For French artists during the 19th century the Paris Salon was the place to be. Artists must have gone half mad while waiting to hear if their work had been accepted into the show. And no wonder. The Salon was an official juried exhibit that could make or break an artist. It was the only place where they could display their work in public, and it was held just once a year. Success at the Salon could potentially lead to celebrity, prizes and commissions. Conversely, receiving the jury's rejection slip meant being left out in the cold.
Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) was one the artists who made it big in the Salon system. He was a darling of the jury and one of the richest and most famous artists in Europe. At the Universal Exposition of 1867 in Paris, a celebrated world’s fair, Meissonier exhibited a total of fourteen paintings to great applause. Meanwhile Edouard Manet (1832–1883), one of my favorite artists, and the one you’re more likely to have heard of, was turned away by the same jury. This was hardly a surprise. Manet’s paintings had been repeatedly rejected by the Salon, and were ridiculed by the critics on the rare occasions when they got in.
Nineteenth century art critics had no use for Manet’s “unfinished” paintings. He didn't illustrate every detail, and made no attempt to hide his brushwork. His paintings represented neither the mythological nor historical subjects critics expected. Instead of idealized figures of the past Manet insisted on painting the people of his own time. His nude women were not the typical gorgeous and symbolic creatures, hypocritically placed there for the pleasure of the viewer. Instead they were unquestionably real contemporary models, perhaps even prostitutes. There was no pretense. You couldn't mistake them for allegorical eye-candy because they looked you straight in the eye. In other words, Manet’s paintings were an outrage and a disgrace, and it seems to me that he did everything he could to antagonize the Salon. Yet he was just old-fashioned enough to long for its acceptance. Poor guy.
On a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art I looked for the sole Meissonier painting on view. It's called “1807, Friedland” and depicts the victorious battle of Messonier's hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. The blurb on the wall says it “shows every blade of grass, everything in the painting is equally emphasized and detailed. Painting in the Salon was highly praised for this high degree of finish”. But to my more modern taste the painting is fussy and overdone, and I prefer the nine Manet paintings in the next room.
For more information on this topic you may want to check out The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King. The book takes you on a grand tour of the 19th century French art establishment and its effects on these two polar opposites, Manet and Meissonier. I was new to the subject so for me it was an interesting read. Have you read it? Do you prefer Meissonier to Manet? Let us know what you think in the comments.
I'm a representational painter enchanted by the unique qualities of watercolor. Sometimes oils, gouache, colored pencils and other media call to me too. I started this blog to share my work and ideas about making art. Sometimes I toss other things into the mix. Such as painters I love, and art books and exhibits that inspire me. Your comments are welcome. I'd love to hear from you!