Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2011

The Judgement of Paris (2006), by Ross King

I came across The Judgement of Paris via GoodReads where the Art Lovers group were reading it, and it’s a most interesting book. It’s the story of the birth of the Impressionist movement and the initial hostile reception by conservative forces in Paris, but the book also traverses the tumultuous period of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune so it’s interesting as a work of general history too.

To represent the opposing forces, King focuses on Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) and  Edouard Manet (1832-1883.  At a time when the old Paris Salons attracted literally millions of visitors from all walks of life, Meissonier was immensely popular and fabulously wealthy because his works sold for a small fortune.  He had a huge estate (which he endlessly renovated) and he was able to spend years trying to perfect his paintings because he didn’t have to worry about the wolf at his door.  Manet wasn’t starving in a garret, but it was just as well he had an inheritance and a supportive mother because he could not generate an income from his art and didn’t become popular until after his death.  Posterity, however, has reversed these positions…

The Siege of Paris by Meissonier (Wikipedia Commons)

I have stood and gawped at Meissonier’s paintings at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris so it came as a surprise to me to learn that this artist is all but forgotten today. King’s sympathies are with the innovators and so Meissonier’s style is represented as rather old-fashioned, and the artist labelled ‘vainglorious and self-centred’ (p337).  In contrast to the emerging Realists and Impressionists, Meissonier depicted historical scenes; he didn’t paint people in contemporary dress; he worked at his brushwork until it was almost invisible; and he was obsessed with detail.   He didn’t experiment with the new movement – but I don’t see that as a failing.  After all, his paintings (amongst all the wealth of great art in the Musée d’Orsay and the other museums I have visited on my travels) – are memorable to me.  I remember them vividly.  Maybe this is because I am no expert on art, but if King’s book encourages people to seek his work out when they visit, that’s no bad thing, eh?

Anyway, it seems to me that Meissonier was a highly successful professional artist whose popularity and bankability meant that he could have rested on his laurels. Instead he spent his life working hard at perfecting his art, taking up to ten years on a single painting.  He worked especially tirelessly on countless studies of moving horses, and even reconstructed actual scenes and weather conditions on his estate so that he could get the details exactly right.  And very late in his career, when he finally had the opportunity to have a go at a long-cherished dream of painting frescos, he set about learning to do it with his customary zeal.

Meissonier did some lovely genre paintings and portraits (click the link above to see some of them) and he was also a sculptor. He liked the heroic and painted some Napoleonic scenes, but (both before and after the Franco-Prussian war) his military art showed the sufferings of the people, as you can see in The Siege of Paris. Click here for an analysis of the painting at the Musée d’Orsay).  (BTW Reading this book made me realise afresh what a barbaric military strategy a siege is; Parisians were reduced to eating all kinds of repulsive vermin to survive and suffered enormously before capitulating to an ignominious surrender.  Using civilians as part of a war strategy is nothing new, really)

Meissonier was shocked by the destruction of many Paris landmarks and art treasures wrought by the Communard uprising and his Ruins of the Tuileriespainted in the aftermath of their brutal suppression, is a celebration of the survival of ‘the spirit of France’ exemplified by his references to Napoleonic victories. This patriotism extended to promoting French masterworks at the Universal Exhibition of Arts and Industry in Vienna in 1873, but King is critical of him for this because he  used his power and prestige to exclude paintings by Gustave Courbet for political reasons, i.e. Courbet’s association with the Paris Commune and not least, his role in the destruction of the Vendôme Column.   It was at Vienna that Meissonier finally unveiled his masterwork Friedland but his timing was bad.  The cult of Napoleon was over, and a painting celebrating an historic victory over Prussia looked a bit lame in a gallery beside  the triumphant German cannons that had overwhelmed Paris in 1870-1.  Not only that but its historical accuracy was debunked and its artistic merits (as distinct from its technical mastery) was questioned.  Even worse was that Sir Richard Wallace (as in The Wallace Collection) having paid a very substantial deposit, declined to buy it.  For an embarrassing while, the masterwork of the much awarded Meissonier had no buyer.

