The Studios of Paris

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nineteenth century Paris was home to thousands of artists, all struggling to make a living and acquire a reputation. This book re-creates the Parisian artistic world as it then was, not as later art history has made it. It is not a history only of the famous, for many artists whose names are familiar today were not well-known in their own day, and vice versa. The most striking example is Ernest Meissonier, whose works sold for more than 800,000 francs--the highest prices of the day--while an obscure artist called Vincent van Gogh could command a mere fifty francs.

John Milner examines the social and economic factors which were crucial to the artist’s survival. The artist needed to be shrewd, adaptable, and businesslike as well as talented. He needed to cultivate middlemen: Dealers and critics could make or break him. If his art did not conform to the standards laid down by the Paris Salon and the Institut, his path would become even more difficult.

Milner covers a variety of other topics: day-to-day life in the Ecole de Beaux-Arts (from which Auguste Rodin was rejected three times); the growth of lithography and poster art; the Great Exhibitions of 1889 and 1900, which provided unprecedented employment and opportunities for artists; and the status of sculpture (it is notable that the Statue of Liberty was constructed in Paris during this period).

The second part of the book is devoted to descriptions of the artists’ studios, from the cheapest to the most splendid. Whole streets were dominated by them, and Milner goes street by street, area by area, evoking the atmosphere of places such as Montmartre and the Left Bank. It is like being taken on a guided tour, and one can well understand how the city exerted such a magnetic pull on so many of the finest artists of the day.