Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ernest Meisonier & UNIFORMOLOGY 101!

This wasn't actually how I intended to start this section of the BLOG on uniformology, but since I ran into Keith Rocco this past weekend and he mentioned Ernest Meisonnier in his lecture. I figured it was as good a place as any to start, or I never will get started with this part of the Blog. 

The following is a paper I wrote for college on Jean Ernest Meissonier. It was a few years ago so I had to reformat the paper. 

I'll start first with a copy of my favorite Messioner painting Hope you enjoy it!

Date :1874
Technique :Oil on canvas, 73 x 62 cm
Type :genre
Form :painting
Location :Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Figure 1.  (1814, The Campaign of France) often stated 1812!

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891): Maligned Master

or Simply Misunderstood

 Submitted by: Christopher D. Maine

To: Dr. Lilien F. Robinson

Art History 109: 19th-Century Art in Europe: Section 10


“The man who leaves good work behind him, adds his quota to the glorious
inheritance of the human race.  His work is a spiritual bond connecting it’s
creator with distant posterity.  Let us then strive, so that we may not utterly
disappear, so that those who come after us may recognise the artist’s soul
in what his life has accomplished.”[1]  (Meissonier)

Renowned worldwide for such historical military paintings as the spectacular “1805, Les Cuirassiers Avant la Charge," the glorious “1807, FRIEDLAND," and his famed “1814, la Campagne de France," French realist artist, Ernest Meissonier, for over a century has repeatedly been discredited by art critics when it comes to acknowledgment of any sort of significant contribution being made, by the once highly popular genre artist, upon his contemporaries of the realist salon.  It is this later image however, and not the former, that is the primary focal point of this paper.  For Ernest Meissonier, in fact, was not only to influence the contemporary genre salon painters of his age, but was, for over the course of five decades, to influence further generations of French genre artists as well.  “I hope my pupils will carry on the tradition of that honesty, conscientiousness, and truthfulness which I have put into my own work, and which I have always taught them.”[2]

            Meissonier, regarded as a highly controversial figure by art critics today, during his time was often highly praised for his simple consistency.  Art historian Andre Michel, in 1884, at the famed Georges Petit Galarie retrospective, stated:  “What strikes one at the outset is the oeuvre’s (works) unity and the continuity of effort towards an invariable goal.  Not an hour of hesitation: from the beginning, he knows where he is going.”[3]  While Louis Gonse, in an obituary upon the famed artists death in 1891, stated:  “What’s so striking about this fine career, filled with such integrity is the perfect equilibrium of a harmonious temperament.”[4]  Still even years after his passing, Meissonier had a genius and a reputation that continued to fascinate.  American artist Kenyan Cox argued that Meissonier was one of those artist who knew from the very beginning what it was that he wanted to accomplish and did so.  “It would almost seem as if this artist never had to learn, had no period of uncertainty and struggle—had almost been born a master… The subjects change, but not the manner.  From the beginning of his career to the end the conception of his art is identical, the methods are the same, and the achievement is almost uniform.”[5]  It is perhaps this perseverance of style, as noted by Cox, that most aids Meissonier’s dubious detractors today.

Yet even upon his death in 1891, Meissonier continued to receive laurels of unfavorable criticism from such widely acclaimed art critics as Maurice Denis and Gustave Coquiot.  It is criticisms such as these that have persisted, and that have sufficed it to say to this very date, continued to damage Meissonier’s once distinguished reputation.  Coquiot can perhaps be considered one of the most detrimental of Meissonier’s critics, with such scathing words as, “How was it that this “short, stocky man with a long beard” had managed to “mystify, dupe, and rule virtually the entire world?”[6]  It is criticism such as this, when compared to that received by Meissonier’s contemporaries, the other so called Salonniers, that has never allowed for Meissonier’s image to fully recover.

            Born in the city of Lyon in 1815, by 1832 Meissonier had reached Paris, establishing himself as both a genre painter and book illustrator.  Giving up on the illustrating, Meissonier later decided to focus primarily upon his painting, which gained for him early notoriety, along with several medals in the prestigious Salons of 1840, 1841, 1843, and 1848.  By the 1850’s Meissonier was considered to have become the premiere genre painter of the Realist age.  It was his succeeding years, while attempting to challenge such past artists, as the likes of David, Delacroix and Gros that he has become known primarily as a historical military painter.  Author Marc Gotlieb in his singular work “The Plight of Emulation” states: “Probably his most important work in this respect was “1814, The Campaign of France,” (Figure 1.) exhibited at the Salon of 1864. The painting aroused considerable controversy when first exhibited… in 1890, the painting was sold for 850,000 francs, at that time the highest sum ever paid for the work of a living artist.”[7]

