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The Judgment of Paris by Ross King

Impressionists vs. the Academie

Historian and critic Ross King first tacked the Renaissance with Brunelleschi's Dome in 2001 and then again with Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling in 2003. These books, both of which ended up on the New York Times bestseller list, were character-driven accounts of momentous artistic works and periods. King once again delves into art history in his newest book, The Judgment of Paris, but instead of sticking with the Renaissance he strays a few hundred years and a few thousand miles to 19th-century France and has a look at the budding of French Impressionism.

King may have left Italy for France, but vestiges of the Renaissance remain. In the years his narrative covers -- the long decade from 1863 to 1874 -- the predominant style in France directed painters to emulate the great Renaissance masters. This directive came from the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the "prestigious institution charged with shaping the destiny of French art," which informed budding artists that "the depiction of grand historical scenes . . . and the teaching of moral lessons was . . . the whole point of a work of art." So enthralled was the Academie with the grandiose, edifying scenes painted during the Renaissance, that each year it provided a promising student with a trip to Rome so that he could view these works firsthand.

Enter Ernest Meissonier, in 1863 the most successful and famous painter of his era. At the beginning of King's story, Meissonier, who easily fetches far more per painting than any of his peers, has his eye on a permanent place in the Pantheon of French art. Although his paintings are endlessly praised by critics and collectors alike, they tend to depict trivial scenes and are laughably small when compared to the immense canvasses of his contemporaries (earning Meissonier the nickname "the painter of Lilliput"). In order to remedy this, he has embarked on a series of paintings of the great military campaigns of Napoleon, who is still revered in France with intense fervor.

At the opposite end of this spectrum sits Edouard Manet. Nearly disowned by his father for pursuing the distasteful career of artist, destitute but for an allowance from his mother, having not a single sale to his credit and mostly revulsion from the critics (when they even bother to pay attention to him), Manet toils at the forefront of a new school of artists that seems to break every rule the Academie holds dear. Instead of painting grand historical scenes in the tradition of the Renaissance, they paint pedestrian scenes from everyday France. Even worse, their indistinct, broad brushstrokes make a mockery of realistic precision and leave viewers with only a vague impression of reality.

What brings together the worlds of Meissonier and Manet is the Salon, a sort of government run Cannes film festival of 19th-century art. Remarkably popular, the Parisian spectacle pulled in as many as a million spectators in its six week run, an average of over 23,000 per day. (Ross compares this to modern-day exhibitions that, despite a much larger population, average less than 7,000 visitors per day.) Although each painting submitted to the Salon was judged by a harsh, conservative jury, for Meissonier acceptance was a foregone conclusion, the Salon a means of unveiling a major new work. For Manet and his crew, rejection was the norm (Cezanne finally gave up after years of failure), and even the lucky ones that did make it were likely to be jeered at by the press.

In 1863, the Salon jury was so rough that Louis Napoleon (in a shrewd bit of politicking) decided to hold a Salon de Refuses for all rejected artists. Looking back, the Salon de Refuses signaled a major change in the world of French art, and The Judgment of Paris deals with what happened to Meissonier and Manet after that fateful year.

King has done an excellent job of digging through the historical record to vividly recreate his two lead characters, while also providing a wealth of details. Meissonier and Manet are joined by delightful supporting characters, such as Louis Napoleon and the artist Gustave Courbet, the latter of which enjoyed regularly appalling Parisian crowds with paintings of prostitutes and drunken priests. Without becoming tedious, King carefully situates each character into the larger story, rendering the world of 19th-century French art accessible. He also has an eye on the greater historical context, showing how the birth of Impressionism fit in among a larger series of upheavals in French society.

Although King's adept research keeps The Judgment of Paris interesting throughout, by the half-way point the narrative loses steam, becoming mainly a catalog of each yearly Salon. Page after page Ross faithfully reports on the canvasses Meissonier and Manet submit, but we begin to lose a sense of the other 11 months of each year. What did Manet (and the other Impressionists) do during the rest of the year? How did they slowly develop the critical interest that eventually led to successful shows in London and New York in the 1880s? What was it about their art that broke the rules of the French art world in a compelling, inspiring way? Answers to these questions, along with critical readings of the major Impressionist works discussed in the book would have made it far deeper and more compelling.

Still, if The Judgment of Paris tells us not how Manet became great, but what he endured through his years of failure and why he had to endure it, it is a story worth telling. King shows us how for decades Manet battled entrenched, government-subsidized power-brokers, a difficult press (that often makes today's critics look remarkably kind), and a narrow-minded public. It's an excellent bit of context for our times, a reminder that even in the face of unimaginable adversity, some artists do triumph.

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King
January 10, 2006
Walker & Company
Hardcover, $28.00
ISBN: 0802714668
464 pages