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The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism [Paperback]

Ross King
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 24 2006
The fascinating new book by the author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling: a saga of artistic rivalry and cultural upheaval in the decade leading to the birth of Impressionism.

If there were two men who were absolutely central to artistic life in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, they were Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. While the former has been labelled the “Father of Impressionism” and is today a household name, the latter has sunk into obscurity. It is difficult now to believe that in 1864, when this story begins, it was Meissonier who was considered the greatest French artist alive and who received astronomical sums for his work, while Manet was derided for his messy paintings of ordinary people and had great difficulty getting any of his work accepted at the all-important annual Paris Salon.

Manet and Meissonier were the Mozart and Salieri of their day, one a dangerous challenge to the establishment, the other beloved by rulers and the public alike for his painstakingly meticulous oil paintings of historical subjects. Out of the fascinating story of their parallel careers, Ross King creates a lens through which to view the political tensions that dogged Louis-Napoleon during the Second Empire, his ignominious downfall, and the bloody Paris Commune of 1871. At the same time, King paints a wonderfully detailed and vivid portrait of life in an era of radical social change: on the streets of Paris, at the new seaside resorts of Boulogne and Trouville, and at the race courses and picnic spots where the new bourgeoisie relaxed. When Manet painted Dejeuner sur l’herbe or Olympia, he shocked not only with his casual brushstrokes (described by some as applied by a ‘floor mop’) but with his subject matter: top-hatted white-collar workers (and their mistresses) were not considered suitable subjects for ‘Art’. Ross King shows how, benign as they might seem today, these paintings changed the course of history. The struggle between Meissonier and Manet to see their paintings achieve pride of place at the Salon was not just about artistic competitiveness, it was about how to see the world.

Full of fantastic tidbits of information (such as the use of carrier pigeons and hot-air balloons during the siege of Paris), and a colourful cast of characters that includes Baudelaire, Courbet, and Zola, with walk-on parts for Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Cezanne, The Judgment of Paris casts new light on the birth of Impressionism and takes us to the heart of a time in which the modern French identity was being forged.


From the Hardcover edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

Listening to Layton is like sitting at a Left Bank cafe with a British friend who knows both the history and gossip of the 1860s' Paris art scene and can put it all in political context. Layton has a friendly, low-pitched voice, good tempo and pace. He's never overly dramatic, but does lift an amusing vocal eyebrow quoting some of the more pompous figures of the period. King describes the mid-century revolution in French art by focusing on the lives and canvases of the extremes of the period. Ernest Meissonier is wildly successful and wealthy, patiently mirroring every face and frock and hoofbeat in precise historical detail, while Edouard Manet is rejected and scorned by the public, peers, critics and buyers for the manner in which he illuminated his impressions of scenes and characters. As Manet gradually moves from brown hues to vibrant colors and from classical to modern settings, King shows his influence on those younger contemporaries—Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas et al.—who came to be known as the Impressionists. Artists, art historians and connoisseurs will be transfixed by this description of the seismic shift in art from the mirror to the lamp. The rest of us may slide over the names of unfamiliar artists, critics, mistresses, models and political figures to focus on the heart of this fascinating story.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From Booklist

