Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

Home

www.google.co.uk


Recent Comments


Monthly Archives


Most recent entries


Search


Advanced Search


Other Blogs I write for

Brian Micklethwait's Education Blog

CNE Competition
CNE Intellectual Property
Samizdata
Transport Blog


Blogroll

2 Blowhards
6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adloyada
Adventures in Capitalism
Alan Little
Albion's Seedling
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Alex Singleton
AngloAustria
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Biased BBC
Bishop Hill
BLDG BLOG
Bloggers Blog
Blognor Regis
Blowing Smoke
Boatang & Demetriou
Boing Boing
Boris Johnson
Brazen Careerist
Bryan Appleyard
Burning Our Money
Cafe Hayek
Cato@Liberty
Charlie's Diary
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
Chicago Boyz
China Law Blog
Cicero's Songs
City Comforts
Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog
Clay Shirky
Climate Resistance
Climate Skeptic
Coffee & Complexity
Coffee House
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Contra Niche
Contrary Brin
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Скрипучая беседка
CrozierVision
Dave Barry
Davids Medienkritik
David Thompson
Deleted by tomorrow
deputydog
diamond geezer
Dilbert.Blog
Dizzy Thinks
Dodgeblogium
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
dropsafe
Dr Robert Lefever
Dr. Weevil
ecomyths
engadget
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
English Cut
English Russia
EU Referendum
Ezra Levant
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
Ferraris for all
Flickr blog
Freeborn John
Freedom and Whisky
From The Barrel of a Gun
ft.com/maverecon
Fugitive Ink
Future Perfect
FuturePundit
Gaping Void
Garnerblog
Gates of Vienna
Gizmodo
Global Warming Politics
Greg Mankiw's Blog
Guido Fawkes' blog
HE&OS
Here Comes Everybody
Hit & Run
House of Dumb
Iain Dale's Diary
Ideas
Idiot Toys
IMAO
Indexed
India Uncut
Instapundit
Intermezzo
Jackie Danicki
James Delingpole
James Fallows
Jeffrey Archer's Official Blog
Jessica Duchen's classical music blog
Jihad Watch
Joanne Jacobs
Johan Norberg
John Redwood
Jonathan's Photoblog
Kristine Lowe
Laissez Faire Books
Languagehat
Last of the Few
Lessig Blog
Libertarian Alliance: Blog
Liberty Alone
Liberty Dad - a World Without Dictators
Lib on the United Kingdom
Little Man, What Now?
listen missy
Loic Le Meur Blog
L'Ombre de l'Olivier
London Daily Photo
Londonist
Mad Housewife
Mangan's Miscellany
Marginal Revolution
Mark Wadsworth
Media Influencer
Melanie Phillips
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
Michael Jennings
Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
Mick Hartley
More Than Mind Games
mr eugenides
Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
My Boyfriend Is A Twat
My Other Stuff
Natalie Solent
Nation of Shopkeepers
Neatorama
neo-neocon
Never Trust a Hippy
NO2ID NewsBlog
Non Diet Weight Loss
Normblog
Nurses for Reform blog
Obnoxio The Clown
Oddity Central
Oliver Kamm
On an Overgrown Path
One Man & His Blog
Owlthoughts of a peripatetic pedant
Oxford Libertarian Society /blog
Patri's Peripatetic Peregrinations
phosita
Picking Losers
Pigeon Blog
Police Inspector Blog
PooterGeek
Power Line
Private Sector Development blog
Public Interest.co.uk
Publius Pundit
Quotulatiousness
Rachel Lucas
RealClimate
Remember I'm the Bloody Architect
Rob's Blog
Sandow
Scrappleface
Setting The World To Rights
Shane Greer
Shanghaiist
SimonHewittJones.com The Violin Blog
Sinclair's Musings
Slipped Disc
Sky Watching My World
Social Affairs Unit
Squander Two Blog
Stephen Fry
Stuff White People Like
Stumbling and Mumbling
Style Bubble
Sunset Gun
Survival Arts
Susan Hill
Teblog
Techdirt
Technology Liberation Front
The Adam Smith Institute Blog
The Agitator
The AntRant
The Becker-Posner Blog
The Belgravia Dispatch
The Belmont Club
The Big Blog Company
The Big Picture
the blog of dave cole
The Corridor of Uncertainty (a Cricket blog)
The Croydonian
The Daily Ablution
The Devil's Advocate
The Devil's Kitchen
The Dissident Frogman
The Distributed Republic
The Early Days of a Better Nation
The Examined Life
The Filter^
The Fly Bottle
The Freeway to Serfdom
The Future of Music
The Futurist
The Happiness Project
The Jarndyce Blog
The London Fog
The Long Tail
The Lumber Room
The Online Photographer
The Only Winning Move
The Policeman's Blog
The Road to Surfdom
The Sharpener
The Speculist
The Surfer
The Wedding Photography Blog
The Welfare State We're In
things magazine
TigerHawk
Tim Blair
Tim Harford
Tim Worstall
tomgpalmer.com
tompeters!
Transterrestrial Musings
UK Commentators - Laban Tall's Blog
UK Libertarian Party
Unqualified Offerings
Violins and Starships
Virginia Postrel
Vodkapundit
WebUrbanist
we make money not art
What Do I Know?
What's Up With That?
Where the grass is greener
White Sun of the Desert
Why Evolution Is True
Your Freedom and Ours


Websites


Mainstream Media

BBC
Guardian
Economist
Independent
MSNBC
Telegraph
The Sun
This is London
Times


Syndicate

RSS 1.0
RSS 2.0
Atom
Feedburner
Podcasts


Categories

Advertising
Africa
Anglosphere
Architecture
Art
Asia
Atheism
Australasia
Billion Monkeys
Bits from books
Bloggers and blogging
Books
Brian Micklethwait podcasts
Brians
Bridges
Business
Career counselling
Cartoons
Cats and kittens
China
Civil liberties
Classical music
Comedy
Comments
Computer graphics
Cranes
Crime
Current events
Democracy
Design
Digital photographers
Drones
Economics
Education
Emmanuel Todd
Environment
Europe
Expression Engine
Family
Food and drink
France
Friends
Getting old
Globalisation
Healthcare
History
How the mind works
India
Intellectual property
Japan
Kevin Dowd
Language
Latin America
Law
Libertarianism
Links
Literature
London
Media and journalism
Middle East and Islam
Movies
Music
My blog ruins
My photographs
Open Source
Opera
Other creatures
Painting
Photography
Podcasting
Poetry
Politics
Pop music
Propaganda
Quote unquote
Radio
Religion
Roof clutter
Russia
Scaffolding
Science
Science fiction
Sculpture
Signs and notices
Social Media
Society
Software
South America
Space
Sport
Technology
Television
The internet
The Micklethwait Clock
Theatre
This and that
This blog
Transport
Travel
USA
Video
War


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.” ...

Name:

Email:

Location:

URL:

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below: