Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King

How would you like having a big red R stamped on the back of your paintings? The French Impressionist painters whose works are the highlights of many museum collections worldwide today saw a lot of red Rs in the 1860s and 1870s, as the juries for the Paris Salon's annual Exhibition of Living Artists refused to accept many of their paintings. According to Ross King in The Judgment of Paris, the conservative-minded juries conformed to the tastes of the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, which revered history painting above landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, which they considered merely decorative. Prizes were usually awarded to artists who painted emperors, generals, and biblical figures in patriotic or religious scenes. The Impressionists took their canvases with the permanent red Rs back to their studios, from which few of their works were sold.

1863 was a turning point in French art. Artists of many genres, including Edouard Manet, complained bitterly when the jury rejected most of that year's submitted works. To the surprise of many, the emperor Louis-Napoleon, not known for any democratic ideals, ordered a special exhibit of the rejected works. The benefits of being exhibited at the Salon des Refuses were few, however, as most critics and journalists publicly scorned the paintings. Most salon visitors especially laughed and jeered at Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe.

King continues the tale through the next decade, weaving the stories of Louis-Napoleon, Manet, and Ernest Meissonier, who was at the time France's most famous painter. Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola also appear in the "reads like a novel" history of French arts and politics.

The focus of King's history turns away from the world of art to the Franco-Prussian War in the latter third of the book, as Louis-Napoleon sends thousands of troops (including some artists) to their deaths in Germany. In reprisal, the Prussian surround and starve the residents of Paris. The details of the seige, in which Manet and Meissonier serve in the emperor's guard, get pretty gory, as the residents begin eating horses, cats, and rats and burning their pianos.

In a final chapter King tells how the various artists from the period are now perceived. It seems to be a classic case of reversals. King, however, feels Meissonier is unfairly castigated for opposing Impressionism, as he too worked for artists' rights to show their work at the annual salons.

Readers of The Judgment of Paris will also want to scan some art books. They should also try King's other histories Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling.

King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. New York: Walker and Comapny, 2006. ISBN 0802714668

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