Top positive review
67 people found this helpful
The Hero is Meissonier
on February 25, 2006
Ross King has written a fine book, rich in detail, which covers the emergence of the Impressionists against an engaging background of the political, military, scientific, and cultural trends of mid-19th century France. Perhaps unintentionally, he has also made a case for rehabilitating Ernest Meissonier, the painter whose reputation went into eclipse as the world went nuts over Manet, Monet, and their ilk. We are told that Meissonier possessed colossal self-regard and hauteur, but the details adduced in THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS show him to be: generous (he supported a bankrupted blacksmith and a poor woman in Antibes), forgiving (when his son damaged his most important canvas), an ally to other artists (he signed his name to a petition over restrictive judging rules), a meticulous craftsman (he made countless models and sketches and even grew a wheat field to be trampled so he could paint it), and, most especially, wise about the vagaries of posthumous reputations ("Life. How little it really comes to.").
It is fine to argue now, as a fatuous NY Times review did, that Meissonier's major work, Friedland: 1807, is "fussy," but attention must also be paid to the quote in King's book that sheds important light on the Impressionists: On page 196, Claude Monet says: "It really is appallingly difficult to do something which is complete in every respect, and I think most people are content with mere approximations." Meissonier emerges, like his paintings, in three dimensions; Manet, like his, in two. Manet is portrayed as petulant, mean, and petty, refusing at first even to meet Monet because of a belief that the younger man was stealing his name. And while it is certain that the moneyed classes preferred Meissonier and kept him in high style, the younger artists were beneficiaries of shameless logrolling, particulary by Emile Zola. When Zola saw a Manet he apparently didn't like, he simply clammed up.
Ideally, viewers would judge art by looking at it and applying their own aesthetic standards. To take one example from the evil "conservatives" cited by King who tried to thwart the generation of 1863, I suggest looking at Dominique Ingres' "Princesse Debroglie" on the Web. Is this the painting of a hidebound no-talent? Or view Meissonier's "The Campaign of France." King calls it one of the greatest depictions of motion ever captured on canvas, and I see no cause to dispute him. Meissonier is forgotten, yes, but thanks to King maybe now he will get a little attention -- not as much as the sainted Impressionists, mind you, but a little.