The Judgment of Paris

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

From the perspective of almost 150 years, the talented painters who successfully created important new directions in art in mid-nineteenth century Paris are valued not only for the prices that their works command at art sales and auctions but also for their historical position as the initiators of modern art. At the time that these artists, such as Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Claude Monet, among others, were painting, their works were often reviled and misunderstood. Most of the respectable art critics in the press, the artistic establishment represented by the École des Beaux-Arts, and the public at large, found these new paintings either horrifying or laughable. The Judgment of Paris examines in rich detail the critical decade between about 1863 and 1874 to see how these innovative artists, rebelling against the confining artistic conventions of their era, gained greater acceptance as vanguards of the new artistic directions of the future.

The author of this book, Ross King, uses two of the key participants in this artistic struggle to depict the changing fortunes and shifts in attitude about art in Paris in this crucial time during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier represents the older, traditional artistic values, while King uses the career of Edouard Manet to reveal in its sophistication and complexity the far-reaching rebellion against artistic convention and authority. At the time, the popular Meissonier, a meticulous painter of genre scenes, was especially famed for historical canvases depicting key triumphant moments in the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was not only a highly respected painter within the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts and the Paris Salon; he was also one of the wealthiest painters of the day, producing works that brought the most exorbitant prices in the art market.

Manet painted shocking works that challenged traditional art in subject matter and style of painting. He struggled to have his works accepted for the Paris Salon, an annual juried exhibition of French painting with medals awarded for excellence, and found no buyers for his art until very late in his career. Struggling to make his way in the competitive art world of that time, he managed financially only thanks to timely support from his mother’s coffers.

As a measure of the change in reputation of these two artists over the following 130 years, Manet’s paintings currently occupy honored places in the great museums and collections of the world. They are keystones of art historical studies of this period. When Manet’s paintings appear for auction, they command high prices from prestigious institutions and wealthy collectors. In contrast, Meissonier’s paintings languish in inconspicuous corners and storage vaults of museums. As a result, few people outside the ranks of art historians specializing in French nineteenth century painting have ever heard of him.

In his unfolding narrative of this crucial artistic decade, King follows these very different trajectories of artistic fame. His work traces in well-documented anecdotes the careers of Manet and Meissonier in tandem. While Meissonier was at the height of his fame, Manet was shocking the art world with his now famous paintings such as Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. That work depicted a picnic in the woods attended by two young men in contemporary dress finery alongside a provocatively posed woman in the nude. Another equally famous work, Olympia, provided another twist on the classical nude form of the reclining Venus, with Manet’s nude woman on a chaise looking more like a Parisian courtesan. Manet’s painting style and technique, with strong highlights, scant modeling, and broad planes of thickly applied color, also defied the carefully detailed, refined, and precisely layered painting technique favored by the École des Beaux-Arts.

While Manet was challenging reigning artistic taste and decorum from his studio in the midst of a bohemian quarter of Paris and mingling with fellow artistic and literary rebels in Parisian cafés, Meissonier was trying to secure his reputation as a great painter for the present and the future by painting historical battle scenes from the glories of the Napoleonic campaigns. Manet dashed off his paintings rather quickly, compared to the...

(The entire section is 1778 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 6 (November 15, 2005): 4.

The Boston Globe, February 5, 2006, p. E7.

Houston Chronicle, February 19, 2006, p. 16.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 24 (December 15, 2005): 1312.

Library Journal 131, no. 2 (February 1, 2006): 76.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 26, 2006, p. 4.

Maclean’s 119, no. 7 (February 13, 2006): 50.

The New York Times 155 (February 10, 2006): E42.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 26, 2006): 14.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 50 (December 19, 2005): 56.

The Washington Post Book World, March 12, 2006, p. BW08.