             I believe Meissonier to be a fascinating yet slighted figure, and maintain that most of his paintings are still found to be immensely powerful.  They remain so, not only because Meissonier was a gifted painter, but because of the fact that Meissonier forever labored upon an aim to define the conditions of attainment in the modern pictorial age.  “I would have drawing made the basis of education in all schools.  It is the universal language, the only one which can express all things.  An outline, even an ill-shaped one, conveys a more exact idea of a thing than the most harmonious sentence in the world.  Drawing is absolute truth, and the language of truth, the most exquisite of all, should be taught everywhere.”[8]  Thus Meissonier’s lifelong project, allows for a new interpretation, as having not only advanced a system of painting that clashed with his realist colleagues, but that competed as well with the practices which many have come to associate with modernism itself.  “The tendencies of modern painting are deplorable in every respect.  The absence of thought is remarkable; but combined with this nullity of invention we often find a technique and a knowledge of effect truly astonishing.  Many modern painters are not composers, they are experts of the brush”[9]

            But Meissonier did in fact have an influence upon his contemporaries, as well as his disciples.  Artists such as Eugene Delacroix, Meissonier’s friend and admirer stated to critic and novelist Jules Claretie that “Meissonier is the incontestable master of our epoch.”[10]  While also explaining to Charles Baudelaire that Meissonier’s posthumous reputation was far likely to be greater than that of his own: “amongst us all, surely it is he who is the most likely to survive!”[11] Delacroix, of course was wrong.

Meissonier’s modernist successors, on the other hand, found such claims not only unpersuasive but virtually meaningless.  The mere smallness of Meissonier’s paintings struck them as an indication of the total lack of ambition that had struck the French school in the nineteenth century.  Meissonier himself had his own beliefs on this issue, which he has written down for posterity; “Some modern artists won’t take the trouble to look at things….These gentlemen are always calling out against the conventionality of the old masters… Many people who had great reputations once, are nothing but burst balloons now.  It is difficult to go on painting well!  “Nothing is more difficult than to sustain a reputation; it is much more difficult than to make one.”  All young people think themselves famous when they make their first hit…”[12] 

            While prior to 1860, Meissonier restricted himself strictly to genre subjects.  Early critics have praised his genre paintings for their challenge to the academic hierarchy of genre painting. Indebted, to both Dutch and Flemish genre painting of the seventeenth century, Meissonier’s genre paintings represent a broader and more illusory aesthetic pertaining to the variety of the human spirit.   At the same time his use of naturalism allowed him to escape the literary and exotic excesses of Romantic painters, while attempting to fashion an alternate style of his own to the two opposing schools of thought.  Guillaume Dubuffe, in 1884 stated that “Meissonier had left the classicist and the Romantics to ‘quarrel amongst themselves.”[13]  If generic paintings are to serve outright as a gauge for the representation of ambitious independent history painting, it seems that generic distinctions can never be on their own, a reliable guide to an artist’s talent and originality. To Meissonier and his supporters, genre painting had expressed a perfect relationship between aspirations and accomplishment.  Gustave Planche, in 1852, complimented Meissonier for tailoring his will to his actual skills.  “Meissonier, he explained, never dreamed, conceived, or attempted anything that did not accord with the nature of his abilities.  His success relied precisely on the modesty of his ambition:  Content in his domain, narrow as it is, he doesn’t seek to enlarge it, and that’s undoubtedly the secret of his fame.”[14]

“Napoleon Ist in 1814,” (Figure 1., 1862), an oil on panel, at the Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery is a prime example of Meissonier’s modest ambition.  In the copied version at the Walters Gallery, color is used in order to put the different parts of Napoleon’s costume in relief.  While in the original Meissonier reinforced the contrasts of some tones, in order to produce a heavy sky, which in turn created an atmosphere of chaos. The coat was also darkened so as to appear black in order to stand out from the vest, and the hand of Napoleon is more lucid and contrasts with the gray wrists. The shadow on the horse’s chest is also darker.  This series of contrasts originates from a technique known as Camaïeu that was very popular in the eighteenth century. The camaïeu technique as utilized by Meissonier involved painting in different shades and hues of a single color, in the original that color is gray.  In painting a camaïeu, using grays is the only way to create a relief effect.  This in effect produces a painting, nothing similar to that of engraving or etching which uses ink and which skills Meissonier had acquired while working in his earlier days in Paris as an illustrator.  Meissonier’s goal here was to modify his technique in order to draw away the earlier negative criticisms he had received from his malicious detractors. 

