Friday, August 2, 2013

Meissonier's prep work

Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) did meticulous studies in preparation for his Napoleonic history paintings. Here is one of his oil studies from a model in an authentic uniform.

According to an early eyewitness, "he made a beautifully finished little wax model of a horse and a rider....Every detail was carefully reproduced from the real materials—the rider's cloak, hat, and spurred boots were miniature masterpieces—and in order to get the exact folds of the cloak it was dipped into thin glue and then placed in the wind so that it stiffened as it blew." This model is made of wood, wax, metal, leather, and cord, and measures about 8 inches tall. 

Here's a detail of one of his paintings, showing why the preparatory work was necessary. This conviction doesn't happen by accident or last-minute inspiration. Managing all the details and dynamics of even a single figure requires immense focus and effort, a lot like a modern movie director planning a complex visual effects scene.

And here is the entire painting, 1807, Friedland, which took him ten years to complete. You can see the painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or download it in high rez from the Met website.

If you want to read more about Meissonier, I recommend Ross King's book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, which compares the fates of Meissonier and Manet.
Meissonier on Wikipedia 


Juha Peuhkuri said...

That's a great book! King infuses his works of historical non-fiction with an entertaining storytelling vibe. After reading this I had to get his books on Michelangelo and Leonardo too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your blog and your books, I've gotten to be pretty good about preparing myself before doing a final drawing/painting. I have friends dress up in costumes, I build maquettes, I do lots of preliminary sketches and at least one scaled-down version of the final piece in the same medium that the final piece will be. I think my art has improved dramatically as a result.

You said in this post, "This conviction doesn't happen by accident or last-minute inspiration." My question is do you think there comes a point where an artist becomes over-prepared? I worry some times that, by over-preparing myself, I might loose a sense of spontaneity in the final piece.


Anonymous said...

Meissonier was obsessed with both historical accuracy of his paintings and equine locomotion. He did not relied on mere cursory knowledge for representation of the uniforms and military accessories - he interviewed veterans making inquiries in which one made up a soldier's pack, the form of a dolman, the color of a collar, the place of a buckle etc. Once appraised of this information he used to run to a tailor, saddle-maker or gunsmith asking them to reconstruct the costume which no longer existed. Gérôme was fascinated with apparatus Meissonier invented which allowed him to observe the movement of all four of a horse's legs from the side - M. installed a plain small railway on whose tracks he had placed a rolling sofa that was pushed at the same pace as that of a horse walking parallel to him. When, on his sketchbook, he had arrived at fixing the position of a leg, he looked for the position of another leg at that corresponding moment, then he looked at a third and thus resolved the problem.