by Ross King
In ten years, the art world was flipped upon its head.
In 1863, Ernest Meissonier was the most famous and successful artist of the century. He was beloved by patrons around the world. He was assured of having his paintings displayed in the Paris Salon, an annual show whose choices dictated which painters would receive commissions and acclaim in the art world. So many paintings were turned away that year that an alternate exhibition called the Salon des Refuses was created to display the works of rejected artists. One of these painters was Edouard Manet, whose controversial Le déjeuner sur l'herbe became the scandal and the star of the show. Over the next ten years, the two men came to represent two very different ideals of art, as the age of classical painting gave way to the rising tide of a new form of modern art. By 1874, the new style of painting would be christened “Impressionism”. One man would eventually be recognized as a radical who revolutionized art; the other would eventually fade into obscurity.
Even though I studied art history in college, and took classes that covered France in the 19th century, I had never heard of Ernest Meissonier. Looking at images of his paintings, it’s hard to believe that he was as wildly popular as he was. Alas, the poor man’s paintings don’t match modern tastes at all. It’s not as if he was without skill; but paintings of seventeenth century men about town and equestrian portraits just don’t excite our twenty-first century eyes.
King’s book helps explain why these images are no longer considered great. As he moves through the years, he highlights major historical events like the Franco-Prussian War and their impact on painting. He also showcases paintings like Le déjeuner sur l'herbe or Monet’s series of haystacks, what made them different and how they forced the definition of art to change and expand to encompass new meanings. But King really shines by bringing the day-to-day life of a painter to life. He makes the Paris streets live again, contrasting cafes with chattering bohemian artists with the quiet studio bathed in light where Meissonier labored over his masterpieces. He introduces not just painters, but also poets and writers active at the time, and shows the many connections between men like Manet and Emile Zola, or Charles Baudelaire.
The story moves quickly, too, at a brisk journalistic pace that doesn’t get bogged down in details, even when describing works of art. I really enjoyed King’s focus on a narrow slice of time that proved to be so instrumental in shaping art as we view it today.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2014: 1356 by Bernard Cornwell
2013: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth
2012: Fashionista Piranha on vacation until May 24th
2011: Bending the Boyne by J. S. Dunn
2010: Giveaway #13: Asian Pacific American Lot
2009: News: Digital Piracy Affects Books, Too