The French art establishment, however, soon commissioned this much awarded artist to fulfil one of his lifelong ambitions, to paint a mural on the walls of the Panthéon, but a mural is a labour of many, many years and extraordinary preparation, and Meissonier died before a single paintstroke was laid on the walls.  And not only was what he had hoped would be his artistic legacy incomplete, posterity also trashed his reputation.  As the artistic tide started to turn in favour of Realism in general and Impressionism in particular, Meissonier became identified with the naysayers who blocked these developments.  King’s nastiest line is that ‘Meissonier had the good fortune to die while his reputation was still intact and unsurpassed’ (p370)…

By contrast, Édouard Manet, who within eight months of his death was lionised at a retrospective and remains a key figure in art history today, was spectacularly unsuccessful during his lifetime. It wasn’t just that for most of his career nobody wanted to buy his paintings, it was also that they were scornfully dismissed as mere daubings and the ritual of being rejected by the Salon jury was an annual public humiliation for him. These Salons were the battleground for the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ and the juries routinely excluded paintings by artists who are now recognised as highly significant. These exclusions caused so much angst that the Emperor intervened and an alternative Salon de Refusés was held.  Eventually there were reforms to the composition of the jury, but Manet failed to impress critics or the public and his paintings were usually rejected for inclusion in the Salons.

The Judgement of Paris is a long book, (which might have benefitted from some judicious pruning) and its terrain is broad.  I was less interested in the politics of the Salons than in the snippets about the damage done to art heritage during the major conflicts of the period.   During the Franco-Prussian war, art works were stored all over the place for safety but German soldiers billeted in Paris during the Occupation did enormous damage.  Only 40 of Pissarro’s 1500 paintings remained intact after they used his studio as a butcher’s shop; Thomas Couture lost more than a hundred works.

No sooner had these depredations ended than the Communards burnt down not only the Tuileries Palace, but also a wing of the Louvre – destroying 100,000 books. Other acts of arson, trashing and looting included the Palais Royale; the Palais-de-Justice (though the adjacent La Sainte-Chapelle survived); the Cour des Comptes; the Prefecture of Police (where the Venus de Milo survived because of a burst water pipe!) and the Hotel de Ville where murals by Ingres, Delacroix and Cabanel were lost.  The ruins were so extensive and the atmosphere so eerie that they became a grotesque tourist attraction for a while.

The destruction led to serious soul-searching,  and the decadence of the preceding period was considered to blame.  French belief in their own supremacy on the battlefield was in tatters, and now they could also see that their own people did not value their artistic heritage.  In the art world there was a resurgence of conservatism led by a new Director of Fine Arts called Charles Blanc.  He called for patriotic art and for the ‘idea of the beautiful’ – an appeal unsympathetic to Realism and to any paintings of modern life.

Ironically, so many artists boycotted Blanc’s 1873 Salon in favour of having their own, that Manet finally enjoyed success at the Salon for the first time.  While The Repose copped the usual cruel mockery, Le Bon Bock – a portrait of a jovial beer drinker – was the most popular painting in an exhibition of otherwise indifferent works.  Success at last, (albeit with a painting that abandoned his previous provocative style) and there was not only critical and public acclaim, but recognition of a different import.  A very young writer called Marie-Amélie de Montifaud (who wrote under a male pseudonym, Marc de Montifaud*) wrote a review for L’Artiste that recognised for the first time that Manet was pioneering ‘a new visual experience by means of a kind of optical fusion’  (p341).

Paradoxically, Manet’s belated success at the Salon prompted his refusal to participate in a joint exhibition called ‘the Realist Salon’ by a newly formed cooperative of artists: Pisarro,  Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Morisot.  Not knowing that his next painting The Railway was about to be subjected to the usual barrage of criticism, he had a low opinion of these artists’ work, Cézanne’s in particular.  Fences had to be mended afterwards, but Manet never actually exhibited with this group that were eventually christened Impressionists.

The rest, of course, is history and today people flock to the galleries to enthuse over Realists and Impressionists while mocking contemporary artworks. C’est la vie!

The Judgement of Paris is a terrific book for the general reader who’s interested in art, but it’s also thoroughly referenced and of interest to art scholars as well.  There are full colour plates of significant pictures, and B/W ones of many others.  King has written other bestsellers about artists, and a couple of novels as well.

* My apologies if you don’t read French, I couldn’t find a reference article about Montifaud in English.  Basically what it says is that she was a precocious writer: she wrote her first novel, a draft of a tragedy and critical essay at about 12 (her exact birth and death dates are not known).  She was passionate about art and studied under Tissier.  She wrote provocative but humorous anti-clerical works, one of which landed her in prison for a while.  The other artists who interested her were Cabanel, Hébert, Breton, Doré, and Corot.

Author: Ross King
Title: The Judgement of Paris
Publisher: Walker & Co, 2006
ISBN: 9780802715166
Source: Personal library


  1. […] battle between the conservatives and the innovators in Ross King’s The Judgement of Paris, see my review). Lantier doesn’t care: he is certain that ‘old’ art is dead and that the […]


  2. […] how famous, not then, when Impressionism was struggling to find its place.  (See my review of The Judgement of Paris, by Ross King, a wonderful book which explains the politics of the Paris art world in this […]


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