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.
Ross King is the author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and the novels Ex-Libris and Domino. Born and raised in Canada, he now lives near Oxford, England.
“An accessible book of both history and art in a tumultuous time.”
“The Judgment of Paris, Ross King’s lively account of the rise of the movement, tells a well-known story, but one seldom recounted in such vivid detail or with such a novelistic sense of plot and character …. King doesn’t miss the character flaws of any of his large cast, and the effect is a meticulously detailed panorama not unlike one of Meissonier’s grandest battlefield scenes …. In all, King pulls off a tour de force of complex narrative that readers of his previous books will have come to expect.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Like King's previous books, Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris is as much a portrait of a place and time as a story about art. King packs the book with details about social customs, new inventions and politics. He relates the exploits of the emperor Louis-Napoleon, the folly of the Franco-Prussian War, the humiliating siege of Paris, and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune … he weaves his material together skilfully, and tells his story with wit and enthusiasm.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
"Engrossing. … [A] vivid portrayal of artistic life in Paris during a turbulent era that saw the siege of the city by the Prussians and the fall of Napoleon III."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[Made] me nostalgic for a time I have never actually experienced: a time when art and culture mattered enough to make people march in the streets.”
“Fashion, scientific advances and revolutionary politics all find their way into a narrative that in its way achieves the kind of history painting that Meissonier could only dream of.”
—The New York Times