Patrick’s Free Art Course – Supplemental Section -Art History – Lesson A Ernest Meissonier

As mentioned in the introduction to this humble class I am going to be telling the story of art using studies of selected artists. And besides telling the larger story of art you will learn about the struggles of the artists. And some times their ways of working. And the real lives behind the history.

Now to start things off the first person I have chosen is Ernest Meissonier. The most famous and highly paid artist of the 19th century. And to get things started I think we will start with the part of the book Modern French Masters that talks about Meissonier. (1896)




IN Paris, a few years ago, twenty or more well-known artists were dining at the house of a prominent art-dealer. During the evening the question came up: ” Who, at the end of the 20th century, will be thought the greatest painter of our period?” Here was a question not at all novel, but nevertheless interesting. The Salon, Tonquin, and Louise Michel were forgotten, and over our coffee and cigars a jury was formed, not to convict, but to immortalize one of our contemporaries. The discussion that followed was most spirited, as each great name brought to trial had its advocate who was sure the crucial test of tune would emblazon that name, like Abou-ben-Adhem’s in the Angel’s Book of Gold.

But there were many things to be taken into account — the rapid change in popular taste and fashion whereby one idol is shattered and another raised and worshiped in a day, the probable change in tone and color, and the so-called ” quality ” gained by age and old varnish, such as one now sees in many pictures of the early English school, some of which were undoubtedly very crude when they were painted. The present standing of a painter’s work under discussion was ignored, but the question, “What will it be in one hundred years’?” was very fairly and ably argued; the verdict of the jury was nearly unanimous that the paintings most sought after toward the close of the twentieth century would be by Bouguereau and Meissonier. Why so? The former, because Bouguereau’s work is nearly perfect in its draftsmanship, the nude will always occupy a high place in art, and time will mellow it entered the collection of Sir Richard Wallace, where I suppose it still remains. Meissonier attracted little attention, however, until 1839 or 1840. The French amateur then had his eyes opened to the fact that a star had arisen, and from that time began his artistic career — that triumphal march that made him the central figure in the Parisian world of art. England, Holland, Russia, and his own country soon acknowledged his greatness,— great in the little if you choose,— and orders, decorations, and medals showered upon him. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1846; an Officer in 1856; member of the Institute in 1861; a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1867, and a Grand Officer in 1878. In the Salon of 1864 he exhibited two pictures (the “Defeat of the Austrians at Lodi,” and the ” 1814 “) which all Paris expected would gain for him the grand medal. But the jury refused to award it, greatly to the disgust of M. Edmond About, who thus voiced the opinion of the multitude in his article in the “Salon de 1864″: ” Two admiring groups, incessantly renewed from the time of opening the doors until the closing, indicate the places where Meissonier’s two pictures are hung. And it is to these two pictures that the jury has refused the grand medaille. It was awarded to M. Yvon some years ago, and Meissonier has not had it! Oh, Frenchmen of Paris ! Athenians of La Villette suburbs! you do not deserve great painters, for you do not know how to reward them.”

Meissonier made many friends, but he also made many enemies, and it is only truth to say that he was a constant source of surprise to both. For the range of his brush seemed boundless and his versatility inexhaustible. The little interiors he painted are filled with quiet color and subdued light; the “Portrait of a Sergeant” is a revel in air and daylight; ” The Vedette ” has the chill of cold December. We are amazed that the hand that gave us the thoughtful ” Chess-Players,” lost to the world, so intent are they on the next move in the game, also painted “La Rixe” (now the property of the Queen of England), which is violence itself. We turn with surprise from the carefully studied series of works which M. Claretie calls The Napoleonic Cycle to the roystering, devil-may-care cavalier of Louis XIII.

But perhaps Meissonier’s boldest departure was when he undertook —what his critics predicted would be his Waterloo — his largest canvas, the “Friedland—1807,” now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These critics had agreed to admire his little figures,” miniatures on a sou,” as they christened them, but declared that anything larger than these ” infinimentpetite” was beyond his powers. Imagine their chagrin when they gazed on this superb example of the master’s art. This picture does not represent a battle, for the specter of death is absent, yet it shows to us the grand movement of a cavalry charge. We hear the shrill voice of the trumpet, the thunder of hoofbeats, the shouts of men, and we join in their enthusiasm and excitement, as, sweeping by, they salute their Emperor, their idol and almost their God. His the will to direct, theirs the force to obey, and he, the molder of Europe’s destiny, calmly sits his horse, and, inscrutable as the Sphinx, proudly surveys the force he has called into existence, and with which he hopes to change the map of a continent. What a superb illustration of the power of mind and hand is this canvas ! Each figure, man or horse, is a study, and each, while a perfect picture in itself, does not detract from the grandeur of the whole. The eye can rove from detail to detail, but the completed picture, as Meissonier designed it, is ever before us. A close examination of it reveals beauties not at first observed, but it loses nothing when viewed from a distance. No directions to stand at a certain number of feet from it are needed. It is great from every point and any distance. It shows no unmeaning dabs of paint, for which painters of the pretentious touch invoke the spectator’s credulous sympathy in anticipation of his unveiled contempt. Meissonier never put brush to canvas or panel unless to depict something exact, something that is a fact, and not a suggestion for the beholder to speculate about, and upon which he might not inaptly place the motto, Omne ignotum pro magnifico.

It has been stated by some lovers of the vague that Meissonier was a mere technical machine, portraying facts with wonderful skill and fidelity, but with an utter lack of poetical f eeling. I am willing to grant this, when any sane person will explain to me the meaning of that ambiguous term, “poetic feeling,” as applied to art. For what would be the soul of music to one might be banality to another. If it means that indefinable something, or lack of something, left for the imagination to supply, we will find much of this so-called poetry in works void of some of the elementary principles of art. When art, as in a Meissonier, is expressed obediently to all the canons of painting, there is a poetry in the very means of expression if one has but the eye to see it and the soul to feel it. The poetry of the literary and the sentimental is one thing; the poetry of the artistic is quite another. Of the latter Meissonier’s works show enough and to spare.

On January 31,1891, Meissonier’s work was done; fame has judged it well done, and history will continue to echo the cry, “Well done.” Personally Meissonier will always be remembered as we see him portrayed in the word-picture of his friend Jules Claretie, written some years before the great painter’s death: ” That which is most pleasing with Meissonier is the frank cordiality with which he explains his plans, and looks you in the face the while with his deep, clear eyes (de son ceil profond et franc) for the truth of your meaning in reply. This man, who lives in a palace, is as moderate as a soldier on the march. This artist whose canvases are valued by the half million is as generous as a nabob. He will give to a charity sale a picture worth the price of a house. Hospitably friendly (accueittant) to all, and praised as he is by everybody, he has less conceit in his nature than a wholesale painter (que des barbouilleurs & la toise). With his hair growing thickly above his broad and open forehead, his beard flowing down over his breast like a river, his robust activity, de bon cavalier, he is at the age of sixty-eight as solid and as active as at forty. You see him to be ‘well seasoned,’ sympathetic, and safe, a man who loves his friends as he loves the truth, with all the passion of twenty.”

In looking back over the lif e of a great painter, we are apt to see more or less of his influence on contemporary art. We note the uprooting of inherited ideas—the liberation of timid genius held slave by the ” what is,” but willing to throw off the shackles and follow the lead of a courageous and aggressive master to found a school that shall be equally intolerant of the ” what was.” But Meissonier stood alone. He had plenty of admirers but few followers, for while all could admire, who could follow I A clever student can, by the close study of the

mannerisms of most of our celebrated painters, give us a suggestion of them, to a greater or less degree, in the measure that he is willing to sink his own individuality. We see enough and to spare of this in the products of the art schools, wherein the pupils almost always suggest the master who has taught them. But he who can suggest a Meissonier has passed the student period. Even Meissonier’s pupils, the best known of whom is probably Detaille, might as well have studied with another so far as reproducing their master’s touch is concerned. For the touch of the master could not be taught; it was born in him and died with him. It may possibly have been a gift from the shade of one of the old Dutch painters, who, perhaps in a spirit of mockeiy at the tendency of modern art, wished to show the world what he would do if reincarnated. But the men of Meissonier’s time were searching other fields than his, fields until then unexplored; and they found treasures equally great, if not equally exact, for the wonder of artist and amateur.

For the student of the so-called modern school, Meissonier’s methods are too serious. Their results are not soon enough apparent, so the student dabbles in a life class, or haunts the antique long enough to learn a few stock phrases, such as “plein air,” “suggestiveness,” “vibration,” “values,” and too often “rot.” Then with this little knowledge of drawing, he dashes into color, and promptly holds up to the admiring gaze of his similarly incompetent circle his impression of something as somebody else has seen it. As Cabanel once said of that class of artists,” They are like boarding-school misses who write flowing hands to hide bad spelling.”

In writing this article I have endeavored to speak in a general way of Meissonier, and have purposely avoided mention of his methods of work, but have accepted the grand result by which the world will know him as long as the history of art exists — the grand result, not of his latest period, when old age dimmed his eye, and shook his hand, and led him to produce works which the recorder of his fame will kindly and silently ignore, but of his mature years, when he was in the fullness of his powers. I have also spoken in this article from a partizan point of view, but from honest convictions, and if I have said harsh things of a modern school with which I am not in sympathy, it is only to contrast the master with some of the artists of his closing generation. I began by saying that Meissonier was ” one of the greatest genre painters of this or any age “; I end after a careful comparison of his art with that of other masters, by amending that sentence so that it shall read, ” He was the greatest genre painter of any age.”

Harry W. Watrous.

We can read more about him in the many now public domain art books on google books. Below are just a few….


Fifty years of modern painting, Corot to Sargent
By John Ernest Phythian

Meissonier Masterpieces In Colour
By M. Henry Roujon

Great painters of the XIXth century and their paintings
By Léonce Bénédite

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier: exposition avril 1893
By Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (France)

By Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier

By John William Mollett


Some modern artists and their work
edited by Wilfrid Meynell

Representative painters of the XIXth century
By N. D’Anvers

Modern french masters: a series of biographical and critical reviews by …
edited by John Charles Van Dyke

I would also suggest buying The Judgment Of Paris. I fun read that talk a lot about Meissonier.

Also here is the post from this blog where he was a featured artist.  Featured Artist Ernest Meissonier

Now read over the introduction this post and start looking some art Meissonier and we will discuss him in the Art History thread over at the forum.

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