The Walters Art Gallery contains a number of these genre paintings that helped Meissonier to acquire his illustrious reputation at his peak.  “Napoleon Ist in 1814,” was obtained by George Lucas an intermediary who helped a certain number of wealthy Americans, among whom Samuel Taylor Johnson, William Astor and, especially, William T. Walters were members, constitute amazing collections of European art.  Walters, (1819-1894) was a collector from Baltimore, who had made fortune in the dealing of alcohol at the universal Exhibition’s of 1867 and 1878 in Paris, and as an American commissioner to the Exhibition of 1873 in Vienna.  In 1878, Walters had acquired the “Happy Rider” of 1865, by the intermediate Lucas, and the “Napoleon Ier in 1814,” followed after the Defor sale of 1886.  Walter’s son Henry (1848-1931) added a third Meissonier, the Following; “Querelle de jeu” (A Quarrel Over a Game) 1865, (Querelle= to quarrel, thus = Literally: Is the result of a quarrel over a game, but used more commonly to mean a gambling dispute.) in 1898 from the W. H. Stewart sale in New York.  She was first possessed by prince Napoleon, a nephew of Napoleon Ist (whom he resembled physically), as well as a cousin and sometimes rival Napoleon III.  He consecrated his life to the memory of his uncle, notably after the death of his father, Jerome Bonaparte, in June 1860.  The family collection has now become an important museum, it is also understood that an arquelle of 1877, entitled “Under the balcony,” and a self-portrait of Meissonier in pencil 1853, exist.

Meissonier’s passion for genre painting established him as one of the leading artists of his generation.  And yet by the 1850’s and 1860’s, critics had begun to tire of his paintings.  His supply of insignificant subjects betrayed a misguided devotion to the humble beginnings of his painting rather than to its end.  Meissonier had traded spirit for matter.  Worse, he was not alone. Many French painters had apparently followed his example and confined themselves to the illusionist and commercial imperatives of genre painting.

Genre painting, it turned out, responded less to the richness and diversity of human experience than to the market’s diversity.  Finally, these failings attributed to the domesticity of genre paintings small portable format.  The growth of genre painting was due to a new and urgent need for citizens to furnish the confining modern interiors of the modern city.  Genre painting, which generally fits into small frames, hung easily in the small rooms in which people soon found themselves required to live, it eventually would come to replace historical painting. By the 1860’s and 1870’s this view widely held across the political spectrum, as responsible for the collapse of genre painting, was attributed to the public's insatiable appetite for paintings designed to furnish the modern dwelling.

            No doubt Meissonier who had achieved such wide success through this medium, heard the cries of the critics as well, and eventually became sensitive himself to their growing complaints.  His new and surprising enthusiasm for military pictures, allegorical and mythological themes and mural painting, points to a broad attempt on his part to counter the perception that he was simply a genre painter.  As much as the critics, Meissonier himself had come to downplay his genre paintings. In his personal autobiography, Meissonier claims that those works had only been undertaken as a means of necessity, and that he felt destined for greater things.  “No words can express my horror of going back to painting genre pictures for a livelihood.  Ah!  Would that I were independent enough only to do great pictures!”[15]  Meissonier’s thought on such criticism is interesting and was as such: “I know people who declare that they are indifferent to the judgment of others, that they are insensible to criticism. This is impossible.  The true artist cannot but feel the prick of the goad.  When a man has put all his soul and strength into a work, it must always hurt him to see it misunderstood by a flippant journalist.”[16]

            Meissonier claims that genre painting was never his true bent, and he was at last ready to prove it.  In fact, in his own mind at least, his new passion for larger more complex subjects actually satisfied a long standing aspiration.  He imagined himself to be returning to a mode of painting that predated or coexisted with his genre painting, a mode he had previously renounced.  With this controversy raging, beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful career, there lay a measure of doubt that hauntingly followed the artist from the beginning. “The smaller the scale of one’s picture, the more boldly the relief must be brought out.  The larger the scale, the more it must be softened and diminished.  This is an absolutely indispensable rule.  A life-sized figure treated like one of my small ones, would be unendurable.”[17]

             In 1874 at the age of sixty the Pantheon offered Meissonier a site whose significance was beyond question.  It was here that Meissonier could have realized his dream to become the leader of the French school, large-scale mural painting signaled an attempt on his part to liberate himself from the production cycle of the Salon and to restore, in its place, a higher practice linked to that of the old masters.  The appeal of mural painting responded to the widespread conviction that the commercial aspects of easel painting had overtaken the Salon and jeopardized the coherence and standing of the French school.  But for Meissonier, the stakes were much higher.  Holding onto the belief that he had exploited easel painting only for popular success and personal gain, Meissonier resolved to align himself with the tradition of the old masters in the most exalted fashion imaginable.  “A Master is an artist whose works never recall those of some other artist.”[18]

            Yet Meissonier’s attempted conversion to grande peinture does not end here.  If we are to examine the full scope of his career and of its importance in the evolution of the French school, we should ask not just why Meissonier chose to transform himself into a history painter, but why had Meissonier drifted to genre painting in the first place?  There is also a significant difference between Meissonier’s mural commission and those of contemporary genre painters before him.  The difference is thus, Meissonier having actively sought and received a mural commission in 1874, failed to execute it.  By the time of his death nearly twenty years later he had barely begun work on the project.  Instead, Meissonier continued to execute genre paintings to the end of his life, despite his apparent distaste for them and even as he sought, in his Pantheon commission and elsewhere, to elevate his meager standing.

