Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ernest Meissonier: 19th C's Most Expensive Artist

The votes are now tallied in the poll about the highest priced artist during the 19th century. In the voting, Bouguereau edged out Meissonier 92 to 78. Thanks to everyone for participating.

Bouguereau may be more dominant in the recent academic auction revival, and he may be better represented in American collections, and he may be more accessible to modern viewers, but the right answer is Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891).

Click the image above for a BIG enlargement.

There are at least two published sources for this claim. One is The Studios of Paris, by John Milner (Yale University Press, 1988). Mr. Milner documented the astronomical prices (see the Thursday's post) and said “Meissonier became the most expensive painter of later nineteenth-century France.”

The other book is called The Judgment of Paris by Ross King (2006). Mr. King contrasts Meissonier with Manet during the pivotal period in Paris, as the independent movement really took hold. King’s book is insightful, rich in description, and well-researched.

King says that “No artist in France could command Meissonier’s extravagant prices or excite so much public attention. Each year at the Paris Salon—the annual art exhibition in the Palais des Champs-Elysees—the space before Meissonier’s paintings grew so thick with spectators that a special policeman was needed to regulate the masses as they pressed forward to inspect his latest success.” (from Charles Yriarte, 1898)

For those of you unfamiliar with Meissonier, he produced small and exquisitely painted genre scenes from the prerevolutionary times and equestrian military subjects from the Napoleonic era. The Metropolitan Museum owns his “Friedland,” showing a cavalry charge through the tall grass, but that’s not really typical of his smaller, more intimate pieces. He disdained the modern world of the 19th century, preferring to set his scenes in the 18th and 17th centuries.

Many of his genre scenes depict gentlemen in taverns or scholars reading books. The characters seem plucked from the pages of “The Three Musketeers” —which, by the way, was the most commercially successful book of 19th century France.

There much to learn from Meissonier’s impeccable craftsmanship. For art historians there is a great deal of scholarship that needs to be done. Take note, Ph.D candidates! I hope that a museum will do a retrospective, or that an English publisher will consider producing a new book on his art.


You can see a gallery of 27 Meissonier images at Art Renewal, link.

There are two excellent books in French: Meissonier: trois siecles d’histoire, by Philippe Guilloux (1980) and an exhibition catalog Ernest Meissonier: Retrospective, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, 1993.

In this video, author Ross King talks about Meissonier’s dominance of his own times and his obscurity in ours, link.

Thanks to Micah of Bearded Roman, who introduced this topic, link.


Erik Bongers said...

In the video you link to it is mentioned that by the 1940-ies, M was completely 'airbrushed' out of France's art history.
Now if we start 'erasing' artist from history based on the taste of the day and keep this practice up for some centuries, we'll end up with an empty can!
Of course, I ignore here that with every 'erasure', other artists are reinstated.
(Where's the time that J.S.Bach was just good enough as practice material for music students.)

In any case, it shows that 'art history' is about the least scientifically objective historic study that exists. Art historians should really try and make an effort to respect the popularity of each era, regardless of how we feel now.

My personal view on M's work? I see a very skilled genre painter, but I do prefer Delacroix. But that's not really relevant here. The fact that I didn't know of M shocks me!

Erik Bongers said...

I just watched the ARC gallery.
My God, M izz dze French Rockwell !

Laraine Armenti said...
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Daroo said...

Great post and fun contest. I guessed before I googled, based on who I didn't know, and was wrong. I like his work a lot.

I think the reason these artists fall out of favor is the genre itself. It ceases to have resonance for later audiences. If the artist is known primarily for a particular type of genre painting, his fate is inevitably tied to that genre -- regardless of his skills.

If the surface qualities of that genre are more prominent than the artists' portrayal of some universal truth of the human condition than the work has less of a chance, to connect with a later audience who is not familiar with the vagaries of that particular fad.

A pop music analog might be "disco" -- The Bee Gees were huge when disco was popular and then when it fell out of fashion - they fell along with it. While their skills as musicians can be argued, now they are only referenced within the context of disco.

It seems that people who at the time were Disco's biggest fanatics now remember the era with bemused embarrassment. I would guess this same emotion is what motivated the later critics' anti- Meissonier vehemence (mentioned on the video link) that and possibly the money they spent.

On the other hand, sometimes you just gotta lighten up and dance.

Tom said...

Hi James
Great post. I think Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that fashion/style must be ugly otherwise we would not have to change it ever six months. I think people are pretty smart over time and they can tell when an artist or art work is dealing with something fundemental to human nature.
Every artist has a technique but in my opinion techique comes out of a phisophically out look. And sometimes making things look real destorys the more important elements of the work of art. Also by posting that 19th century academic painters as critics or in opposition to 20th century artists can be turned around as the artwork of anicent cultures and the reniassiace pose fairly strong criticism of the 19th century while still mataining strong technical skills. I really like Davi disco analogy.

Erik Bongers said...

(hmmm, I'm over-posting again...)

But I just returned from the bookstore to buy a gift for someone. As I was about to leave I noticed a book "De klassieke school - Schilderen". As I browsed through it, the deja-vus flashed before my eyes. Until suddenly I saw this painting by M !

What a coincidence!
Well...not really. The book I was holding was the dutch translation if this ARC's book.

In Dutch!

(but I didn't buy it. It was more a showcase than a technical book. I know a better source for technical information.)

As I was searching the Net for the book I saw in the store, I stumbled upon a site of the "Belgian Orientalists Organization".

Quite an amazing hour that was!

Stapleton Kearns said...
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innisart said...


I love seeing and hearing about the maquettes that artists use for their paintings: Parrish's photos of rocks on mirrors, his plaster-of-Paris castles, wooden cottages... your models of Dinotopia...

My favorite part of The Judgement of Paris was King's description of the lengths Meissonier went to for his battle reference... his failed miniature snow-covered battlefield replaced by live participants later... Napoleonic costumes were easy enough to come by, but I loved the idea of dressing up the entire town in costume and covering the fields with flour to simulate snow!


Anonymous said...

Hi James

I am interested to know more of your background. It may sound a strange request but my uncle (Phil) recently began to put together a family tree, of Gurneys.

I am from UK, and we have many around the London area, but it seems also many in US too.
Oddly, my father and I are also into art, perhaps that is a trait of the name :-)

Tom Gurney
(Born - Cambridge, UK)

James Gurney said...

Innisart: yes, the Lyon exhibition catalog shows a lot of his maquettes.

Tom: We Gurneys started out in Norwich and went to Massachusetts. I'm descended from Frederick W. Gurney. We could be relations!

Unknown said...

Ernest Meissonier reminds me a lot of Norman Rockwell in terms of style and subject matter, even facial expressions. The audience for this sort of art I think has moved out of "high art" over the twentieth century and this one to cinema, TV and into popular illustration.

Bil Hardenberger said...

Mesonnier is one of my favorite artists, he would have been an incredible illustrator. However my faovrite pieces of his are looser works like "the Siege of Paris" and of course his macquettes.

I believe you can see his influence in some of the most famous illustrators: especially in Howard Pyle, Richard Caton-Woodville, and Fortunino Matania (among others).

Good stuff!


Laraine Armenti said...

This was a fun contest. Thanks, James!

Having read Ross King's book, my earlier comment was incorrect. It seems historians were as responsible as educators and the market for the removal of Meissonier from popular knowledge, just as every female painter has been eliminated. No doubt his star will rise again.

Kyler Dannels said...

I was able to see this painting ("A Game of Piquet") today in Albuquerque, NM and recalled this post you made on the artist from a while back.

Despite your mention of the small size of his work I had no conception of how tiny this painting actually is! It's barely larger than a sheet of normal Letter sized typing paper.

The quality of the rendering and form is flawlessly executed at such a minuscule scale, it's quite the achievement. Thanks for bringing this name to my attention in the first place!