King is a master at linking pivotal moments in art history to epic rivalries. In his third supremely engaging and illuminating inquiry (following Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, 2003), King summons forth mid-nineteenth-century Paris and vividly portrays two diametrically opposed artists. Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, "the world's wealthiest and most celebrated painter," spends years laboring over his meticulously detailed historical paintings, eliminating every trace of the brush and striving for scientific precision. Newcomer Edouard Manet dispenses with the historical claptrap and the highly polished finish that are Meissonier's stock in trade, and boldly creates sharp contrasts and "vigorous brushstrokes" to depict ordinary people and brazenly matter-of-fact female nudes. Meissonier is a crowd-pleaser, Manet nearly instigates riots. King follows the fortunes of this pair of celebrity artists over the course of a decade as Meissonier becomes a "giant to be slain" and Manet is anointed king of the impressionists. Writing with zest and a remarkable command of diverse and fascinating facts, and offering keen insights into the matrix of art, politics, social mores, and technology, King charts the coalescence of a movement that changed not only painting for all time but also our way of seeing the world. And perhaps most laudably, he resurrects a discredited and forgotten figure, the marvelous monomaniac Meissonier, a man King has bemused affection and respect for, and an artist readers will be delighted to learn about. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars READ WITH VIGOR AND CLARITY - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Jan. 18 2006
By Gail Cooke TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
Novelist and art historian Ross King has won a loyal following with his intriguing bestsellers Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling. His scholarly accounts paired with the wit and wisdom of a born storyteller have captivated all. This author continues to educate and entertain with "The Judgment of Paris."
Now, King takes us to Paris in the middle of the 19th century, the time between two important exhibitions - the Salon De Refuses in 1863 and the first showing of Impressionist paintings in 1874. To chronicle this tumultuous period in the world of art, King wisely tells the story through the eyes of two men, rivals for approval - Ernest Meissonier, a famous painter who had already achieved success, and Edouard Manet, a leader of the avant-garde.
Yes, the two artists were poles apart in their artistic approach, but there was more to their dislike of one another. During the Franco-Prussian War, Manet was a staff officer and Meissonier his superior. Meissonier, mean spirited and very full of himself, treated Manet coldly, never acknowledging the fact that he was a fellow painter. Of course, in Meissonier's eyes he had no colleagues; after all he was the most famous painter of his time, and recipient of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
Meissonier's work was predictable, full of detail in his historical scenes, yet his paintings were in great demand. Manet, on the other hand, enjoyed no such popularity. His work was denigrated by the Salon, citing moral and artistic grounds - nudity was not acceptable unless it was portrayed in the distant past, certainly not in a painting showing a nude woman and men in dress of that time.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Thorough Research, Faulty Premise! June 15 2014
By Pierre Gauthier TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In this book, Ross King sets out to present the beginnings of impressionism in France in the latter half of 19th century.
He may only be commended for the amazing research that he accomplished and that allows him to provide a slew of details regarding protagonists, events and context.

The basic premise of the book is to draw a parallel between the lives and works of Ernest Meissonier, a now forgotten champion of traditional art, and Édouard Manet, seen as the incarnation of artistic innovation. For good measure, the political evolution of France in that period, that is the rise and fall of Napoleon III, is thrown in. The book's chapters, which are short, thus alternate from one topic to the other to the third. This makes the train of thought often very difficult to follow.

Worse, Meissonier is of little interest to 21st century readers, Claude Monet was the true initiator of impressionism (with which Édouard Manet did not particularly associate) and the movement really developed after Napoleon III was ousted from power, national politics having little to do with painting anyway. Thus, the whole foundation of the book is shaky. The result is a long and drawn out work that turns out to be outright tedious.

This is by no means alleviated by the lay-out which is hopelessly antiquated with some low quality black and white photos inserted here and there in the main text and eight pages of colour plates grouped together in the middle of the book.
Strangely, the author chooses to provide only English-language titles for most of the paintings with no mention of the original French. Of course, this makes googling more difficult if the reader wishes to know more about the work or simply to look at a decent reproduction.
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5.0 out of 5 stars heaping taste of history Nov. 8 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is chock full of events and descriptions detailing the early lives of the artists and how the impressionist movement became such an important part of history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  113 reviews
57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Hero is Meissonier Feb. 25 2006
By Reader 100 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ross King has written a fine book, rich in detail, which covers the emergence of the Impressionists against an engaging background of the political, military, scientific, and cultural trends of mid-19th century France. Perhaps unintentionally, he has also made a case for rehabilitating Ernest Meissonier, the painter whose reputation went into eclipse as the world went nuts over Manet, Monet, and their ilk. We are told that Meissonier possessed colossal self-regard and hauteur, but the details adduced in THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS show him to be: generous (he supported a bankrupted blacksmith and a poor woman in Antibes), forgiving (when his son damaged his most important canvas), an ally to other artists (he signed his name to a petition over restrictive judging rules), a meticulous craftsman (he made countless models and sketches and even grew a wheat field to be trampled so he could paint it), and, most especially, wise about the vagaries of posthumous reputations ("Life. How little it really comes to.").

It is fine to argue now, as a fatuous NY Times review did, that Meissonier's major work, Friedland: 1807, is "fussy," but attention must also be paid to the quote in King's book that sheds important light on the Impressionists: On page 196, Claude Monet says: "It really is appallingly difficult to do something which is complete in every respect, and I think most people are content with mere approximations." Meissonier emerges, like his paintings, in three dimensions; Manet, like his, in two. Manet is portrayed as petulant, mean, and petty, refusing at first even to meet Monet because of a belief that the younger man was stealing his name. And while it is certain that the moneyed classes preferred Meissonier and kept him in high style, the younger artists were beneficiaries of shameless logrolling, particulary by Emile Zola. When Zola saw a Manet he apparently didn't like, he simply clammed up.

Ideally, viewers would judge art by looking at it and applying their own aesthetic standards. To take one example from the evil "conservatives" cited by King who tried to thwart the generation of 1863, I suggest looking at Dominique Ingres' "Princesse Debroglie" on the Web. Is this the painting of a hidebound no-talent? Or view Meissonier's "The Campaign of France." King calls it one of the greatest depictions of motion ever captured on canvas, and I see no cause to dispute him. Meissonier is forgotten, yes, but thanks to King maybe now he will get a little attention -- not as much as the sainted Impressionists, mind you, but a little.
109 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Long Live the King! Jan. 26 2006
By Rico Lebrun - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I dislike many history books. History books written by academics for academics. (Publish or perish isnt exactly producing pageturners.) Books written by people who have "colleagues" and actually use that word more than once a week. Ahhh, but I love art. I love the history of art. Ross King is my hero. He can take a time line filled with people, places and dates and keep me turning the page. He made me understand one of my favorite times in the history of art, the passing of the french academic tradition into more modern forms of art. King infuses the caracters with life and makes you care about them. We meet Manet and learn the hardships he endured trying to show his work under the Salon system. We are introduced to Meissonier, the reigning champion of art in the 1800's. Never heard of him? Same here. This book is the story of the "greatest" artist, who we have completly forgotten and an artist who never was accepted in his life time, whom we all know.
THAT is the suff of great literature and life lessons. Long life the King!
53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No plates and many typos Nov. 16 2012
By Rosa Ines Vera - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Although the book is entertaining, I am surprised at the huge number of typographical errors that appear in the Kindle version. Not having the hard copy, I don't know if these errors are in the original publication but names are misspelled throughout as well as common words. These errors are repeated. Words such as intuition, unfortunately, prostitute appear as inmition, unformnately, prostimte, respectively. The architect of the Paris Opera is Charles Garnier but in the book is Gamier. There are many more of these errors.

In addition to this, in the Kindle edition, plates are referred to but do not appear. Since this is a book on painting, this is indeed important and a pity that they do not do so.
79 of 94 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Book Does Not Deliver April 18 2006
By Marco Antonio Abarca - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ross King had a good idea in contrasting the lives of Ernest Meissonier, the most famous painter of his time with Edouard Manet, the father of Impressionism. Using the annual painting Salon as a fulcrum, King attempts to illustrate the reversal of fortunes of these two great painters. Unfortunately, King does not deliver on the central argument of his book.

By focusing on the painting Salons of 1863-74, King shifts the focus of the book from a biography of Meissonier and Manet to the business component of these Salons. Ross never really takes us into their interior lives. This was a very important decade for the development of modern painting and unfortunately we only get thumbnail sketches of the other great Impressionist painters and the world that helped shape them.

Finally, I was dissapointed that King quickly concludes his thesis on the reversal of fortunes in the very last chapter of the book. There is no doubt that Edouard Manet was the more influential painter of the two. He was one of the giants of the 19th Century. However, for King's thesis to work, Manet must reach great heights while Meissonier must dissapears into mediocre obscurity. But I am not so sure that Meissonier is the forgotten figure that King wants us to believe. Ernest Meissonier was one of the great historical painters and his works are very well known to people who appreciate this genre of painting. Ernest Meissioner was not the mediocre figure that King dishonestly wants us to believe.

Ross King writes very well and his book is geared towards the general reading public. I wanted to like this book but in the end, he was not able to sell me on his thesis. For those who like the period, I would recommend "Art, War & Revolution in France 1870-1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality" by John Milner. Milner's beautifully illustrated book is not geared for the general reading public but it does a much better job of capturing the feel of the period.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paris In The Spring Of Modernism Sept. 2 2006
By Tyson Underwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Excellent. Reads like a novel. Interweaves the political, social and cultural events of an exciting period in modern art history.

Ross King follows the careers of Manet and Meissionier, painters at opposite poles of the art establishment, in the decade between the first Salon des Refuses in 1863 and the first Impressionist show in 1874. Set against the lite-opera of France's Second Empire under Louis Napoleon, he champions both artists and alternates back and forth between their very different careers.

Meissonier was the successful leader of the Salon style of historical painting with it's meticulous attention to detail and bourgeois moral value. Manet broke with the conventions of Salon painting and took on "the painting of modern life" with a direct style of brush handling that infuriated most critics and precipitated the Impressionist movement.

In addition to quick sketches of the other players in the Paris art scene - Zola, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Courbet, Monet, Hugo, Degas and many more, he engrossingly chronicles the Salon process and the way it dominated the careers of artists and the attention of the rising middle class.

This is an excellent introduction to the histrionic drama of late nineteenth century Modernist painting.
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