            Meissonier’s other late projects fared no better.  In the case of the battle cycle, he seemed unable or unwilling to break with the pictorial conventions that had guided him in the past.  For example, his military paintings remained scarcely larger than the genre paintings they were intended to surpass.  What is more, Meissonier left his cycle unfinished.  Painting only two out of the five projected paintings and once more even these executed over an extended period. And only a few traces survive of the allegorical and mythological projects that so preoccupied him in his last years.  Given Meissonier’s obvious failure to transform his practice, one must inquire still further not only why he painted genre paintings, nor why he rejected them, but also why that rejection was so ambiguous.  “An artist should keep to his own studio. There he reigns supreme.   Why should he go out into society, where, if he chances to be a celebrity, entertainers who care nought for his personality, boast of his presence, and serve him up, as it were, to there guests!”[19]

             But mural painting‘s limited by more than economic, institutional, and technical
constraints. The canon of nineteenth-century French painting that extends from David to Manet and the Impressionists cannot meaningfully be described as compromising mural paintings.  On the contrary, that tradition was one of easel painting, and was it was not until Post-Impressionism that a much altered version of the mural aesthetic presented itself as a truly fertile locus of artistic practice.  The conclusion we might draw is that easel painting worked: regardless of the complaints, Meissonier and his colleagues remained powerfully, if ambivalently, tied to that format, and specifically to the opportunities for accomplishment that format apparently nurtured and protected. Just what Meissonier found in easel painting is unknown?  As for mural painting, suffice it to say that it remained little more than an imaginary possibility.  For Meissonier as for so many Salon painters, that possibility did not so much control his daily practice as define his unfulfilled horizon. 


Benedite, Leonce.  Les Grands Artistes:  MeissonierParis:  Librairie Renouard, ND.

Greard, Octave V.  Gian-Luigi-Ernesto Meissonier:  Ricordie Colloqui.  Milano:  Tipografia Del Corriere Della Sera, 1898.

-------- Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II)London: William Heinemann, 1897.

Gotlieb, Marc J.  The Plight of Emulation:  Ernest Meissonier and French Salon PaintingNew JerseyPrinceton University Press, 1996.

Guilloux, Phillipe.  Meissonier:  Trois Siecles d’HistoireParis:  Copernic, 1980.

Reff, Thedore.  Modern Art in Paris:  Retrospective Exhibitions of Ernest MeissonierNew York:  Garland Publishing Co., 1981. 

Meissonier, Jean Louis Ernest.  Catalougue des Tableaux, Etudies Peintes, Arquelles et Dessins Composant L’atelier MeissonierParis:  E. Menard, 1893.

Meissonier, Jean Louis Ernest.  Ernest Meissonier:  RetrospectiveLyon:  Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, 1993.

 [1]  Greard, Octave V.  Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II).  (London:  William Heinemann, 1897), 181.

2  Ibid, 181.  

3  Gotlieb, Marc J.  The Plight of Emulation:  Ernest Meissonier and French Salon Painting.  (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 5.

[4]  Ibid, 5.

[5]  Gotlieb, 5.

6  Gotlieb, 2.

7  Gotlieb, 2.

[8]  Greard, Octave V.  Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II).  (London:  William Heinemann, 1897), 243.

[9]  Ibid, 235.

[10] Gotlieb, Marc J.  The Plight of Emulation:  Ernest Meissonier and French Salon Painting.  (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 9.

[11]  Ibid, 9.

[12]  Greard, Octave V.  Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II).  (London:  William Heinemann, 1897), 221-222.

[13]  Gotlieb, Marc J.  The Plight of Emulation:  Ernest Meissonier and French Salon Painting.  (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1996), 13.

[14]  Ibid, 14.

[15] Gotlieb, 17.

[16]  Greard, Octave  V.  Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II).  (London:  William Heinemann, 1897), 184.

[17]  Ibid, 264.

[18]  Greard, Octave V.  Meissonier: The Artist’s Wisdom (Vol. II).  (London:  William Heinemann, 1897), 198. 

[19]  Ibid, 236.