles the end of the Second Empire in France, the career of Édouard Manet, the rise of impressionism, and the epic quest by Ernest Meissonier to paint Friedland, seen here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


What’s that? You haven’t heard of Meissonier? Even die-hard art lovers can be forgiven for not knowing anything about Europe’s most celebrated painter of the 1850s and 1860s. He was quite the controversial character, but eventually he got on the wrong side of both art history and taste. King explains:

Few works in the history of art have consumed as much labor, generated as much rumor and anticipation, been showered with as much money, or simply taken as long to complete as Meissonier‘s Friedland. The canvas had been the product of exhaustive studies and researches, bizarre experiments, real-life cavalry charges, and as many as a hundred separate studies of everything from the crook of a soldier’s arm to the joint of a horse’s foreshortened leg. It had survived a skewering from a fencing sword, bombardment by the Prussians, and the flames of Bloody Week. In the ten years he had spent on the work, Meissonier had metamorphosed from a painter whose election to the Institut de France had been celebrated by progressive newspapers as a victory for youth over the “old Académie,” to a painter reviled by those same progressive newspapers as an appalling reactionary. He turned from an artist known for exquisite little paintings of musketeers and other bonshommes into a man possessed of Michelangelesque visions of covering the Panthéon with sprawling murals—of appealing to posterity from hundred-foot walls. And his opponents, finally, had changed from the diehards found at the Académie des Beaux-Arts to the younger generation of artists who gathered at the Café Guerbois. (p. 344)

The result of that effort, Friedland, falls short—despite being a great painting—because it has no soul. The critic Henry Houssaye, writing in 1873 noted that all of the minute details get in the way of the big picture. (Although at 53 1/2 x 95 1/2 inches it wasn’t so large.) Nevertheless, bourgeois and pro-Académie critics adored Friedland because they could see something in it, unlike the impressionists’ work, which they considered sloppy and common. King notes that since the triumph of the Impressionists, however, “what one sees is not as important in the visual arts as how one sees or expresses it.” (p. 372)

The decade between 1863 and 1874—the years between the Salon des Refusés and the First Impressionist Exhibition—had witnessed a struggle between the votaries of the past and those of la vie moderne. This struggle concerned rival ways of painting as well as, ultimately, rival ways of seeing the world, and it would result in the greatest revolution in the visual arts since the Italian Renaissance.

I found the book interesting, not because I love the Impressionists (although I am mad about Manet) or because I particularly care about Meissonier. Rather, I’m fascinated with modernity. Understanding the transition from the pre-Modern period of human history to the age we have been living in since the mid-to-late 18th century could be my life’s full-time work if I didn’t have bills to pay. That dogmatic, pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-Enlightenment period is just so hard to comprehend. But I’m trying, and The Judgment of Paris filled in some much needed details.

Now that that’s done, we’ll see if I can’t get back to some more typical topics here. Except that I just started reading about the Romantic Revolution yesterday evening. . . .

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