……………………Paris under siege, this time, not by its own people, but by the Prussians, as it was pictorially recorded in Meissonier’s 1884 painting, Le siège de Paris 1870-1871 [The Siege of Paris 1870-1871]. The event took place at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. During the siege Meissonier was colonel of a marching regiment. It is a painting which is part realism and yet partly allegorical. The central figure, standing in front of a tattered French tricolour flag, is that of Paris, draped in a black veil and a lion skin, and modelled by Meissonier’s wife. She stands above the ruined barricade. There is nothing glorious about the depiction, just a foreboding of hard times to come following the destruction of the city by the Prussian troops signified by the billowing clouds of ash emanating from the burnt-out buildings in the background. The work paints a picture of utter confusion as we see dead and dying soldiers lying on beds of palm leaves which were a symbol of martyrdom. Confusion abounds. Look at the man who lies against the skirt of Paris. This is the twenty-seven-year-old artist Henri Regnault. He was not killed during the siege but actually died in January 1871 at the Battle of Buzenval which was part of the Prussian offensive against the French and a precursor to the siege shown in this painting. Meissonier added him to the work to highlight the futility and waste of young and promising lives struck down by the conflict. Look carefully at the details of this work. To the right of the central character we see a woman holding up her dead baby to her husband. Further to the right we see a woman prostrating herself across the body of her dead husband and to the right of her we see an old man searching through the bodies in the hope of finding his son.
The defeat to the Prussian army stayed in the minds of the French people and scenes from the war were common subjects for painters of the day. Most, like Meissonier, wanted to focus their depictions on the heroism of the French in defeat and offer some hope for the future. In 1859, Meissonier was commissioned to paint the Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. This was the beginning of a new series of works, which was to celebrate the glories of the first Empire. The Battle of Solferino took place on 24 June 1859 and resulted in the victory of the allied French Army under Napoleon III and Sardinian Army under Victor Emmanuel II and the defeat of the Austrian Army under Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was the last major battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs. Meissonier completed the work in 1863 and is now housed in the Louvre.
In 1851 he produced a very popular genre painting entitled La Rixe (The Brawl). The painting was one of nine paintings by Meissonier that were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, where it was awarded the prestigious Grande Médaille d’Or by the critics. One special admirer of the work was Prince Albert, the Prince Consort and wife of Queen Victoria. It was originally acquired by Emperor Napoleon III for 25,000 francs and then presented to Prince Albert on 26 August 1855, his thirty-sixth birthday. Queen Victoria recalled the gift-giving event:
“…We lunched with the Emperor & Empress. Both most kindly gave Albert presents, the former a beautiful picture by Meissonier called “La Rixe”, the finest thing in the Exhibition, which Albert had been in such extacies over…”
It is now part of the Royal Collection. In the painting we see that a row has broken out in a tavern over a game of cards. A melee ensued, and the table has been overturned. The two men seen brawling are elegantly dressed in early seventeenth-century-style doublets and breeches, and are being restrained by their three fellow players, whilst a sixth person can be seen peeping around the door. What has made the drama more realistic is the way Meissonier has portrayed the twisting and straining of the figures as they battle for supremacy. Meissonier often made wax model figures when planning a composition, and he also owned a large collection of historical costumes and weaponry which he used as props. This work is a romanticised history painting conjuring up a swashbuckling scene from the past and has its counterpart in the novels of Alexandre Dumas, whose The Three Musketeers, which was published in 1844, became the most commercially successful French book of the nineteenth century.
Playing cards featured in several paintings by Meissonier and often they have a hint of skulduggery as is the case in his 1861 work, Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet). The depiction is of two innocent and naïve youths sitting around a table along with a group of card sharps. The callow youths are unaware of their dubious company, but the atmosphere is tense as seen by the man on the right, standing behind them, keeps his hand on his sword whilst others keenly watch the cards and the players.
The National Gallery in London has an oil on wood painting by Meissonier entitled A Man in Black smoking a Pipe which he completed in 1854. Meissonier painted numerous genre scenes with individuals in period costume. This is a typical example with the smoker shown in a modest interior with a tankard and a glass of beer. The wall behind is decorated with some unframed popular prints.
