This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the World Impressionism

The “Judgment of Paris” is a lively account of the French art scene in the decade leading up to the birth of Impressionism. Author Ross King tells the stories of proud and enterprising artists, while colourfully explaining some major European political dramas that exploded in the late nineteenth century and had reverberations in the world of French art. This is a broad sweep of history poured into one book, but it is a racy read that will pull you in.

Any avid art lover would do well to know the story of the birth of Impressionism and this book is a fine resource for those unfamiliar with the saga. This history exposes the vanities, flair and impetuousness of various artistic personalities from the nineteenth century. The astute reader may find amusement drawing some parallels between these distant melodramas and some behaviour among today’s art elites and the creative fringes.

The setting for this story is Paris at the time of the Second Empire of Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III. This is a city of indulgences, known for its mammoth art exhibitions, society balls, absinthe addicts, cafes and rampant prostitution. Napoleon III was a benign autocrat, who knew little of art but who cannily sponsored entertainment in many forms to distract and titillate the Parisian population.

The storyline of this book revolves around the annual Salon exhibitions organised under the aegis of the French government. The Salon was an annual extravaganza held in a cavernous exhibition hall, drawing huge crowds of visitors. Artists craved acceptance into the Salon, because the inundation of press reports on the event could help ring overnight fame. Ross King describes the early careers of a number of artists who went on to become founders of Impressionism. But this book principally focuses on the career fortunes of two artists – one a celebrated and successful conservative, one an unconventional agitator. Both had surnames beginning with the letter “M”, so they were exhibited in the same room at the Salon. At different times they would take turns at providing the drawcard art in room “M”.

Edouard Manet was an ambitious but unsuccessful artist with obvious technical shortcomings, who spent most of his career seeking recognition from, but being rebuffed by, the French art establishment. For decades Manet’s loose style of painting was derided, as was his provocative choice of subject matter (such as a prostitute in a bordello, or a nude in a public park).

Lacking in technical polish, Manet lacked nothing in persistence and self belief. Excoriating reviews by art critics helped him achieve fame that came without the benefit of commercial success. Many of his works were made legendary by the ridicule heaped upon them and they drew crowds for all the wrong reasons. But in his last few years, as Impressionism gained a foothold among collectors, his sales appeal came good. As the collectors turned, so many critics too came to acknowledge his merits.

The book also traces the career of Ernest Meissonier, a neo-classical perfectionist who became renowned across the world for nostalgic paintings of French cavalrymen, swordsmen and statesmen. His greatest achievements were panoramic battlefield scenes that paid homage to the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte. From early in his career Meissonier commanded lucrative prices, eventually drawing the wealthiest of collectors, ranging from American industrial magnates to British Royalty.

King recounts how Meissonier and Manet both started as outsiders in the eyes of the French art elites. An earlier generation of artists had dominated the successive selection panels of the Salon and official bias was towards heroic paintings of Greek mythology and Christian parables. Favouritism fell upon artists who had won previous recognition in other official art competitions, or who had secured commissions to paint murals for great public buildings. Manet and Meissonier join forces at the start of this story in petitioning for a more liberal regime for choosing exhibitors at the annual Paris Salon, so that fresh styles and genres could enjoy exposure. Their remonstrance was snubbed by the bureaucrats, until Emperor Napoleon III stepped in and declared he would order two simultaneous exhibitions, one of accepted art alongside one of rejected art. The “Salon des Refuses” added to the carnival vibe of the Salon season, and ironically, far from helping unfashionable artists, it exposed them to more punishment from the witty, hurtful barbs of art critics in the popular press.

After initially working in common cause, the two main characters in this book drift into opposing camps. Meissonier becomes the new figurehead for the triumphant school of conservatives who idealised nature and glorified the past. Manet found himself allied to younger realists who favoured rustic and contemporary scenes. This was a pre-Impressionist battleline in French art tastes. Despite all the schisms within the Parisian art scene, this was an undoubted heyday in the history of French art. The splendid artworks at the Paris Salon exhibition attracted visitors from around the world and helped secure French cultural prestige and dominance in the esteem of top art collectors.

The story takes a disconcerted twist when the French enthusiastically rush into a war with Prussia. The war of 1870 brought about a quick plunge into calamity as French illusions of greatness were shattered by the efficient Prussian military machine.

I think that the nub of this epic tale is that the excitements and vanities of the French art world were shaken pathetically into perspective by the turn of political events. One moment conceited Parisian artists engaged excitedly in conflicts of ego and taste, gaining media notoriety for their audacity or brilliance. In a matter of weeks their city is besieged, starved, bombarded and then occupied. National self-confidence quickly gave way to recrimination and civil war between communards and monarchists, ending with mass exodus of civilians, arson attacks on great buildings by the communards and summary executions of radicals by government firing squads. King describes the adventures and misfortune of artists who enlisted in uniform and those who colluded in a short-lived revolutionary municipal government. Petty differences between artists in a time of peace look feeble, measured against some of the searing animosities that arose after the debacles of 1870 to 1871.

It is easy for art history students to ignore the political backdrop to the emergence of new art movements. The shift from reverence of grand historic subject matter towards preference for plain domestic themes owes something to French misfortune and embarrassment of the battlefield. The emergence of the Impressionists also owes something to the small “p” politics of dissenters like Manet who had battled censorship, refused to conform to the stylistic conventions of the day and pressed for more inclusive and democratic forms of juried exhibitions. Ross King reminds us that Impressionists brought about their success by creating a fraternity of artists who shared ideas on technique and took succour from each other to defy prevailing fads and disregard the smears of the critics.

The writing is mostly dispassionate, balanced and engaging. King has done a deal of research, working with a range of art historians and getting some translations of source material from original French. The one let down of the book is the pitiful number of illustrations, comprising some token colour plates in the middle (away from the relevant text) and small black and whites spotted thinly among the chapters. The art addict feels teased to read descriptions in this book of hundred of artworks, while only a fraction of them are reproduced. This is an enjoyable text looking for a good publisher. Ross King gives us the tale of those who braved the impassioned judgment of Parisian public opinion and opened an imaginative and beautiful new chapter in art history.

Book specs:
Hardcover 448 pages, 9.5 x 6.5 inches (16 colour, 45 b&w illustrations)

Other books on Impressionism and French Art:

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