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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.

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