Other artists of Meissonier's time reflected on his greatness, though with amusing qualifications. Sir John E. Millais said, “He was more complete than any Dutchman.” Kenyon Cox said he was “The greatest genre painter of any age.”
A book called "Modern French Masters*" from 1896 begins the section on Meissonier this way: "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 of as the greatest painter of our period?"
They posed the question fully aware of the fickleness of changing fashions, of the tendency of one generation to crush the idols of those that came before.
So who did this panel decide would rule 100 years later as the greatest painter of the nineteenth century?
"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."
They chose Bouguereau because "his work is nearly perfect in its draftsmanship, the nude will always occupy a high place in art, and time will mellow much that is rather objectionable in its coloring."
Why Meissonier's pictures? Because they "are as nearly perfect technically as human skill can make them, because they are masterful in their knowledge, and because they are true in appearance."
Suppose we were to assemble a panel of experts today that included art dealers, art historians and artists, and suppose we were to pose the same question: Which artist of the twentieth century will be regarded as the greatest by people of the year 2100?
It would be difficult for such a panel to come to any consensus. Before any names could be nominated, the criteria would come into dispute. How will future generations measure greatness? By what measure would we evaluate greatness today? No broadly based contemporary art panel would agree that skill, knowledge, truth, and perfect draftsmanship are valid yardsticks.
The only objective criterion at a given moment is the economic yardstick of auction prices. But that's not based on any enduring principle, and the economic gauge is influenced by elusive market factors such as scarcity and promotion. Are artists great because they are expensive, or expensive because they are great? In any event, Meissonier and Bouguereau are proof that what has risen will fall, and what has fallen will rise.
If we rule out popularity or market value, then which criteria could we use? Beauty? Too subjective. The ability to transmit emotion? Too personal. How about: Audacity? Innovation? Novelty? Influence on others?
Perhaps we have to accept that the art world will be, for our lifetimes, divided into warring tribes, each with a different set of values. This state of affairs makes the job difficult, I imagine, for art juries, curriculum planners, critics, granting agencies, and museum acquisition committees.
Previously: Meissonier: 19th Century's most expensive artistMasters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs, Issued Monthly. Bates and Guild Co. Publishers, Boston, 1904.
Modern French Masters
Related book by Ross King about Meissonier and Manet: The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism