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Category archive: History

Monday October 23 2017

GodDaughter 2 has fixed for me and her to go to a dress rehearsal of Rodelinda, at the ENO, tomorrow evening, for free!

So, what is Rodelinda about?

Rodelinda is a dramatic tale of power, anguish and love. When Grimoaldo takes Bertarido’s throne, Bertarido flees abroad, leaving behind his grieving wife Rodelinda. The usurper tries to force Rodelinda to love him, but when the exiled king returns in disguise, everyone is put to the test.

One of Handel’s finest operas, Rodelinda is filled with intense drama told through ravishingly beautiful music. ...

Good, good.

But then, this:

Award-winning director Richard Jones brings his distinctive theatrical imagination to this production, which sets Handel’s bitter political drama in Fascist Italy.

Well, maybe it’ll be okay.  Not all such productions are ridiculous.  And when it comes to Handel operas, my impression is that they are mostly pretty ridiculous to start with, wherever you set them.  This particular opera is ...:

… based on the history of Perctarit, king of the Lombards in the 7th century.

Those Lombards are:

Not to be confused with the modern inhabitants of the region of Lombardy, Italy.

The Lombards were:

… a Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774.

Blog and learn.  Or in this case, blog and go to the opera, and learn.

My worry is that although Rodelinda will be sung “in English”, it will be sung in standard operatic fashion, i.e. the words might as well be in Swahili for all the sense they will make.  But, because all this indecypherable gibberish will be “in English”, there will be no big signs, foreign movie style, to tell me what the hell they are singing about, like there are at the Royal Opera House, where they sing operas mostly in such languages as Italian or German, or they do if you’re lucky.

In short, my fear is that I will get what I pay for, although here’s hoping I get more.

GD2 will definitely get more, because she is studying to do this kind of thing for a living.  Insofar as it’s good she’ll learn about how to do it.  If it’s not good she’ll learn about how not to do it.  Win win.

Wednesday October 18 2017

A recent posting here referred to the photographer Nadar.  He was a fascinating character, that being a studio portrait of Nadar on the right there, the portrait which also appears in King’s book.  And the most fascinating thing that Ross King recounts about Nadar (in this book) is this (pp.109-111):

image

Besides being a photographer, Nadar was also, even more wondrously, an aeronaut. In 1863 he founded the Société générale d’Aérostation et d’Autolocomotion Aérienne, started up a newspaper called L’Aeronaute, and constructed the world’s largest hot-air balloon. The aeronautical possibilities of hydrogen balloons had captured the public imagination. A few months earlier, an unknown thirty-five-year-old named Jules Verne, a former law student, had published his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in which he imagined the voyage across Africa of three Englishmen in a giant hot-air balloon named the Victoria. The fictional Victoria had been inflated with 90,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, but Nadar’s real-life balloon managed to outstrip even Verne’s exuberant imagination. Christened Le Géant, it was borne aloft by 200,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, stood 180 feet tall, and used almost twelve miles of silk that two hundred women had required an entire month to sew together. Included in the wicker-work gondola, which was the size of a small cottage, were a photographic laboratory, a refreshment room, a lavatory and, for the amusement of the passengers, a billiard table.

A photographic laboratory!  Incredible.

On October 4, a Sunday, more than 500,000 people - almost a third of the entire population of Paris - crowded onto the Champ-de-Mars and surrounding streets, and even onto nearby housetops, to witness the maiden voyage of this magnificent vessel. A military band played for two hours as the gondola was towed into place by four white horses and the balloon, which one journalist claimed looked like “an immense unripe orange,” was inflated with gas. Twelve passengers besides Nadar then climbed aboard, including the art critic Paul de Saint-Victor. “Lachez tout!” shouted “Captain” Nadar at five o’clock in the afternoon, and the gigantic balloon rose skywards, sailing north-east across a silent and awestruck Paris, passing over the Invalides and the Louvre before finally disappearing from view. But unlike the Victoria, which sailed all the way across Africa, Le Géant stayed airborne for only a couple of hours before a technical malfunction in a valve line forced Nadar to make a premature descent into a marsh near Meaux, some twenty-five miles away. By the time he and his dozen passengers were rescued, the enterprising aeronaut was already making plans for a second voyage.

In other words, the connection between photography and innovative flying contraptions goes right back to the origins of both.

Later, aircraft of a more modern sort took to the skies during WW1, but not, at first, to shoot at each other with guns.  They did this in order to shoot at the ground with cameras.  Only a bit later did other airplanes try to shoot down these photo-reconnaissance airplanes.  (After all, the shooting with guns by airplanes at other airplanes had to be about something, other than the mere shooting down of airplanes, or it would never have got started.  Later, of course, the shooting was also about airplanes dropping bombs.)

And right now, we are living through the bit of the drone-photography era when a civilian - in this case: blog buddy-of-mine 6k - can do it, with a quite small and quite cheap drone, at least compared to the drones that warriors have been using, for rather longer.  See also this 6k blog posting, about another drone photographer.

Monday October 16 2017

One of the reasons I was so keen to read Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris (see this recent posting for details of this book and of earlier postings based on it) was that I hoped to learn more about the various ways in which photography and painting influenced and impacted upon each other.  There are occasional references in this book to photography, but I was hoping for several pages which summarised this big picture, so to speak.  These pages never came.  But, there were some entertaining references to the earlier stages of this very complicated story.

One of the paintings that figures prominently in King’s narrative is this one, Manet’s Olympia, which features one of Manet’s favourite models, Victorine Meurent:

image

I found that version of this painting, along with more stuff about it, here.

Concerning the process by which this painting was created, King says (pp. 105-106):

Manet may also have made other images of Victorine.  Painters had been supplementing their drawings with photographs ever since Louis Daguerre, twenty-five years earlier, had created the first workable camera.  A writer in an 1856 issue of La Lumière, a journal dedicated to photography, noted the “intimate association of photography with art.” By the 1860s more than three hundred professional photographers were working in Paris, and a great many of their clients were painters for whom they did nude studies. Indeed, as many as forty per cent of all photographs registered at the Dépôt Légal were asserted to be académies done for painters - photographs of nude (usually female) models posing on chaises longues amid paraphernalia such as lyres, shields, plumed helmets, and antique vases and busts.

Even the most renowned painters of the day availed themselves of this new technology. In the 1850s Delacroix had collaborated with the photographer Eugène Durieu, who took pictures of nude models that Delacroix proceeded to turn into his paintings of odalisques. Other painters, such as Gérôme, had female models shot for them by Nadar, the most renowned photographer of the day. Born Caspard-Félix Tournachon, Nadar was a printer and caricaturist (his pseudonym came from the expression tourne à dard, meaning “bitter sting") who had also published a novel and spent time in a debtors’ prison. At the age of thirty-three, in 1853, he had turned his considerable energies to photography, taking portraits of many artists and writers and then, in 1861, a series of eerie-looking pictures of Paris’s new sewer system and water mains. An intimate of Baudelaire, by the early 1860s he was also friends with Manet, whom he photographed on several occasions. No photographs of Victorine, by Nadar or anyone else, have come to light, but she may well have appeared before his camera, either in Manet’s studio or in Nadar’s own workshop in the Boulevard des Capucines.

But King says that the impact of photography went deeper than merely aiding the creative process.  It also influenced it in others ways.  Olympia was a succèss de scandale, and one of the many complaints made about it was the seemingly crude and brash way in which it was painted.

Concerning that, King agrees (pp. 108-109) that Manet did indeed paint …:

… Victorine’s face, torso and limbs with none of the sculptural three-dimensionality and careful modulations of colour to which Salon-goers were accustomed. Instead, using sharp contrasts of colour, he created her body through a series of flat planes, producing a two-dimensional image that almost served to make the canvas seem a parody of Titian’s curvilinear Venus of Urbino.

Personally, I don’t really see this.  But I am sure that those who have seen more paintings of the sort that King is contrasting Olympia with will know what he means.

King continues:

Part of Manet’s inspiration for this technique probably came from photography. Painters had almost always required a muted light in which to work. The ideal studio was lit by a large north-facing window that diffused the sunlight and allowed the painter to see-and to capture in pigment-the softest and subtlest tones. Photographers, however, worked under quite different conditions. Anyone hoping to produce a photograph in the middle of the nineteenth century needed bright illumination since the first chemical emulsions were stubbornly insensitive to light. In the days before the invention of flash powder (a mixture of potassium chloride and powdered magnesium first successfully employed in the 1880s), photographers were forced to turn on their sitters various forms of artificial light. Most of their pyrotechnic devices, such as “limelight,” a sheet of lime heated with a hydrogen-oxygen torch, had provided a harsh, brilliant illumination that resulted in photographs with pronounced tonal contrasts. Photographs therefore displayed far fewer varieties of tone than was found on canvasses. If Victorine had indeed been photographed by Nadar (who sometimes used battery powered arc lamps to cast light on his subjects), the result would not have been dissimilar to the stark image Manet produced on his canvas, whose lack of detail, moreover, resembled the hazy images produced by photographers as a result of the long exposures required by paper-negative prints.

A pattern that repeats itself throughout the history of new methods of information storage and communication is that when a new technique is introduced it has immediate short-term impacts that are often very different from – sometimes even opposite from - the impacts it creates later, as the new technology develops and spreads.

When commentators now use the word “photographic” to describe a painting, they mean that it is more detailed and realistic than paintings usually are these days, the camera having cornered most of the market for pictorial detail.  Yet here is King explaining the rather slap-dash and crude – as contemporaries saw it at the time – beginnings of Impressionism as having been at least partly influenced by the very early versions of photography.

But, as to what influence photography had on painting once the best sort of photography got to be more “photographic”, well, if King writes about that at any length, I missed it.

I am hoping for a more thorough and wide-ranging discussion of this matter when I get around to reading this book, which I already possess and am much looking forward to, even if it is going to be rather big to be lugging around London.

Sunday October 15 2017

For me, it’s the most expensive penny I ever spend.  I’m referring to the toilet in Gramex, the services of which I often avail myself, in between hunting for keenly priced second-hand or ex-review-copy classical CDs.

This shop has kept moving over the years and is now seeking yet another new location, because its current location is about to be turned into a hotel.  But for now, until the 17th of this month, when you pee there, you beyold, in a very bedraggled state, a reproduction of a famous photograph, of New York’s Grand Central Terminal:

image

There seem to be several versions of this photo, because more than one photoer noticed this remarkable phenomenon.  The phenomenon being how the presence of smoke or steam in the atmosphere turns any light that journeys through the smoke or the steam into a solid block of light.

This being well known to showbiz of course.  Here is a recent 6k photo, of a pop combo in action, being lit with smoke and searchlights.

The nearest I have ever got to anything like this myself is a set of photos I took one rather misty day in September 2015, when I was officially checking out the first of London Gateway’s cranes.  I have already shown this photo here, but here it is again because I like it so much:

image

Here is another photo that I took moments earlier, which I have not shown here before:

image

What I especially like about that one is that is shows how solidified light of this sort blocks out what is behind it.  You can’t see past such light.  But when there is no light crashing through and lighting up the mist, you can see through the mist.  Look how, when there isn’t lit up mist, you can see, past all the closer-up drama, another world of clouds, in the darker distance.

The above photo reminds me of another favourite photo of mine, this time where my reflection in a shop window, dark because back lit, makes it possible to see through the shop window into the shop, which otherwise you can’t because of brightly lit reflections from behind me.  In this case it is those bright reflections that are the solid light:

image

That was photoed in the south of France, in Ceret, a town famous for its light and much loved by artists, in particular by Picasso.

I love that what we actually see through the shop window is someone else taking a photo.

Photography is light.

Wednesday October 11 2017

So far, I have featured here three excerpts from from Ross King’s book about nineteenth century Frency art, The Judgement of Paris, about Ernest Meissonier, the Paris Salon, and Louis Napoleon.  In this excerpt (pp. 31-35), Ross King describes French government Art supremo, the Compte de Nieuwerkerke, who was in charge of the Paris Salon, among many other enterprises.  I found the picture, by Ingres, of Niewerkerke, the picture that King also places in his text, here.

King describes how the artists who were on the receiving end of Nieuwekerke’s policies reacted.  Rather surprisingly, one of them was Meissonier.  They were not happy:

Under the ancien régime, the fine arts had been the business of cardinals and kings. Since the French Revolution, the politicians had taken charge. Under Napoleon Ill, a special section of the Ministry of State known as the Ministry of the Imperial House and the Fine Arts had been given jurisdiction over artistic matters. The tasks of training young artists, organising exhibitions, commissioning works for churches and other public buildings-all became the responsibility of this Ministry, which was headquartered in the Louvre. Not the least among its duties was the administration of the Salon. To that end, each Salon year, usually in January, the Ministry published what was known as the règlement, an official set of rules and regulations stipulating the conditions under which artists submitted their works to the Salon’s jury, the composition of which was detailed in the document. The artists were informed, for example, by what date they needed to send their paintings or sculptures to the Palais des Champs-Élysées for judging, how many works they could enter into the competition, and how the Selection Committee - composed of separate juries for the different visual arts - would be formed.

The author of this important document, for the previous fourteen years, had been a suave but ruthless aristocrat named Alfred-Émilien O’Hara, the Compte de Nieuwerkerke. Occupying majestic apartments in the Louvre, where he entertained lavishly amid his collection of antique armour and Italian art, Nieuwerkerke cut an impressive dash through both the Parisian art world andthe Imperial court. Despite his Irish surname, he was a Continental blueblood who could claim descent from both the House of Orange in Holland and the House of Bourbon in France. Born in Paris in 1811, the young Émilien had begun his career in the military, training as an officer at the cavalry school in Saumur; but a six-month visit to Italy in 1834 convinced him to try his hand at sculpture. He began studying under Carlo Marochetti - an Italian who had worked on the Arc de Triomphe - and regularly exhibiting at the Salon, to no particular acclaim, works such as his bronze sculptures of Réné Descartes and Napoleon I. An urbane séducteur with a thick mane of hair, a well-groomed beard and, according to one admirer, eyes of “silky blue,” Nieuwerkerke really made his reputation when he took as his mistress Princess Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon Bonaparte and the cousin of the Emperor Napoleon III.

imageFollowing vigorous promotion by Princess Mathilde, who was the daughter of one of Napoleon’s younger brothers, Nieuwerkerke had been appointed Directeur-Général des Musées in 1849. In this capacity he was given charge of a number of museums, including the Louvre and the Luxembourg, the latter of which had been founded in 1818 in order to exhibit works by living artists. Most important from the point of view of painters and sculptors, Nieuwerkerke oversaw the Salon. He had therefore become by far the most powerful figure in the French art world.

Nieuwerkerke concerned himself, naturally enough, with upholding what he regarded as the highest artistic and moral standards. He wanted both to encourage history painting and to discourage Realism, the new movement, led by Courbet, whose followers had abandoned noble and elevated subjects in order to depict gritty scenes featuring peasants and prostitutes. “This is the painting of democrats,” sniffed the debonair Nieuwerkerke, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” In order to achieve his lofty aims for French art, he had already forced through a number of reforms, such as taking the decision in 1855 that the Salon should instead be held only biennially in order to give artists more time to complete and display paintings of the highest merit. Then in 1857 he decreed that the painting jury should no longer be made up, as previously, by painters elected by their peers. Instead, the only men eligible to serve would be members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the self-perpetuating élite of forty “immortals” whose duty it was to guide and protect French art. With these wise and venerable men acting as gatekeepers, Nieuwerkerke believed, only works of the most compelling aesthetic and moral standards would be permitted into the artistic sanctum sanctorum that was the Paris Salon.

Then in 1863 Nieuwerkerke introduced yet another reform. Whereas previously artists had been allowed to submit an unlimited number of works to the jury, the latest regulations stated that they could submit no more than three. Nieuwerkerke’s reasoning was that artists had been sending as many as eight or ten rather inferior works, in the hope of having at least one or two accepted, instead of concentrating their efforts on a true masterpiece - a large and heroic history painting, for instance - that would take its honoured place in the pantheon of French art.

Nieuwerkerke’s previous reforms had not been popular with large numbers of artists. The fact that the Salon was held only every two years meant that an artist whose offerings were rejected from one particular Salon would face, in effect, a four-year exile from the Palais des Champs-Élysées. Furthermore, many artists were displeased by the complete domination of the juries by members of the Académie, most of whom had made their reputations in the dim and distant past, usually with grand history paintings. The majority of them were only too happy to enforce Nieuwerkerke’s ideals and exclude from show “the painting of democrats.” Indeed, these judges had rejected so many artists from the 1859 Salon - Édouard Manet among them - that Nieuwerkerke’s soirées in his Louvre apartments were interrupted by mobs of painters chanting protests beneath his windows.

Not surprisingly, a large group of artists also objected to Nieuwerkerke’s change to the rules for the 1863 Salon. Ten days after the publication of the regulations, on January 25, a letter with a signed petition was sent to the Minister of State, the Comte de Walewski, who was Nieuwerkerke’s superior as well as an illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte. The letter complained that the new proviso was prejudicial to the fortunes of French artists. It argued that the Salon was intended to operate as a kind of shop window for collectors, and so exhibition in the Palais des Champs-Élysées was absolutely vital to the economic well-being of artists. Nieuwerkerke’s new regulations left them, however, with an even poorer chance of having their wares displayed. “A measure that would result in making it impossible for us to present to the public the fruit of our work,” the petition read, “would go, it seems to us, precisely against the spirit that presided over the creation of the Salon.”

This letter concluded with a hope that the Comte de Walewski would “do the right thing with a complaint which is, for us, of such a high interest.” Six sheets of paper adorned with 182 signatures were attached. Many of the most prominent and successful artists in France had added their names, including both Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, bitter professional rivals who usually disagreed on everything. Also signing the petition were a pair of accomplished landscape painters, Camille Corot and Eugene Isabey, the latter of whom had once been court painter to King Louis-Philippe. However, the signature boldly leading the charge, the one scrawled with a thick-nibbed pen at the top of the first page, was that of Ernest Meissonier.

Meissonier and Nieuwerkerke knew one another well. Meissonier had attended the soirées hosted by Princess Mathilde on Sunday evenings at her mansion in the Rue de Courcelles, and he and Nieuwerkerke shared a number of friends, such as Theophile Gautier. In r855, moreover, Nieuwerkerke had been Vice-President of the International Awards Jury when it presented Meissonier with the Grand Medal of Honour at the Universal Exposition in Paris. For these and other reasons, Nieuwerkerke might have expected Meissonier, of all people, to support his latest reform. After all, Meissonier was guaranteed a place at every Salon since he was classified as hors concours ("outside the competition"). This distinction, given only to those who had received three major awards at previous Salons, meant he was not required to submit his work to the jury for inspection. Nor was he guilty of the practice that Nieuwerkerke wished to snuff out - that of dashing off half-finished paintings and hoping that one or two of them might slip past the jury. Meissonier sought, indeed, the same high standards of morality and aesthetic purity as Nieuwerkerke: he regarded mediocre artists, he once said, as “national scourges.”

At issue for all of the petitioners, however, was the right of artists to exhibit their works to the public. And Meissonier ardently believed in this right - or, at any rate, he believed in his right to exhibit his own work in the Palais des Champs-Élysées in whatever quantities he desired. He had shown five paintings in 1861, while the Salons of 1855 and 1857 had each featured nine of his works. Under Nieuwerkerke’s new règlement. he would be allowed to show only three of his works every two years. For an artist possessing Meissonier’s large and enthusiastic following, this new regulation would make for a disappointingly slender offering to his public. He therefore dedicated the full weight and authority of his name to overturning Nieuwerkerke’s new rule. Given the prominent position of his signature, he may well have assisted with the argument and wording of the letter itself.

Whatever his involvement in the composition of the appeal to the Comte de Walewski, Meissonier soon took a much more drastic step than simply signing the petition. He let it be known that should Nieuwerkerke’s new reform not be struck down, he would personally lead a boycott of the 1863 Salon.

Friday October 06 2017

Gerald Elias, in this piece linked to from Arts & Letters Daily, demolishes the claim that the use of vibrato by classical string players is only a recent thing.

The evidence against this idea is so overwhelming that the question is, why do anti-vibrato fanatics like Sir Roger Norrington get the time of day from orchestras?  Probably because, just as Leopold (father of Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart apparently grumbled back in his time, string players now tend to use vibrato rather too much.  (As do opera singers now, in my opinion).  So, hearing some symphonic warhorse without any vibrato at all can yield otherwise unhearable felicities, however absurdly inauthentic such a performance as a whole clearly is.

But enough of vibrato.  Elias is right, and although he chooses not to name any of these fools, the likes of Norrington are wrong, and that’s that.  At which point in his piece Elias says something else that strikes me as far more interesting, if only because, unlike all the stuff about vibrato, the thought had never occurred to me before:

Sorry to go on ad nauseum about vibrato. Time to move on to a different thought. How many of you have traveled through a hilly country like England or Italy? Have you noticed the change in people’s spoken accent when you wend your way from one village to another? Hell, you go from Brooklyn to the Bronx and it’s like another language. Now, go back two or three hundred years, when the sole possible means of verbal communication was person-to-person and most people rarely left the confines of their natal valley. Just imagine how much that linguistic phenomenon would be magnified! Don’t forget, it wasn’t until Italy’s unification in 1870 that they started thinking about a national language.

My point is, do you really think that there was only one way to play music in that day and age? Do you really think no one (or everyone) played with vibrato? My guess is that the variety of techniques and interpretations was much more vibrant, colorful, and creative than it is now, when easy international travel and instantaneous mass media give us a thoroughly homogenized concept of what well-played music is “supposed” to sound like. So much for the orthodoxy of the Historically (Mis)Informed.

Good point.  You often hear critics complaining about how orchestras now all sound the same.  Well, why would we believe that this process of performance style convergence is only a very recent one?  (Any more than we would believe that vibrato is only recent?)

Tuesday October 03 2017

To quote my own earlier words about David Hockney:

What I particularly like about him is that he doesn’t indulge in the usual artistic sport of epater-ing the bourgeoisie.  He is content to be bourgeoisie.

And as if to prove me right, in the same book I was referring to, I later encounter (pp. 105-106) this amazingly honest Hockney outburst:

The best form of living I’ve ever seen in Monet’s – a modest house at Giverny, but very good kitchen, two cooks, gardeners, a marvellous studio.  What a life!  All he did was look at his lily pond and his garden.  That’s fantastic.  He was there for forty-three years. ...

Two cooks!  Gardeners!  How rare it is to encounter such full-throated pleasure being taken in the idea of having servants to look after you!

You can feel the people who try to decide these things going off Hockney, and I’m guessing that this has been going on for some time.  I’m not saying that Adrian Searle, for instance, doesn’t mean the things he says in this Guardian piece about Hockney’s pictures over the years.  And I actually rather share some of Searle’s preferences as to which Hockney pictures are nice and which are not so nice.  Searle says they’ve got worse, basically.

However, I suspect that Hockney’s real crime is that he started out looking like a radical homosexualist, but then when homosexuality settled back into being just part of the scenery of modern affluent, successful, happy life, Hockney was revealed as being not angry about modern, affluent, successful, happy life.  He just wanted that sort of life for himself, and for many decades now, he has had it.  He would have been angry only if denied such a life by anti-homosexualists.  But he wasn’t.  As soon as the world started happily tolerating Hockney’s not-so-private life and made his picture-making life affluent and successful, Hockney was content happily to tolerate the world and to revel in its visual pleasures, natural and electronic.  The Grand Canyon!  iPhones!  Bridlington!

Capitalism?  Commerce?  Hockney’s not angry about it.  He’s part of it. He produces it, he consumes it, he applies it to his work, he knows this, and he loves it.  And he has long surrounded himself with a small and happy team of assistants and cooks and bottle-washers of all the sorts that he needs, to enable him, Monet-style, to concentrate on his picture-making.  Hockney is the living embodiment of the glories of the division of labour.  Aka: social inequality.

I surmise that this is what really makes Searle’s readers (i.e. Guardian readers) angry about Hockney, not the claim that his pictures have got worse.  They’re angry about modern life, and they’re angry that David Hockney isn’t angry about modern life.

And I suspect that Hockney is, in the eyes of Those Who Try To Decide These Things, helping to take the Impressionists down with him.

Monday October 02 2017

This blog having been in business for well over a decade, an obvious blog post genre is ten-years-ago-today.  This one’s actually more like ten-years-ago-plus-about-a-fortnight, but who, apart from me, is counting?:

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What I think this clutch of photos captures rather well is the sheer fun that digital photography unleashed, around that time.  I was a photoer-having-fun and so were all the other photoers.

Digital photography wasn’t completely new at that moment.  It had already been around for several years.  But what my photo-archives tell me is that this is about when it started getting seriously good.  This was when the rubbish-to-okay success rate (simply from the point of view of things like blurriness) of the average mostly-automatic-setting photoer like me, or of the photoer in the above photos, started climbing from something like ten percent to more like fifty percent.  We weren’t yet at the fifty percent and still climbing rate.  Or, we only were if the light was very strong and there was no moving.  (That came around five years later.) But these kids frollicking about outside Westminster Abbey were keeping still for their camera and therefore also for mine, and as you can see, there was plenty of bright sunlight sloshing about that day.  So their pictures were probably okay, just as mine of them were.

Also, ten years ago was well before the face recognition problem kicked in.  Then, I had no problem about posting recognisable photos of people.  I also have no problem with the recognisable faces above, because these kids were making a rather undignified spectacle of themselves outside a major place of worship.  Which is fine.  God loves fun, or why would He have created so much of it?  But: the above recognisable faces, all those years ago, are fair game for my blog, I say.

