Judgment of Paris: the Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King


Audiobook. An engaging history of the beginnings of Impressionism with a good bit of the Second Empire thrown in. The richest, best known artist of the time, Ernest Meissonier, now almost forgotten, is a contrast to Edouard Manet, skoffed at and reviled during his time. The title of the book, besides referring to the contrasting judgments of the two artists, is the title of a design by Raphael, made into an engraving by Raimondi. It is of particular interest because of three figures in the lower right of the print, three seated nudes; Manet appropriated this grouping for his best known painting Dejeuner sur l'herbe. This "borrowing" is completely fair, because after all, Raphael had reversed Michelangelo's Adam of the Sistine Chapel to create one of the males.  What a fun book this is!

The connections among the artists and the literary figures are of interest. Baudelaire was a good friend of Manet's and Zola was his staunch supporter. Manet was initially quite irritated by the appearance of Monet on the scene (this upstart whose name was so like his own), but eventually they became good friends. The author tells the story of Courbet and his involvement in the Commune of 1871 and its violent end.

Meissonier became rich and famous by painting cavaliers and later the more ambitious battle scenes. He was extremely meticulous and spent large amounts of money recreating battle scenes so he could paint them accurately. And he was pretty slow — Friedland took him over 10 years to paint.

King notes that after their deaths, the judgments of these two painters was reversed. He does point out that one criticism of Meissonier, that his paintings were loved for their nostalgic views of ordinary subjects, might be leveled at the Impressionists today.

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