Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Meissonier / Mackay Scandal

A scandal about a displeased portrait client damaged the career of the most famous painter of his day, Ernest Meissonier (French 1815-1891), and ended with the portrait thrown onto a fire.

Ernest Meissonier, Self Portrait
Despite his celebrity and the vast sums paid for his work, Meissonier had painted few images of women, and few portrait likenesses. This commission came in the last decade of his life and at the pinnacle of his international success.

The sitter was Mrs. J. W. Mackay, of California. After seeing the portrait nearly finished, she rejected it [Edit: she asked for it to be finished to her satisfaction.] A bill was sent, and at first her husband refused to pay for it. The price was vast for 1884, estimated between ten and twenty-five thousand dollars. Meissonier responded by vowing to keep the painting and he put it on exhibition, where the public would be the judge. 

In his view he had simply painted a picture that was too accurate. In her view he had made her look coarse, and made up like a painted doll.

"It seems that after Meissonier had painted the portrait, Mrs. Mackay criticised it a little and wanted it just a little more finished. It was not finished then when she went into the country, and she wrote him she would come up anytime he wanted to finish it."

"He never said a word, but finished the hands from a model of a big, coarse woman with ugly hands, and made the cheeks and lips powdered and painted frightfully, and left the neck yellow, just because he was so angry that she should dare to criticise such a great master as himself."

"Now Mrs. Mackay thought, with good reason I think, that she ought to have been the model to her own portrait, and that she could ask at least for a faint resemblance, especially as she would have to pay $15,000 for the picture."

"Without informing Mrs. Mackay as to his intentions or asking her consent, he simply sent the picture to the exhibition, where her friends saw it and told her of it. She wrote and asked for the picture, and at the close of the exhibition it was sent to her, with a bill."

"Mr. Mackay was so provoked that he wanted to make a fuss about it, but his friends persuaded him to pay it and say nothing more about it. This he did, and threw the picture in the fire. But on the same day Mr. Mackay left for America the papers: came out with the story, abusing Mrs. Mackay, and the French artists are to meet and have an indignation meeting that a canvas immortalized by Meissonier should be burned by a vulgar American."

The debate about who was in the right was taken up in all the papers on both sides of the Atlantic. An early writer about the incident said that "Meissonier, by the haughtiness of his manner, his artistic independence, and, most of all, by his unpardonable success, had been sowing dragons teeth for half a century. And now armed enemies sprang up, and sided with the woman from California. They made it an international episode: less excuses have involved nations in war in days agone....The tide of Meissonier's prosperity began to ebb: prospective buyers kept away; those who had given commissions canceled them."



dragonladych said...

I do a lot of portraits these days so I better be aware, you never know when you get a "bad client" ;)

I leafed through that book you linked to, which made me think of a conversation I had with a gallery owner here recently. It's all so subjective deciding what is art and what is not, meaning out there in the art world.

Personally I don't really care but as I am trying to find some galleries to show my stuff I need to be aware of demand. It's all rather confusing I must admit. Apparently I am not an artist even when I don't do illustration, it's all a matter of point of view and a lot of pretence as well.

Karen Robinson said...

Oh dear. I have saved some of Meissonier's little figure paintings as inspiration, there is one of a lute player i especially love, i think he is brilliant. BUT a commissioned piece is a different ball game In my opinion. I have had a couple of customers who didnt like things in their paintings. I changed those elements and could never consider a painting finished tbh unless the clients are completely happy. Only wish they were paying me $10,000! *sigh*

James Gurney said...

Karen, yes, and keep in mind that $10,000 in 1884 would be worth about $250,000 today.

Dragon Lady, One would think gallery dealers would have an elastic enough definition of art to include what sells.

Unknown said...

I agree with Karen, a commissioned piece is, "a different ball game..." And, quite often their successful execution requires extreme diplomacy.

Sometimes commissioned work turns out to be my best, as I find myself painting a subject I might not otherwise have considered.

Other times... it's a job.

Still, it pays the bills by pushing paint around on canvas with pig bristles on the end of a stick; not bad work.

If I could charge $250,000 for a commission... I'd do two a year and paint 'my' work the other eleven months!

Dorine M Gross said...

I think the bigger picture is lost here. It is not a matter of should you take a commission about a subject matter you do or do not want to paint. Or, even if the client is nice or wealthy or potentially a mean person. Those are ethical questions you need to resolve with yourself before you even think about painting for someone else. And, once the decision is made, stick to your personal ethics.
The big question here is your attitude about yourself and your work. A long time ago one of my art professors said to all of us in our intro drawing and painting class something unforgettable. And I have passed that along to all of my students for forty years. What was said was, "Never fall in love with your work or yourself."
That quote reminds me that there is always a better painting to be painted with the next painting. If we can remember that, we will remain our best critic, not be ego involed with criticism of our own work.

Aleada Siragusa said...

It is possible that Mr Meissonier is a bully and his ego got in the way of serving this client. I wish we could see the portrait of Mrs. J. W. Mackay so we could judeg for ourselves as to how unkind this portrait really is; a photograph of her would help in comparison also. Perhaps in this case it is the artist who is being a Diva and his reputation is getting in the way of good judgement.

Marvin Mattelson said...

Sounds like Mr. Meissonier was hoisted by his own petard. A cautionary tale if ever there was one.

dragonladych said...

I realise once more how very closed the world of galleries is, without an agent there is no getting in. Or stick to small galleries which won't sell anything. Of topic, but gah!

Ha, got to love this captcha with images of food, it makes me hungry!

arturoquimico said...

I once read that while in Hollywood Salvador Dali painted a portrait of a movie producer with his dog (Mayer? Goldwyn?) and the producer hated it... so the producer paid Dali, called the painting: "A portrait of my dog" and hung it in the dog house... I believe both artist and customer benefited from the publicity...