My Book Review: The Judgement of Paris by Ross King

King, Ross.  Judgement of Paris: The Revolution Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. New York:  Walker & Co. 2006.

Ernest Meissonier was the most famous and successful painter of the 19th century.  He specialized in historical paintings from the era of Louis XV and reconstructed battle scenes of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Meissonier is known for his “incredible hauteur and colossal self-regard” and dreamed to create a grand history painting to gain the respect of his contemporaries such as Manet, Monet and Renoir.  Yet, the work of Meissonier can only be seen today in a secluded corner of a museum.

Edouard Manet was also a 19th century painter known for implementing the most radical change in the history of art since the Renaissance.  His approach to modern and postmodern-life subjects led to the transition from Realism to Impression.  Manet’s paintings are central today in the most famous museums in the World such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre Museum in Paris.Image

In The Judgment of Paris, author Ross King contrasts these two important French artists from the Salon des Refusés in1863 through the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.  He also chronicles the rise and fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire after the Franco-Prussian War.

King explains the bureaucratic world of the Salon where a jury’s decision of selection would determine the success or failure of an artist’s career.  For example, Jules Holtzapffel, an artist who failed to ever place a painting in the Salon, wrote in his suicide note, “The members of the jury have rejected me, therefore I have no talent, “I must die”(23).

King continues with a focus on Manet’s negative experiences with the Salon and his belief that his art would never be understood by the academy who put value on “grand historical themes, with well-known characters from the Bible, national history or classical mythology, executed in a highly finished style”(8). King explains that Manet had many supporters and critics such as Zola, Delacroix, Courbet, Baudelaire, Whistler, Monet, Hugo and Degas whose lives revealed that their works were not just about art, they were about how to see the world.

King’s title The Judgment of Paris refers to the work by Raphael which Manet copied for his  highly controversial painting, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.  This painting depicts nudity which King claims “was not meant to titillate the viewer with their sensuality, but to give physical form to abstractions such as ideal beauty or chaste love”(22).  He adds that a nude scene of modern day Paris, as represented in this painting, would be a vision of modernity such as Haussmann’s boulevards which were also judged. This theme of nudity and rejection is also represented in Manet’s Olympia which Manet copied from Titian’s accepted classic, Venus of Urbino , which hangs in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.

In addition, King uses Manet’s depiction of The Execution of Maximillian to show the dissatisfaction of the French regarding Napoleon III’s mishandling of the war in Mexico.  King states that Manet made many changes to the actual execution by:  painting the Juàristas in blue to resemble the French uniforms; painting French infantry muskets rather than Springfield rifles that were actually used to execute Maximillian; and painting the face of the executioner to look like Napoleon III.  King avers that Manet held Napoleon III responsible for Maximillian’s death by withdrawing French troops from Mexico. Image

King concludes his work with the end of Meissoner’s life stating that within two decades, this famous artist’s reputation and prices had collapsed due to the “variations of taste and vicissitudes of glory”(370).  Even though his reputation was global, there is little that remains of his magnificence today.  He also concludes his contrasting of Meissoner and Manet showing that Manet’s works “endure in glory while Meissoner’s works “gathers dust in storerooms”.

Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

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