Whereas most people will know of Meissonier as a painter less would realise that he was also a sculptor. The Musée d’Orsay has a fine example of his prowess as a sculptor – Le Voyager (The Traveller) which he completed in 1840. This wax sculpture measuring (HWD) 48 x 60 x 40cms depicts a man hunched over the neck of his horse, as he battles against the wind and lashed by the rain. The Traveller is probably the most notable of all the statuettes made by Meissonier and one that exudes an air of romanticism. Look how Meissonier by the way in which he models the musculature of the horse and by doing so, has been able to amplify the power of the piece. This work by Meissonier is an example of verism, (the theory that rigid representation of truth and reality is essential to art), in the way that he used real fabric for the coat and leather for the reins. Meissonier said that he enjoyed modelling and almost always worked in wax because it was so malleable. He commented:
“…It is instant burst of creativity… You cannot imagine how absorbing and exciting it is to make a model…”
Meissonier was probably best known for his military art and paintings depicting Napoleon Bonaparte and scenes from Napoleonic battles. He specialised in meticulous, small-scale military scenes. One of his most memorable works is Campagne de France, 1814 [Campaign of France, 1814] which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although this is a military history painting, in comparison to the often-monumental paintings of this genre, it is small in size, measuring just 52 x 77cms. It is an example of Historical Realism in art. There is no sign of glorified heroics. The riders are not crossing a stretch of virgin white snow but rather an unpleasant-looking muddied terrain. This is pictorial history recording Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after being defeated at the Battle of Laon in March 1814 by the Prussian troops of Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher. The whole scene uses subdued brown and grey tones, and with the exception of the fortitude that emanates from the isolated figure of Napoleon on his white horse, there is a sense of doubt and resignation felt by the officers and the troops.
Countering that image of Napoleon in defeat, Meissonier’s completed his largest and most ambitious painting, Friedland 1807, which evokes one of the emperor’s greatest victories. The work measures 136 x 243cms and is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Initially the work was bought “sight unseen” by the American department store magnate Alexander T. Stewart and later Judge Henry Hilton acquired the work at Stewart’s estate sale and in 1887 bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum. This work and the previous one, Campagne de France, 1814 were the only two paintings completed by Meissonier for his proposed cycle of five episodes in the life of Napoleon.
A General Officer by Ernest Meissonier
Meissonier produced very small meticulous paintings of military scenes and interiors as well as men in military uniforms such as his painting, A General Officer, which just measured 13 x 9cms. It depicts a General Officer in the army of Napoleon III. The painting, being in profile, shows off the military man wearing his grand military hat to its best advantage. The officer, dressed in white breeches and a blue jacket with gold epaulettes, stands in an upright pose with his hands behind his back. This type of meticulous painting by Meissonier is based on the style of seventeenth-century Dutch genre and still life paintings and they were greatly admired in his lifetime by both the public and the critics.
Another military miniature measuring 12 x 21cms is Advance Guard of an Army. In this work we see the advance guard of an army moving downwards along a path on a barren hillside. The column of troops is being observed by a solitary soldier on horseback at the top of the hill. In the background on the far left we catch a glimpse of the sea. The overcast sky is plain and does not distract from the portrayal of the troop column. Once again Meissonier has used a low viewpoint to depict the movement of the horsemen and this technique lent itself well to Meissonier’s diminutive canvases, giving them a feeling of expansiveness in a small frame.
In June 1868 Meissonier travelled to the south of France and stayed in Antibes. His desire to go to the Mediterranean coast was probably two-fold. Firstly he was interested in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte who had been imprisoned in Fort Carré, at Antibes and also when Napoleon returned from exile on the isle of Elba in 1815 he made landfall at Golfe-Juan along the coast from Antibes. The second reason for the visit was probably the excellent plein air painting conditions he would have had in Antibes. Other plein air landscape painters would have talked to him about the conditions and have persuaded him to move away from his historical works and look to completing some landscape plein air work.
“…It is delightful to sun oneself in the brilliant light of the South instead of wandering about like gnomes in the fog. The view at Antibes is one of the fairest sights in nature.”
One such work he completed whilst there was his 1868 painting Street Scene near Antibes.
Meissonier received many honours during his lifetime. In 1846 he was appointed knight of the Légion d’honneur and promoted to the higher grades in 1856, 1867, and 1880, eventually receiving the Grand Cross in 1889. One of his unfilled ambitions was to teach at the École des Beaux-Arts, but it never came to fruition. He also dabbled in politics but his attempts to be chosen as a deputy or made senator were never realised. When the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts was revitalized, in 1890, Ernest Meissonier was elected its first chairman, but he died shortly after the appointment.
His son, Jean Charles Meissonier, also a painter, was his father’s pupil, and was admitted to the Légion d’honneur in 1889.
Meissonier’s wife died in June, 1888 and in August, 1890, he married Mlle Bezançon. Meissonier died in Paris on 31 January 1891, just a few weeks short of his seventy-sixth birthday. After a Requiem Mass at the Madeleine, on February 3rd 1891, he was buried at Poissy where a monument was erected to him in 1894.