While the Civil War raged in America, another revolution took shape across the Atlantic, in the studios of Paris: The artists who would make Impressionism the most popular art form in history were showing their first paintings amidst scorn and derision from the French artistic establishment. Indeed, no artistic movement has ever been quite so controversial. The drama of its birth, played out on canvas and against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, would at times resemble a battlefield; and as Ross King reveals, it would reorder both history and culture, and resonate around the world.
Winner of Canada's Governor General's Award
An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
While the Civil war raged in America, another revolution was beginning to take shape across the Atlantic, in the studios of Paris. The artists who would make Impressionism the most popular art form in history were showing their first paintings amid scorn and derision from the French artistic establishment. Indeed, no artistic movement has ever been, at its inception, quite so controversial. The drama of its birth, played out on canvas, would at times resemble a battlefield; and, as Ross King reveals, Impressionism would reorder both history and culture as it resonated around the world.
The Judgment of Paris chronicles the dramatic decade between two famous exhibitions—the scandalous Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the first Impressionist showing in 1874—set against the splendor of Napoleon III's Second Empire, and its dramatic fall after the Franco-Prussian War. A tale of many artists, it revolves around the lives of two, described as "the two poles of art": Ernest Meissonier, the most famous and successful painter of the nineteenth century, hailed for his precision and devotion to history; and Édouard Manet, reviled in his time, who nonetheless heralded the most radical change in the history of art since the Renaissance.
Out of the fascinating story of their parallel lives, illuminated by their legendary supporters and critics—Zola, Delacroix, Courbet, Baudelaire, Whistler, Monet, Hugo, Degas, and many more—Ross King shows that their contest was not just about artistic expression, it was about competing visions of a world drastically changed by technology, politics, and personal freedom. In The Judgment of Paris, King recalls a seminal period when Paris was the artistic center of the world and when a revolutionary art movement had the power to electrify and divide a nation.
"The Judgment of Paris, Ross King's lively account of the rise of the movement, tell a well-known story, but one seldom recounted in such vivid detail, or with such a novelistic sense of plot and character . . . King offers a riveting account of the interaction of artists, art juries, critics and le grand public around the annual Paris Salon . . . In all, King pulls off a tour de force of complex narrative that readers of his previous books about the Sistine Chapel or Brunelleschi's dome will have come to expect.”—Diane Johnson, The New York Times Book Review
"The rise of Manet and the fall of Meissonier provide the narrative spine for The Judgment of Paris, Ross King's spirited account of the decade-long battle between France's officially sanctioned history painters and the wild tribe of upstarts contemptuously dismissed as 'impressionists.' It is, in its broad outlines, a familiar story, but Mr. King, the author of Brunelleschi's Dome, tells it with tremendous energy and skill. It is hard to imagine a more inviting account of the artistic civil war that raged around the Paris Salons of the 1860's and 70's, or of the outsize personalities who transformed the way the world looked at painting . . . Mr. Ross explains the bureaucratic machinery of the Salons in fascinating detail: how juries were selected, and how both artistic and national politics entered into the picture. He also vividly conveys the humiliation for spurned artists, who received no explanation for the decision of the jury, simply an order to pick up their work, stamped with the scarlet letter, and cart it away immediately . . . Feelings tended to run high. It was that sort of decade. The suave Manet, stung by a newspaper critic's remarks, took part in one of the most ridiculous duels in French history. The two opponents, with no fencing ability, managed only to bend their swords. Mr. Ross has a taste for events like this, and for the social swirl and political turmoil of the decade he describes so vividly. Fashion, scientific advances and revolutionary politics all find their way into a narrative that in its way achieves the kind of history painting that Meissonier could only dream of."—William Grimes, The New York Times
"A marvelously well-structured history and a deeply pleasurable read."—Donna Seaman, Chicago Tribune
"King is a master at linking pivotal moments in art history to epic rivalries. In his third supremely engaging and illuminating inquiry, King summons forth mid-nineteenth-century Paris and vividly portrays two diametrically opposed artists. Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 'the world's wealthiest and most celebrated painter,' spends years laboring over his meticulously detailed historical paintings, eliminating every trace of the brush and striving for scientific precision. Newcomer Edouard Manet dispenses with the historical claptrap and the highly polished finish that are Meissonier's stock in trade, and boldly creates sharp contrasts and 'vigorous brushstrokes' to depict ordinary people and brazenly matter-of-fact female nudes. Meissonier is a crowd-pleaser, Manet nearly instigates riots. King follows the fortunes of this pair of celebrity artists over the course of a decade as Meissonier becomes a 'giant to be slain' and Manet is anointed king of the impressionists. Writing with zest and a remarkable command of diverse and fascinating facts, and offering keen insights into the matrix of art, politics, social mores, and technology, King charts the coalescence of a movement that changed not only painting for all time but also our way of seeing the world. And perhaps most laudably, he resurrects a discredited and forgotten figure, the marvelous monomaniac Meissonier, a man King has bemused affection and respect for, and an artist readers will be delighted to learn about."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
"NBCC finalist King presents an engrossing account of the years from 1863—when paintings denied entry into the French Academy's yearly Salon were shown at the Salon des Refusés—to 1874, the date of the first Impressionist exhibition. To dramatize the conflict between academicians and innovators during these years, he follows the careers of two formidable, and very different, artists: Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, a conservative painter celebrated for detailed historical subjects, and Édouard Manet, whose painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe caused an uproar at the Salon des Refusés. Many other artists of the day, among them Courbet, Degas, Morisot, Monet and Cézanne, are included in King's compelling narrative, and the story is further enhanced by the author's vivid portrayal of artistic life in Paris during a turbulent era that saw the siege of the city by the Prussian