When Ross King searched for a face and a name to represent the nineteenth-century French art establishment and the Paris Salon for his book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, he looked no further than Ernest Meissonier. Born February 21, 1815, Meissonier epitomized the Classicist school of painting and sculpture—the perfect foil for Manet and the Impressionists bursting upon the scene. Works such as Messonier’s 1814 Campagne de France (Napoleon campaigning in Northern France) (above, from 1864), one of the many works he painted of Napoleon and his armies in battle, seemed like relics of a past best forgotten next to the new wave in art and society represented by Manet and his followers in all the arts.
Meissonier may have been a difficult man to love. He was meticulous in everything, researching every last detail of sweeping works full of animals and men with their uniforms and equipment. He built small, to-scale sculptures of horseback soldiers and even reproduced the saddles in leather in his quest for realistic perfection. I remember standing in front of his 1814 Campagne de France at the Louvre and finding it hard not to be impressed by his effort and skill. When in 1848 riots erupted in Paris against king Louis Philippe, resulting in his abdication and the Second Republic, Meissonier captured the moment in all its harsh realism in works such as The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 (above, from 1848). Whereas earlier artists as Delacroix placed a romantic spin on the 1830 revolution in his Liberty Leading the People, Meissonier chose instead to portray the human cost of this political upheaval.
During the Franco-Prussian war and the 1870 siege of Paris, Meissonier got even closer to the action, serving on the staff of Napoleon III. While serving as a colonel of a quickly thrown-together unit, Meissonier took the time to remember and paint such scenes as The Siege of Paris (above, from 1871). The central figure represents the indomitable spirit of the French people (ala Delacroix), but the fallen bodies all around very accurately convey the death and destruction of that war. In The Judgment of Paris, King actually does a pretty good job of presenting Meissonier as a sympathetic character betrayed by time and changing tastes. For all the aggrandizement of war and patriotism in the long history of French art, dating back to the days of Jacques-Louis David, Meissonier offers a refreshingly clear and accurate picture of his country’s struggles.