Sunday October 01 2017

When reading a book about the rise of a particular style of painting, you don’t expect lessons in political history, but while reading The Judgement of Paris, I learned much about nineteenth century France and its political dramas, of which I had formely known extremely little.  The to-ings and fro-ings of artistic style and taste in nineteenth century France were, France being France, a very political matter.  You can’t properly understand the paintings without understanding the politicians who, for their various political reasons, were trying to encourage or to discourage them, and who either inspired artists or failed to inspire them.

Hence passages in this book like this one (pp.62-65), which describes the rise to supreme power in France of Napoleon III.

imageCharles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had been born in Paris on April 20, 1808, in a mansion in the Rue Cerutti (now the Rue Laffitte). His was a dizzying genealogy. His mother was Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of the Empress Josephine and the stepdaughter of Napoleon. His father, at least on paper, was Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and the King of Holland from 1806 until his abdication in 1810. However, the marriage between Louis and Hortense was so unhappy ("Never was there so gloomy a ceremony,” wrote Louis of his own wedding) that the child’s true paternity was the object of much speculation. Candidates ranged from an admiral in charge of the Dutch navy, to various equerries and chamberlains, and even to Napoleon himself, who was rumoured to have nourished a soft spot for his stepdaughter.

The child, known as Louis-Napoleon, was so feeble at birth that he was bathed in wine and then wrapped in cotton wool. For several years thereafter, disappointed at having given birth to a boy, Hortense dressed him as a girl, an inauspicious start in life for someone whose horoscope proclaimed that he would wear the imperial crown of France. Still, greatness was impressed upon the child from an early age. An imperial decree gave him, at the age of two, the title of “Prince Louis-Napoleon,” and he received regular visits from his uncle the Emperor. One of his most vivid early memories, indeed, was of Napoleon picking him up by his head.

After Waterloo, the young prince, then aged seven, was exiled with his mother to a castle in Switzerland, where they were put under the surveillance of the British, French, Austrian, Russian and Prussian ambassadors. This exile was to last for many years, during which time the sickly child became a vigorous young man who fought by the side of Italian revolutionaries in Rome and conducted multiple love affairs in Switzerland. In London, working in the British Museum, he penned a political treatise, Ideas of Napoleonism, which he published in 1839. These musings were no idle occupation, for in 1832 the possibility of the young prince fulfilling the prediction of his horoscope and seizing the French throne had unexpectedly presented itself. Napoleon’s only legitimate son, the Duc de Reichstadt - the so-called Napoleon II - died of tuberculosis in Vienna, leaving Louis-Napoleon as the dynastic heir. He duly set about making plans to oust King Louis-Philippe, but an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1836 ended with his arrest, imprisonment and then another exile as he was sent to America aboard a French warship. In New York City he proved a great social success, meeting Washington Irving and impressing the locals with his wax-tipped moustache, a sight virtually unknown in America.

Four years later, in August 1840, Louis-Napoleon made a second attempt to reclaim what he regarded as his birthright. By this time he was living in London, in a mansion in Carlton Gardens staffed by seventeen fervent Bonapartists. In a daring bit of bluff, he and his band of fifty-six conspirators - his domestic servants among them - donned military uniforms, chartered a Thames pleasure boat named the Edinburgh Castle, and made for the French coast. On board were nine horses, two carriages, several crates of wine, and a tame vulture bought at Gravesend to improvise as an eagle, the totem of the Bonaparte family. This ragtag expeditionary force landed at Boulogne-sur-Mer but beat a hasty retreat when the presence on French soil of the Bonaparte heir failed to incite a popular uprising against the King. When the landing craft capsized in the Channel, the invasion ended with Louis-Napoleon clinging to a buoy and awaiting his rescue, which came in the form of the French National Guard. Fished from the waves, he was arrested and then sentenced to life imprisonment in the fortress at Ham, a medieval chateau in northern France. There he spent the next six years. His confinement does not seem to have been onerous, since he found opportunities to author a treatise on sugar beets, hatch a scheme to dig a canal across Nicaragua, and carry on a liaison with a ginger-haired laundress named Alexandrine Vergeot, who ironed the uniforms of the prison’s officers and lived in the gatekeeper’s house. He gave her lessons in grammar and spelling; she returned the favour with two children, both of whom: confusingly, were named Alexandre-Louis.

Louis-Napoleon escaped from Ham in 1846 by donning the uniform of a workman and casually strolling through the front gate with a plank of wood balanced on his shoulder. He then returned to England, where he served briefly as a special constable at the Marlborough Street police station and dallied with his latest mistress, Lizzie Howard, the daughter of a Brighton bootmaker. Soon, however, Louis-Napoleon’s destiny drew nigh. His chance came in 1848, the “Year of Revolution,” when an economic downturn and widespread crop failures, combined with demands for more liberal governments, triggered riots and revolutions across much of Europe. In February, following pitched battles in the streets of Paris, King Louis-Philippe abdicated his throne, fleeing to England as his Bonapartist rival crossed the Channel in the opposite direction. In December of that year, with a majority of four million votes, Louis-Napoleon was elected President of the Second Republic, and the former prisoner of Ham found himself enjoying the splendours of the Élysée Palace. Three years later, anticipating the end of his four-year term as President, he consolidated and increased his powers in a bloody coup d’état. In an operation code-named “Rubicon,” he dissolved the Constituent Assembly, imprisoned many of his opponents (including Adolphe Thiers), and sent the army into the streets of Paris, where 400 people were killed in violent skirmishes. One year later, on December 2, 1852, he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III.

The Second Empire was one of the gaudiest and most vainglorious eras in the history of France. The years since Louis-Napoleon came to power had witnessed unprecedented economic expansion and commercial prosperity. Industry flourished, foreign trade tripled, household incomes increased by more than fifty per cent, and credit grew with the establishment of new financial institutions. Grand projects were undertaken, such as the building of the new sewers and boulevards in Paris and the laying of thousands of miles of railway and telegraph lines. Louis-Napoleon was making the country live up to his vision of “Napoleonism,” which, he had written, “is not an idea of war, but a social, industrial, commercial and humanitarian idea.” Louis-Napoleon may have disliked wars, but he had nonetheless involved France in the Crimean War, which ended in 1856, and in the war against Austria in Lombardy in 1859. The year 1859 also witnessed French military expeditions to Syria and Cochin-China, in the latter of which the Emperor’s troops occupied the capital, Saigon. In the following year, French troops invaded Peking and burned the Summer Palace.

