You know who painted the glorious sun-shot scene just above. (You’re right, it’s by Claude Monet.) And you know who painted the scandalous nude below. (Right again, it’s by Édouard Manet.) And you can probably recognize a painting by Berthe Morisot or, if not a Morisot, surely a few peaches by Cézanne or a dancer by Degas. You’re familiar with these 19th century painters because you like their works. In fact, a great many people enjoy paintings by Manet and Monet and Cezanne and Pissarro and Seurat and – well, the list goes on.
As printing technology and inks evolved over the past hundred years, copies of images by these painters spread across Europe and the West. Reproductions of their paintings are now for sale everywhere from classy shops offering expensive prints to book stores selling illustrated kitchen calendars. But have you ever heard of Ernest Meissonier? Have you ever looked at one of his paintings? Have you ever seen even cheap print of his work? (If you said No, you’re in the great majority.) Yet in the world of art, Ernest Meissonier held top place far above those other painters. In fact, he was the most famous and, as a result, the richest painter in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t just a pop success. He was the favorite of art critics, was showered with awards, and his paintings commanded the highest prices. Here below is one of his better known works.
Now you know. Meissonier was most highly regard for his exactitude – he was a great horseman and at one point had a special mini-railroad track laid out so he could be pulled in a cart along side a galloping horse to study the movements of the horse’s legs with greater accuracy. He had a collection on military garments and knew the position and color of every button and ribbon; he once had a group of cavalry ride across a wheat field, trampling it so he’d be able to more accurately portray a particular battle which involved such a scene.
But political, social and cultural forces are always changing, and what constitutes the best in art evolves with those changes. France and the city of Paris itself underwent great and at times horrific changes, and these inevitably played out in galleries and salons as well. Precision and exactitude, polish and finish, lost favor to a new way of portraying the world. The revolutionary and sometimes scandalous vision of painters like Manet and Courbet began to make sense to people. And Ernest Meissonier went into eclipse, a penumbra from which he’s unlikely to emerge.
If you want to learn more, a lot more, about the decade that saw the rise of the Impressionists and the collapse of Meissonier’s position in the art world, you can turn to a book published a few years ago by the distinguished Canadian/British writer Ross King. King, who wrote the excellent Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, has also written The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. Brunelleschi’s Dome explores the social and political milieu of Brunelleschi as he took on the daunting engineering and technical task, which had defeated so many others, of providing a dome for the great cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It’s a fascinating story. Regrettably, The Judgment of Paris, though twice as long, has about half the liveliness and sparkle as the earlier book. (Critical Pages is in the minority with this assessment, but that happens. ) The author does, indeed, present in detail and at length the political, social and cultural forces at work in mid-19th century France — and it certainly was an exciting time to be in Paris so long as you avoided being driven out by an invading army or killed by local revolutionaries — and he shows how those forces influenced the selection of paintings for the great government-sponsored Salon shows of that time. But aside from a few sentences here and there, he offers nothing about the esthetic impulses of painters such as Manet or Monet, and writes nothing about their differing visions and how that vision determined what they painted and how they painted it, how they actually chose to pursue the visual effects that made their works so unusual, so revolutionary.