I’ve been enjoying this rambling tour of the Paris art world in the 1860s and ’70s, when the established traditions of great painting were under siege, and newcomers wielding their paintbrushes like floor mops were revolutionizing, or possibly just ruining, French Art.
It’s organized loosely around the careers of two painters, figureheads of the opposing schools. Ernest Meissonier paints musketeers and subjects from history, in moments that impart a moral lesson. Edouard Manet depicts absinthe drinkers and prostitutes, a contemporary crowd in modern dress (or inexplicably nude while picnicking). Meissonier, passionate about historical accuracy, collects period dress and weaponry to create military re-enactments on canvas, laboriously layered with great detail and rewarding examination with a magnifying glass. Manet, if his critics are to be believed, slops the paint (or coal dust) on with a floor mop, approximating a scene without finishing it. Are first impressions good enough? They are for the painters who are not yet called the Impressionists, a disgruntled but passionate lot of struggling artists who are repeatedly rejected from the Paris Salon or whose paintings are “skyed,” hung so high on exhibition walls that no one can see them.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have to side with Meissonier, who is described as one of the best-selling painters you’ve never heard of. You have to respect an artist who, after his scale model of a battlefield is ravaged by mice, recreates it in full size in his yard, dragging heavy carts around to furrow the ground and strewing bags of flour about to simulate a snowy landscape. (Fortunately, he resembles Napoleon enough to model for his own paintings.) He has the local cavalry charge about on maneuvers so that he can get a better idea of how to paint horses in motion. And here comes a generation that paints wisps of colors and calls it an “impression”!
Well, history and auction prices have come down on the side of the Impressionists. But King immerses you in their controversies with great relish, including the politics of the Salon de Paris, the juried exhibition that could make or break a painter’s career. Such passions! Paintings are assaulted with walking sticks, styles are derided with great energy and imagination in the (censored) press. “This is the painting of democrats,” writes a Salon director about the new style, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” There are fisticuffs over newspaper reviews! Duels are fought!
A wealth of anecdotes, mingling history, art history, and biography, cover a lot of ground but not very deeply. This is the kind of book that adds to your to-be-read pile with tantalizing references to people and subjects you now need to know more about. Or you could go from here to Christopher Moore’s irreverent but wildly enthusiastic novel of the same time period, Sacre Bleu.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judgment of Paris.
WRL also owns the audiobook.