His swashbuckling career notwithstanding, Napoleon III was a less than prepossessing character. He looked, to Théophile Gautier, like “a ringmaster who has been sacked for getting drunk,” while one of his generals claimed he had the appearance of a “melancholy parrot.” The urbane aristocrat Charles Greville, meeting him in London, found him “vulgar-looking, without the slightest resemblance to his imperial uncle.” In fact, the only thing that he seemed to have shared with Napoleon was a short stature: he was only 5 feet 5 inches tall. A reserved and thoughtful man with a waxed moustache, a pointed beard and hooded eyes, he possessed an air of inscrutability. It was said that he knew five languages and could be silent in all of them. Prince Richard von Metternich, the Austrian ambassador, called him the “Sphinx of the Tuileries.” But most of his opponents were guilty of underestimating his abilities, and by the 1860s he had become, as an English newspaper admitted, “the foremost man of all this world.”

Monday September 25 2017

I recently quoted a big chunk from Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris, about his number one lead character, Ernest Meissonier.

Here are a few paragraphs by King, a few pages later, on page 17 of my edition of this book, about the Paris Salon.  They begin with a reference to King’s number two lead character, Édouard Manet:

Not until 1859, when he was twenty-seven years old, did Manet feel himself ready to launch his career at the Paris Salon, or “The Exhibition of Living Artists,” as it was more properly called. This government-sponsored exhibition was known as the “Salon” since for many years after its inauguration in 1673 it had taken place in the Salon Carré, or Square Room, of the Louvre. By 1855 it had moved to the more capacious but less regal surroundings of the Palais des Champs-Élysées, a cast-iron exhibition hall (formerly known as the Palais de l’Industrie) whose floral arrangements and indoor lake and waterfall could not disguise the fact that, when not hosting the Salon, it accommodated equestrian competitions and agricultural trade fairs.

The Salon was a rare venue for artists to expose their wares to the public and - like Meissonier, its biggest star - to make their reputations. One of the greatest spectacles in Europe, it was an even more popular attraction, in terms of the crowds it drew, than public executions. Opening to the public in the first week of May and running for some six weeks, it featured thousands of works of art specially - and sometimes controversially - chosen by a Selection Committee. Admission on most afternoons was only a franc, which placed it within easy reach of virtually every Parisian, considering the wage of the lowest-paid workers, such as milliners and washerwomen, averaged three to four francs a day. Those unwilling or unable to pay could visit on Sundays, when admission was free and the Palais des Champs-Élysées thronged with as many as 50,000 visitors - five limes the number that had gathered in 1857 to watch the blade of the guillotine descend on the neck of a priest named Verger who had murdered the Archbishop of Paris. In some years, as many as a million people visited the Salon during its six-week run, meaning crowds averaged more than 23,000 people a day.

At the bottom of the page, King adds this illuminating footnote:

To put these figures into context, the most well-attended art exhibition in the year 2003 was Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over the course of a nine-week run, the show drew an average of 6,863 visitors each day, with an overall total of 401,004. El Greco, likewise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, averaged 6,897 per day during its three-month run in 2003-4, ultimately attracting 174,381 visitors. The top-ranked exhibition of 2002, Van Gogh and Gauguin, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, drew 6,719 per day for four months, with a final attendance of 739,117.

So it is with all Art, with a capital A.  Arts start out as mere arts, in this case the art of picture making.  But then, a particular technique that for a long time dominates the art in question gets elbowed aside by new technology.  At which point the art in question becomes Art, of the High sort, the sort that all those crowds of mere people are no longer so interested in.  They have other entertainents to divert them.

In the case of the art of painting pictures, the new technology was of course photography - still photography, but most especially photography of the moving sort.  Motion pictures, in that telling phrase used by the pioneers of the new art.

When I read the paragraphs I have quoted above, I found myself thinking: Hollywood.

Sunday September 24 2017

Martin Gayford’s book A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney, seems very promising.

Hockney is an interesting and likeable man, I think, although I imagine he turns a bit nasty if you in any way get between him and his work.  What I particularly like about him is that he doesn’t indulge in the usual artistic sport of epater-ing the bourgeoisie.  He is content to be bourgeoisie.

Here’s an early nugget from this book (from the Introduction, on page 10):

The savants of the eighteenth century were much exercised by the question of what a person blind from birth, whose sight was suddenly restored, would make of the visible world. Amazingly, the experiment was actually performed. In the 1720s, William Cheselden, a London surgeon, removed the cataracts from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy. The latter gradually came to associate the objects he had known only through touch with what he now saw. One of the last puzzles he solved was that of pictures. It took two months, ‘to that time he consider’d them only as Party-coloured Planes, or surfaces diversified with Variety of paint’. And that of course is exactly what pictures are, but they fascinate us and help us understand and enjoy what we see.

When I’m done reading that book, I will be moving on to Gayford and Hockney’s more recent magnum opus, entitled A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen.

I have always been fascinated by the complex relationship between photography and painting.  As has Hockney, it would seem.  The very fact that this title talks about “pictures” rather than merely “art” or “painting” is, to me, highly promising.

Wednesday September 20 2017

This is how Chapter One, “Chez Meissonier”, of Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris begins:

One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis-Emest Meissonier, the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowfall, climbed onto the roof top balcony of his mansion in Poissy.

A town with a population of a little more than 3,000, Poissy lay eleven miles north-west of Paris, on the south bank of an oxbow in the River Seine and on the railway line running from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the Normandy coast. It boasted a twelfth-century church, an equally ancient bridge, and a weekly cattle market that supplied the butcher shops of Paris and, every Tuesday, left the medieval streets steaming with manure. There was little else in Poissy except for the ancient priory of Saint-Louis, a walled convent that had once been home to an order of Dominican nuns. The nuns had been evicted during the French Revolution and the convent’s buildings either demolished or sold to private buyers. But inside the enclosure remained an enormous, spired church almost a hundred yards in length and, close by, a grandiose house with clusters of balconies, dormer windows and pink-bricked chimneys: a building sometimes known as the Grande Maison.

imageErnest Meissonier had occupied the Grande Maison for most of the previous two decades. In his forty-eighth year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “ugly, little and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.” A friend described him as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent, fencing sword in hand. Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire, sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and meticulousness that had made both his reputation and his fortune.

