About the Author

Ross King

Ross King, born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, is the Canadian author of three books on Italian history and Art: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, which won the 2001 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Nonfiction. His study of French Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in Canada. He lives in England, near Oxford.

Books by this Author
Defiant Spirits

Defiant Spirits

The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Mad Enchantment

Mad Enchantment

Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

Much of Claude Monet’s life and work had been a mad striving for the impossible. His goal, which he frankly admitted was unattainable, was to paint his carefully chosen object—the cathedral, cliff, or wheat stack before which he raised his easel—under singular and fleeting conditions of weather and light. As he told an English visitor, he wanted “to render my impressions before the most fugitive effects.” In 1889 a critic had scoffed that Monet’s paintings were nothing more than a matter of “geography and the calendar.” This was, however, to miss the point of Monet’s work. Since objects changed their color and appearance according to the seasons, the meteorological conditions, and the time of day, Monet hoped to capture their visual impact in these brief, distinctive, ever-changing moments in time. He concentrated not only on the objects themselves but also, critically, on the atmosphere that surrounded them, the erratically shifting phantoms of light and color that he called the enveloppe. “Everything changes, even stone,” he wrote to Alice while working on his paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral. But freezing the appearance of objects amid fleeting phantoms of light and air was no easy task. “I am chasing a dream,” he admitted in 1895. “I want the impossible.”
      Recording the fugitive effects of color and light was integral to Monet’s art. Setting up his easel in front of Rouen Cathedral, or the wheat stacks in the frozen meadow outside Giverny, or the windswept cliffs at Étretat on the coast of Normandy, he would paint throughout the day as the light and weather, and finally the seasons, changed. To reproduce the desired effects accurately according to his personal sensations, he was forced to work outdoors, often in disagreeable conditions. In 1889 a journalist described him on the stormy beach beneath the cliffs at Étretat, “dripping wet under his cloak, painting a hurricane in the salty spray” as he tried to capture the different lighting conditions on two or three canvases that he shuttled back and forth onto his easel. Because lighting effects changed quickly—every seven minutes, he once claimed—he was forced, in his series paintings of wheat stacks and poplars, to work on multiple canvases almost simultaneously, placing a different one on his easel every seven minutes or so, rotating them according to the particular visual effect he was trying to capture. Clemenceau once watched him working in a poppy field with four different canvases. “He was going from one to the other, according to the position of the sun.” In the 1880s the writer Guy de Maupassant had likewise witnessed Monet “in pursuit of impressions” on the Normandy coast. He described how the painter was followed through the fields by his children and stepchildren “carrying his canvases, five or six paintings depicting the same subject at different times and with different effects. He worked on them one by one, following all the changes in the sky.” This obsession with capturing successive changes in the fall of light or the density of a fogbank could lead to episodes that were both comical (for observers) and infuriating (for Monet). In 1901, in London, he began painting what he called the “unique atmosphere” of the river Thames—the famous pea-souper fogs—from his room in the Savoy Hotel. Here he was visited by the painter John Singer Sargent, who found him surrounded by no fewer than ninety canvases, “each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames. When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture,” Sargent reported, “the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.”
        One irony of Monet’s approach was that these paintings of fleeting visual effects at single moments in time actually took many months of work. “I paint entirely out of doors,” he once airily informed a journalist. “I never touch my work in my studio.” However, virtually all of Monet’s canvases, although begun on the beaches or in the fields, were actually completed back in the studio, often far from the motif and with much teeth-gnashing labor. Octave Mirbeau reported that a single Monet canvas might take “sixty sessions” of work. Some of the canvases, moreover, were given fifteen layers of paint. His London paintings were finished not beside the banks of the Thames but as much as two years later in his studio in Giverny, beside the Seine, with the assistance of photographs. The revelation that Monet used photographs caused something of a scandal when this expedient was revealed in 1905 thanks to the indiscreet and possibly malicious comments of several of Monet’s London acquaintances, including Sargent. Monet had risked a similar kind of scandal when he took one of his Rouen Cathedral paintings to Norway.
        There was another irony to Monet’s paintings. Many of them evoked gorgeous visions of rural tranquility: sun-dappled summer afternoons along a riverbank or fashionable women promenading in flowery meadows. As Mirbeau wrote, nature appeared in Monet’s paintings in “warm breaths of love” and “spasms of joy.” His pleasingly bucolic scenes were combined with a flickering brushwork that produced delicious vibrations of color. The overall result was that many observers regarded his paintings as possessing a soothing effect on both the eye and the brain—and Monet himself as le peintre du bonheur (the painter of happiness). Geffroy believed Monet’s works could offer comforting distraction and alleviate fatigue, while Monet himself speculated that they might calm “nerves strained through overwork” and offer the stressed out viewer “an asylum of peaceful meditation.” The writer Marcel Proust, an ardent admirer, even believed Monet’s paintings could play a spiritually curative role “analogous to that of psychotherapists with certain neurasthenics”—by which he meant those whose weakened nerves had left them at the mercy of fast-paced modern life. Proust was not alone. More than a century later, an Impressionist expert at Sotheby’s in London called Monet “the great anti-depressant.” This “great anti-depressant” was, however, a neurasthenic who enjoyed anything but peaceful meditation as he worked on his paintings. Geffroy described Monet as “a perpetual worrier, forever anguished,” while to Clemenceau he was le monstre and le roi des grincheux—“king of the grumps.” Monet could be volatile and bad-tempered at the best of times, but when work at his easel did not proceed to his satisfaction—lamentably often—he flew into long and terrible rages. Clemenceau neatly summed up the quintessential Monet scenario of the artist throwing a tantrum in the midst of blissful scenery: “I imagine you in a Niagara of rainbows,” he wrote to Monet, “picking a fight with the sun.” Monet’s letters are filled with references to his gloom and anger. Part of his problem was the weather. Monet could pick a fight with the sun, the wind, or the rain. Painting in the open air left him at the mercy of the elements, at which he raged like King Lear. His constant gripes about the wind and rain had once earned him a scolding from Mirbeau: “As for the nauseatingly horrible weather we have and that we will have until the end of August, you have the right to curse. But to believe that you’re finished as a painter because it’s raining and windy—this is pure madness.”
        It was a strange contradiction of Monet’s practice that he wished to work in warm, calm, sunny conditions, and yet for much of his career he chose to paint in Normandy: a part of France that was, as a nineteenth-century guidebook glumly affirmed, “generally cold and wet...subject to rapid and frequent changes, and fairly long spells of bad weather that result in unseasonable temperatures.” Working on the windswept coast of Normandy in the spring of 1896, he found conditions exasperating. “Yesterday I thought I would go mad,” he wrote. “The wind blew away my canvases and, when I set down my palette to recover them, the wind blew it away too. I was so furious I almost threw everything away.” Sometimes Monet did in fact throw everything away. On one occasion he hurled his color box into the river Epte in a blind rage, then was obliged to telegraph Paris, once he calmed down, to have a new one delivered. On another occasion, he flung himself into the Seine. “Luckily no harm was done,” he reassured a friend. Monet’s canvases likewise felt his wrath. Jean-Pierre Hoschedé witnessed him committing “acts of violence” against them, slashing them with a penknife, stamping them into the ground or thrusting his foot through them. An American visitor saw a painting of one of his stepdaughters with “a tremendous crisscross rent right through the centre”—the result of an enraged Monet giving it a vicious kick. Since he had been wearing wooden clogs at the time, the damage was considerable. Sometimes he even set fire to his canvases before he could be stopped. On occasion his rages became so intense that he would roam the fields and then, to spare his family, check into a hotel nearby in Vernon. At other times he retreated to his bedroom for days at a time, refusing both meals and attempts at consolation. Friends tried to coax him from his gloom with diverting trips to Paris. “Come to Paris for two days,” Mirbeau pleaded with him during one of these spells. “We shall walk. We shall go here and there...to the Jardin des Plantes, which is an admirable thing, and to the Théâtre-Français. We shall eat well, we shall say stupid things, and we shall not see any paintings.” There was another contradiction in Monet’s practice. He loved to paint and, indeed, he lived to paint—and yet he claimed to find painting an unremitting torment. “This satanic painting tortures me,” he once wrote to a friend, the painter Berthe Morisot. To a journalist he said: “Many people think I paint easily, but it is not an easy thing to be an artist. I often suffer tortures when I paint. It is a great joy and a great suffering.” Monet’s rage and suffering before his easel reveal the disingenuousness of his famous comment about Vincent van Gogh. Mirbeau, who owned Van Gogh’s Irises, once proudly showed the work to Monet. “How did a man who loved flowers and light so much,” Monet responded, “and who painted them so well, make himself so unhappy?” Some of Monet’s friends regarded his torture and suffering as a necessary condition of his genius—as a symptom of his search for perfection, or what Geffroy called the “dream of form and color” that he pursued “almost to the point of self-annihilation.” After witnessing yet another fit of dyspepsia, Clemenceau wrote to Monet that “if you were not pushed by an eternal search for the unattainable, you would not be the author of so many masterpieces.” As Clemenceau once explained to his secretary apropos of Monet’s dreadful fits of temper: “One must suffer. One must not be satisfied...With a painter who slashes his canvases, who weeps, who explodes with rage in front of his painting, there is hope.”
        Clemenceau must have realized that in persuading Monet to paint large-scale canvases of his water lily pond he had not only rekindled the painter’s hopes but also, as a sore temptation to fate, his exasperation and rage.

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The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris

The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
edition:Paperback
tagged : historical
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Excerpt

Chapter One
Chez Meissonier

One gloomy January day in 1863, ­Jean-­Louis-­Ernest Meissonier, the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated paint­er, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowfall, climbed onto the rooftop balcony of his mansion in Poissy.

A town with a population of a little more than 3,000, Poissy lay eleven miles northwest 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.

Ernest 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.”2 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 Pavillon ­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 annex 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 armor, 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 specialized 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 Duc de Morny, a wealthy art collector and the illegitimate half brother of the French Emperor, Napoleon III. 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 Honor 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.

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Art

Art

The Definitive Visual Guide
edition:Hardcover
tagged : reference
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Artists

Artists

Their Lives and Works
by DK
foreword by Ross King
edition:Hardcover
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Badlands

Badlands

A Geography of Metaphors
by Ken Dalgarno
foreword by Ross King
edition:Paperback
tagged : landscapes
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The Vatican: All the Paintings

The Vatican: All the Paintings

The Complete Collection of Old Masters, Plus More than 300 Sculptures, Maps, Tapestries, and other Artifacts
by Anja Grebe
introduction by Ross King
edition:Hardcover
tagged : european
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Score One for the Dancing Girl, and Other Selections from the Kimun ch'onghwa

Score One for the Dancing Girl, and Other Selections from the Kimun ch'onghwa

A Story Collection from Nineteenth-century Korea
notes by Donguk Kim
edited by Si Nae Park & Ross King
translated by James Scarth Gale
edition:Undefined
also available: Hardcover eBook
tagged : 19th century
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