Manet's The Railway confounded critics in 1873.
"He is the incontestable master of our epoch...amongst all of us, surely he is most certain to survive."
The French painter Eugene Delacroix wrote those words about Ernest Meissonier, the most popular, best-known, and highly paid artist of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. You might not have heard of Meissonier; few people have these days. You may, though, have heard of Edouard Manet. At the same time that Meissonier was at the height of his profession and one of the most highly regarded men in France, Manet's work was scorned and reviled by both critics and the public--people actually came to exhibits to laugh at his paintings because they were thought to be so bad. Yet now Manet is one considered one of the masters of French art, long having overshadowed his contemporary Meissonier. You might want to look at a Delacroix painting, but you wouldn't have wanted him to pick your lottery numbers.
In The Judgment of Paris, Ross King tells the story of the intersection of Meissonier and Manet's careers during the 1860s and early 1870s. The two artists are stand-ins for the changing of the guard in art, with Meissonier representing the classic Ecole des Beaux Arts school, with its emphasis on photorealism, grand historical scenes, and classical ideals of beauty. Manet is portrayed as the leader of the new wave of artists who valued expressions of meaning rather than precise technique, who favored scenes of modern life and real people over gods, goddesses, and a sanitized past.
Meissonier was the type of artist who spent hours researching his paintings. He owned a collection of armaments from different time periods, so he could copy the correct piece for the time period he was painting. He collected costumes. When he wanted to paint Napoleon on his horse, he dressed himself in a Napoleonic costume and sat on his horse in front of a mirror, and painted his image (Meissonier fancied he had the same build as Napoleon and therefore was his own best model for the Little Emperor). Meissonier was fascinated by motion--he was an expert fencer, horseman, and athlete in his own right, and had a sense of the muscles involved when people moved. If he was going to paint people fencing, he posed his models--in period costume--and studied their musculature as they posed, down to the last detail. He was particularly obsessed with capturing the movement of horses. When painting horses, he had riders gallop by him endlessly. He agonized over the differences between a trot, canter and gallop. Still, that wasn't enough. For one painting, he had a small railroad track put into his garden, then rode on a wagon (pulled by hapless workers, not powered by steam) alongside running horses, trying to understand the exact mechanics of their motion.
Meissonier had first become famous for painting miniatures and small paintings of swashbuckling cavaliers from the 17th and 18th century, duelling, drinking, and playing cards. With Dumas's "Three Musketeers" books arriving around the same time, France was in full, nostalgic love with a time period that seemed more exciting, elegant, grand, and just better, so Meissonier's paintings became immensely popular (by the way, if you haven't read the Three Musketeers books, you must! They're great.). They didn't win him much critical success, though. Meissonier knew that in order to win acclaim, he would have to paint the kind of grand, large scale scenes from history that were beloved by the jury who chose paintings for the annual Salon.
The Salons were huge events. Each year, thousands of painters submitted works to be shown in a public exhibit that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. To have a painting accepted into the Salon meant exposure that couldn't be found any other way. To have a painting marked with an "R" for refused or rejected was a humiliation and a major career impediment; a few artists committed suicide over having paintings refused by the Salon judges. Getting in the Salon wasn't the end of an artist's worries either--when the exhibition opened, reviews came out, and they could be vicious. So could the opinions of the public.
Meissonier, once he made the switch to big historical paintings, most notably battle scenes featuring Napoleon, or depictions of other wars, became one of the critics darlings, and was popular with the public as well. His painstakingly researched figures and precise technique was applauded. Manet, though, was one of those artists who had trouble getting into the Salons, and when he did, became a favorite target of critics who were horrified by his style.
Manet differed from Meissonier in two key ways. One was technique--he used thick, broad layers of paint, and didn't even attempt to fill in details. People in his paintings often lacked expression and definition. Brushstrokes were visible, something that appalled critics and the classically trained artists who judged the paintings submitted to the Salons. Some critics thought he must have been joking, that no one who painted this way could possibly be serious. One suggested that he needed to go to art school to learn to paint properly.
As much as Manet's style confounded people, his choice of subjects was possibly worse. Manet insisted on painting everyday people in modern dress, something that was not considered worthy of art. Female nudes were considered appropriate subjects for artists, but Manet didn't paint women with perfect features and figures. The model he used for a number of his paintings, Victorine Meurent, was thought to be downright ugly--short, pudgy, with plain features at best. She was no Venus. As if that wasn't bad enough, Manet's women weren't posed in sterile scenes where they represented ideal beauty; rather, they were put in situations that showed them to be ordinary modern women, often with props or in rooms that blatantly presented them as prostitutes. Manet's work was thought to be not only artistically offensive, but morally outrageous.
Manet's Young Lady of 1866 scandalized because the parrot was a signal that the woman was supposed to be a prostitute. Keep that in mind next time you go out with your parrot.
Manet stuck to his style, though, and continued working despite the critical brickbats (it didn't hurt that he came from a well-off family that could help him out financially). He had a few champions, for example, Emile Zola--no slouch himself when it came to defying accepted conventions--who was willing to use his pen to defend the artist. Other artists also began to break with the traditional style--Whistler, Pissaro, Renoir, Monet (Manet was at first annoyed by the appearance of the similarly named Monet, but they eventually became good friends), and Cezanne, who personally and artistically terrified even the most forward thinking amongst the group. Stylistically, Manet was not one of the Impressionists, but you could say he paved the way for them, and was considered part of the group in a very general way. Eventually the tide turned and Manet's work began to attract buyers, and critical notice, particularly once it made its way to England and the US, places which were not beholden to the strictures of the French Academy. Manet's paintings appear in the greatest museums in the world, and are regularly part of popular exhibitions.
Meissonier, on the other hand, has literally disappeared; erased would almost be a better word. Trouble began to show when he finally exhibited "Friedland," his epic painting of one of Napoleon's most famous battles. Meissonier had spent ten years on it, and the prospect of it generated so much excitement that it was bought before it was even finished. After numerous sketches, studies, and endless research (Meissonier once said that if he could not have been an artist, he would have likd to have been a historian), the painting was shown at an exhibition in Vienna in 1873. The reception was generally positive, but there were some naysayers. One critic, Henry Houssaye, pointed out that despite all Meissonier's research, the painting was historically inaccurate--Napoleon was not actually present at the moment depicted in the painting. Also, the composition of the soldiers and Napoleon was wrong from a military standpoint--depending on how one viewed it, either Napoleon's back was to the enemy or the soldiers were retreating. Considering how much time and effort Meissonier put into getting the scene right, this was embarrassing.
Houssaye also criticized, of all things, Meissonier's attention to detail. He said that the horses were so anatomically correct, with each muscle, vein, and rib perfectly tensed or stretched, that the painting looked more like a study for a veterinary school. There was so much detail that it took away from the scene--the parts detracted from the whole. Meissonier had worked to capture all the minutiae, but in the end it added up to nothing.
Meissonier's style was becoming passe by the time he finally exhibited Friedland.
And this was the problem with Meissonier and his style of art. By that period in the 19th century, photography was fully entrenched, so an artist's ability to precisely create a lifelike figure or scene was not of necessity--a camera could now capture history. Artists who painted like Meissonier were to some extent showing off technique, but once that was taken away, weren't really doing much. Manet, and the Impressionists, however, were more concerned with evoking a feeling or creating some kind of connection. Manet may have painted scenes of real people, but he didn't do it in a way that was meant to copy real life--it was to give viewers a different experience of seeing, of how paint could be used to compose a figure or a scene. Monet wasn't trying to represent a landscape perfectly, but rather experiment with how paint could capture something ineffable, like light. The work of Meissonier, and those who had applauded him, was now seen as empty--a triumph of technique over meaning. Their paintings didn't seem to say anything but "Look how well I can copy!"
As the Impressionists and other modern artists began to win popularity and acclaim, Meissonier began to be seen by many French critics as representative of all that was wrong with pre-modern art. His work was scorned, and in some cases discarded. Statues of him were removed or destroyed. In some art history books, Meissonier was portrayed as a villain who had helped to keep artists like Manet and Monet out of the Salons, thus impeding the progress of art. In other books he has been left out completely.
King shows that this isn't really true. While Meissonier had no use for artists like Manet, he also wasn't solely responsible for keeping them down. Other artists on the Salon juries wielded much more influence, and the contempt of the critics probably played the biggest role. Meissonier wasn't always the most likable man (neither was Manet), but he was hardly an ogre. His biggest crime was arriving at the end of a cycle, rather than at the beginning of it. He was a man of his time, who painted in a way that he knew was admired and that he considered ideal.
It's always difficult to see what will last, what is great, and what is simply new. The art that is acclaimed one year may be forgotten in ten, and that which is ignored may eventually be worshipped. There really is no way of knowing. And what was once groundbreaking will inevitably become ordinary, part of the tradition. Who is shocked by a Manet painting nowadays? Critics of the late nineteenth and twentieth century condemned Meissonier's work as bland garbare for bourgeous bankers and the nouveau riche. But now a print of a Monet or Renoir hanging in someone's college room or awkward first apartment is something of a cliche. Saying you like Monet has almost no meaning--it's like saying "I like sunshine" or "I like cake" (mmm...cake...). What was once daring is now for those who don't dare.
I enjoyed King's book so much. Please don't take my rambling, amateurish description above as representative in any way of the importance of his story or his skill in telling it. Using the yearly dramas of the Salons gives the book a feeling of a decade long boxing match, with artists slugging it out year after year to try to claw their way into the make or break exhibition. And as if the art is not enough drama, there is also the looming specter of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, and the devastation they wrought on France. King brings the world of the Second Empire to fascinating life (I know, that's the worst critical cliche "brings this world to life;" I deserve to be sent to writer jail). He effortlessly ties together art history, political history, and cultural history, with details that make me want to learn more about every event (his one sentence description of the riot that ensued when a man in 1797 London walked out of a store wearing the first top hat made me think, "A history of haberdashery! That's what I need!"). As I have said, art history is a huge weakness with me, which is exactly why I pulled this book from the shelves. While The Judgment of Paris may not have made me an expert on art, it gave me a great introduction, and even better, was just a fine book to read.