To overstate either Meissonier’s reputation or his fortune would have been difficult in the year 1863. “At no period,” a contemporary claimed, “can we point to a French painter to whom such high distinctions were awarded, whose works were so eagerly sought after, whose material interests were so guaranteed by the high prices offered for every production of his brush. No artist in France could command Meissonier’s extravagant prices or excite so much public attention. Each year at the Paris Salon - the annual art exhibition in the Palais des Champs-Élysées - the space before Meissonier’s paintings grew so thick with spectators that a special policeman was needed to regulate the masses as they pressed forward to inspect his latest success. Collected by wealthy connoisseurs such as James de Rothschild and the Duc d’ Aumale. these paintings proved such lucrative investments that Meissonier’s signature was said to be worth that of the Bank of France. “The prices of his works,” noted one awestruck art critic, “have attained formidable proportions, never before known.”

Meissonier’s success in the auction rooms was accompanied by a chorus of critical praise and-even more unusual for an art world riven by savage rivalries and piffling jealousies - the respect and admiration of his peers. “He is the incontestable master of our epoch,” declared Eugène Delacroix, who predicted to the poet Charles Baudelaire that “amongst all of us, surely it is he who is most certain to survive!” Another of Meissonier’s friends, the writer Alexandre Dumas fils, called him ”the painter of France.” He was simply, as a newspaper breathlessly reported, “the most renowned artist of our time.”

From his vantage point at the top of his mansion this most renowned artist could have seen all that his tremendous success had bought him. A stable housed his eight horses and a coach house his fleet of carriages, which included expensive landaus, berlines, and victorias. He even owned the fastest vehicle on the road, a mail coach. All were decorated, in one of his typically lordly gestures, with a crest that bore his most fitting motto: Omnia labor, or “Everything by work.” A greenhouse, a saddlery, an English garden, a photographic workshop, a duck pond, lodgings for his coachman and groom, and a meadow planted with cherry trees - all were ranged across a patch of land sloping down to the embankments of the Seine, where his two yachts were moored. A dozen miles upstream, in the Rue des Pyramides, a fashionable street within steps of both the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre, he maintained his Paris apartment.

The Grande Maison itself stood between the convent’s Gothic church and the remains of its ancient cloister. Meissonier had purchased the pink-bricked eighteenth-century orangery, which was sometimes known as Le Pavilion Rose, in 1846. In the ensuing years he had spent hundreds of thousands of francs on its expansion and refurbishment in order to create a splendid palace for himself and his family. A turret had been built above an adjoining cottage to house an enormous cistern that provided the Grande Maison with running water, which was pumped through the house and garden by means of a steam engine. The house also boasted a luxurious water closet and, to warm it in winter, a central heating system. A billiard room was available for Meissonier’s rare moments away from his easel.

Yet despite these modern conveniences, the Grande Maison was really intended to be an exquisite antiquarian daydream. “My house and my temperament belong to another age,” Meissonier once said. He did not feel at home or at ease in the nineteenth century. He spoke unashamedly of the “good old days,” by which he meant the eighteenth century and even earlier. He detested the sight of railway stations, cast-iron bridges, modern architecture and recent fashions such as frock coats and top hats. He did not like how people sat cross-legged and read newspapers and cheap pamphlets instead of leather-bound books. And so from the outside his house - all gables, pitched roofs and leaded windows - was a vision of eighteenth-century elegance and tranquillity, while on the inside the rooms were decorated in the style of Louis XV, with expensive tapestries, armoires, embroidered fauteuils, and carved wooden balustrades.

The Grande Maison included not one but, most unusually, two large studios in which Meissonier could paint his masterpieces. The atelier d’hiver, or “winter workshop,” featuring bay windows and a large fireplace, was on the top floor of the house, while at ground level, overlooking the garden, he had built a glass-roofed annexe known as the atelier d’été, or “summer workshop.” Both abounded with the tools of his trade: canvases, brushes and easels, but also musical instruments, suits of armour, bridles and harnesses, plumed helmets, and an assortment of halberds, rapiers and muskets - enough weaponry, it was said, to equip a company of mercenaries. For Meissonier’s paintings were, like his house, recherché figments of an antiquarian imagination. He specialised in scenes from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century life, portraying an ever-growing cast of silk-coated and lace-ruffed gentlemen - what he called his bonshommes, or “goodfellows” - playing chess, smoking pipes, reading books, sitting before easels or double basses, or posing in the uniforms of musketeers or halberdiers. These musicians and bookworms striking their quiet and reflective poses in serene, softly lit interiors, all executed in microscopic detail, bore uncanny similarities to the work of Jan Vermeer, an artist whose rediscovery in the 1860s owed much to the ravenous taste for Meissonier - and one whose tremendous current popularity approaches the enthusiastic esteem in which Meissonier himself was held in mid-nineteenth-century France.

Typical of Meissonier’s work was one of his most recent creations, Halt at an Inn, owned by the Due de Morny, a wealthy art collector and the illegitimate half- brother of the French Emperor, Napoleon Ill. Completed in 1862, it featured three eighteenth-century cavaliers in tricorn hats being served drinks on horseback outside a half-timbered rural tavern: a charming vignette of the days of old, without a railway train or top hat in sight. Meissonier’s most famous painting, though, was The Brawl, a somewhat less decorous scene depicting a fight in a tavern between two men dressed - as usual - in opulent eighteenth-century attire. Awarded the Grand Medal of Honour at the Salon of 1855, it was owned by Queen Victoria, whose husband and consort, Prince Albert, had prized Meissonier above all other artists. At the height of the Crimean War, Napoleon III had purchased the work from Meissonier for 25,000 francs - eight times the annual salary of an average factory worker - and presented it as a gift to his ally across the Channel.

“If I had not been a painter,” Meissonier once declared, “I should have liked to be a historian. I don’t think any other subject could be so interesting as history.” He was not alone in his veneration of the past. The mid-nineteenth century was an age of rapid technological development that had witnessed the invention of photography, the electric motor and the steam-powered locomotive. Yet it was also an age fascinated by, and obsessed with, the past. The novelist Gustave Flaubert regarded this keen sense of history as a completely new phenomenon - as yet another of the century’s many bold inventions. “The historical sense dates from only yesterday,” he wrote to a friend in 1860, “and it is perhaps one of the nineteenth century’s finest achievements.” Visions of the past were everywhere in France. Fashions at the court of Napoleon III aped those of previous centuries, with men wearing bicorn hats, knee breeches and silk stockings. The country’s best-known architect, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, had spent his career busily returning old churches and cathedrals to their medieval splendour. By 1863 he was creating a fairy-tale castle for the emperor at Pierrefonds, a knights-in-armour reverie of portcullises, round towers and cobbled courtyards.

