by Brenda Roger
You’ve probably heard of Manet and Monet. The calendar boys, as I like to call them, have worked their way into popular culture. The once revolutionary canvases that they painted now seem commonplace –and not the least bit shocking, but in 2008 we know that shock will get you everywhere, including twenty-first century notecards.
Manet, Monet, and their comrades in nineteenth-century France had a contemporary that you probably have not heard of, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Meissonier featured prominently in the artistic community, art market, and culture of Paris in the 1860s. He is also one of the major players in Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, a rollicking account of the shift in French painting that peaked in 1863. King was as meticulous about his research of Meissonier’s life as Meissonier was about his research of horses and soldiers. I must admit, I’ve grown quite fond of dear Ernest in the past few weeks, thanks to King’s engaging details about him:
In his forty-eighth year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “ugly, little
and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.” A friend described him
as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager
and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the
countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent,
fencing sword in hand. Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire,
sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he
spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and
meticulousness that had made both his reputation and his fortune.
Not only do I aspire to craft “wonders of precision and meticulousness” in any discipline,
I now realize the merits of extreme research. Meissonier was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. The pint-sized monarch was Meissonier’s favorite subject, and in order to depict him accurately, Meissonier befriended a former valet of Napoleon who had a collection of artifacts like tack and uniform buttons, he borrowed a horse that was a descendant of Napoleon’s white charger to use as a model, he created wax maquettes which he inserted into scale dioramas in order to compose more accurate battle scenes, and he galloped alongside soldiers so that he may study the engineering of equine anatomy. When his dioramas developed technical problems involving bees and mice (you don’t want to know) he staged life sized battle scenes on the grounds of his house that included horses, tack, and uniforms that were accurate down to most minute detail.
Meissonier sold paintings for hundreds of thousands of francs in his lifetime while Manet went years without selling one, and yet, when I recently acquired a catalogue from 1951 of a French painting exhibition, Meissonier was conspicuously absent. Who knows, if one of his paintings shows up here in Pittsburgh to stay, perhaps I can begin a campaign to ignite interest in this fierce little painter. Stay tuned……