This sense of nostalgia predisposed the French public towards Meissonier’s paintings, which were celebrated by the country’s greatest art critic, Théophile Gautier, as “a complete resurrection of the life of bygone days.” Meissonier’s wistful visions appealed to exactly the same population that had made The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père, first published in 1844, the most commercially successful book in nineteenth-century France. Indeed, with their cavaliers decked out in ostrich plumes, doublets and wide-topped boots, many of Meissonier’s paintings could easily have served as illustrations from the works of Dumas, a friend of the painter who, before his bankruptcy, had lived in equally splendid style in his “Château de Monte Cristo,” a domed and turreted folly at Marly-le-Roi, a few miles upstream from Meissonier. Both men excelled at depicting scenes of chivalry and masculine adventure against a backdrop of pre-Revolutionary and pre-industrial France - the period before King Louis XVI was marched to the steps of the guillotine and the old social relations were destroyed, in the decades that followed, by new economic forces of finance and industry. “The age of chivalry is gone,” wrote Edmund Burke, a fierce critic of the French Revolution who lamented the loss, after 1789, of “manly sentiment and heroic enterprise.” But the age of chivalry had not entirely vanished in France: by the middle of the nineteenth century it lingered eloquently in Dumas’s novels, in Viollet-le-Duc’s spires and towers, and in Meissonier’s jewel-like “musketeer” paintings.

Still, the subject matter of Meissonier’s works accounted only partly for their extraordinary success. What astounded the critics and the public alike was his mastery of fine detail and almost inconceivably punctilious craftsmanship. “It is impossible to comprehend that our clumsy hands could achieve such a degree of delicacy,” enthused Gautier. Meissonier’s paintings, most of which were small in size, rewarded the closest and most prolonged observation. After purchasing one of his works, the English art critic John Ruskin would examine it at length under a magnifying glass, marvelling at Meissonier’s manual dexterity and eye for fascinating minutiae. A critic once joked that Meissonier was capable of putting the Prophets of the Sistine Chapel on the setting of a ring. No one in the history of art, it was said, ever possessed such a superlative and unerring touch with his brush. “The finest Flemish painters, the most meticulous Dutch,” claimed Gautier, “are slovenly and heavy next to Meissonier.” ...

Monday September 18 2017

Today I finally got to the end of The Judgement of Paris.  I have now started making a list of some short bits of it that I hope to reproducing here.

Meanwhile, by way of a small celebration, here is a Parisian photo I took, in Paris, way back in February 2012:

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It’s the Tour Eiffel, of course, photoed from under it.  Tour Eiffel is pronounced “Tour F L”, rather that “Tour I Fell”.  Which reassures me that I know how to pronounce the leading historical character, Ernest Meissonier, in the above book.  “May sonni eh” rather than “My sonni eh”.

Anyway, a big and very interesting interruption has stopped interrupting me and my life, and I’m very glad about that.

Monday September 11 2017

My recent life has been seriously deranged by this book, which is about French painting and painters during the nineteenth century.  It’s by Ross King.  Never heard of him until I acquired and started to read this book of his, but the loss was entirely mine.  (Sounds more like a boxing promotor than an Art write.) This is one of the most engrossing books about Art I have ever encountered.

I am learning about several subjects that greatly appeal to me.  There’s French painting, obviously, which I have always wanted to know more about, in particular the rise to pre-eminence of Impressionism, which is what this book is about.  There are fascinating little titbits about the rise of sport, the 1860s being one of the most important decades for that, because of railways.  There’s French nineteenth century history in general, which this book, bless it, contains a lot of.  In particular there is stuff about the 1870 war against the Prussians, and then the Paris Commune.  There is French geography also, French geography being something that many of the more affluent French (including the more affluent artists) were getting to grips with properly for the first time, again because of those railways.  There is a glorious few pages about a big bunch of artists going on strike!  There are huge gas balloons.  This is not the sort of book about paintings that is only about the paintings.  Which means that it is much better than most books about paintings, because it explains their wider context.  It explains what the paintings are of, and why.

I particularly like that the role of the media is well described.  Tom Wolfe did not (with this book) invent that.  Art critics, then as now, were a big part of the Art story.

But, although I know that I will be a much improved human being when I have finished reading this book, I am finding the actual reading of it rather tough going.  For starters, there’s a lot of it, nearly four hundred closely printed pages, and my eyesight isn’t what it was.  But worse, there are constant references to people and to things that a better educated person than I would already know a bit about.  Who, for instance, was Charles Blanc?  I feel I ought to have known this kind of thing, at least a bit.  And then there’s the difference between Manet and Monet, which is all explained, concerning which about the only thing I knew beforehand was that they were indeed two distinct people.  But, I feel I should have known more about exactly which of them painted exactly what.  I could have whistled it all up from the www, but I do most of my reading away from my computer, because that way my computer does not then distract me.  Ross King never assumes any knowledge, and introduces everyone and everything very politely, but I am still struggling to keep up.

Another problem is that this book is packed with little stories about excitements of this or that diverting sort, any one of which could have been the basis of an entire book, but in this book often get just one or two paragraphs.  (I’m thinking of those titbits about sport, especially horse racing.) Accordingly, I find myself wanting to stop, to contemplate whatever fascinating little yarn I have just read, rather than dutifully ploughing on.

But plough on I am determined to do.  Until I finish, you here must make do with inconsequential postings, based on things like my inconsequential photos, which I happen to have been trawling back through in recent days.  But when I finally do finish this book, there may be some rather better stuff here.  I promise nothing, but I have in mind to pick out some of those diverting little stories, and maybe also sprinkle in some pertinent paintings.

I also hope (but promise nothing) to do a more considered review of this book for Samizdata.

Saturday September 09 2017

So there I was, wondering around the other side of the City of London from where I live, as I like to do, and I saw this taxi with a tree behind it.  But the weird thing was, no matter which direction I photoed the taxi and the tree from, the tree was always directly behind the taxi:

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What gave?  Answer: the tree wasn’t and isn’t behind the taxi.  It was and is right on top of the taxi, made to look as if it is growing right up through it.  This taxi with tree was and is: Art.

Yes, this is one of those many places where hurt-your-foot-if-you-drop-it work has recently been replaced by “creative” work.  (The sneer quotes are not because creative work isn’t, but because other work so often is also.)

Here is a map of this place, together with a description of what has been happening there recently:

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When exploring a new place, I always photo maps and signs which explain everything.

This map looks, I think, rather like one of those illustrations in a birds-and-bees instruction manual for adolescents.

More about Orchard Place here.