When I go to a large town or city I tend to try and visit the local art gallery/museum. The trouble with these establishment in major cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Madrid, is that the foremost galleries tend to be massive in size and almost impossible to view all the works in the time you have free. When time is of the essence I tend to look for a smaller gallery and often they are little gems. When I am in London, and if I only have a few hours to spare, I try and visit the Wallace Collection which is situated in Manchester Square a short distance from Selfridges and Debenhams on Oxford Street.
There, on display are a superb collection of works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. When Richard Wallace died in 1890, he bequeathed his entire estate, including the art collection, to his widow, Amélie-Julie-Charlotte Castelnau and it was Lady Wallace who, on her death in 1897, bequeathed it to the British nation. There were a couple of provisos that went with the bequest.
In her will, she specified that in return for her gift, the Government should provide a site to build a new museum and that the collection should be kept together. She also stipulated that the Wallace Collection was to be a closed collection, meaning that no other works of art could be added to it, permanently or temporarily, nor should any of the collection be taken away. So little changes with the art collection but one never tires of seeing so many gems of European oil paintings from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Both the 4th Marquess and his son, Sir Richard Wallace lived in Paris and they both acquired many works of art by eighteenth and nineteenth century French artists, such as Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard and Decamps as well as my featured artist, Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier.
In my next two blogs I will be looking at the life of Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier, the great French Classicist painter, who is probably best known for his military and historical subjects, especially depictions of Napoleonic battles. Meissonier was largely self-taught, and yet, became one of the highest paid painter in the second half of the century.
Ernest Meissonier was born, in Lyon on February 21st, 1815, just as the Napoleon Bonaparte era was ending. He was the elder of two sons. At the age of three his father moved his family to Paris. His father, Charles Meissonier, was a dye merchant and a very successful businessman, who owned a factory in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. The factory produced dyes for the textile industry. He also had a drug and provisions shop in the Rue des Ecouffes. Meissonier’s mother loved music and took lessons in the painting of miniatures and ceramics. She died when her son was still young.
Meissonier’s school record left a lot to be desired. When he was nine years old and attending a local school in Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, his teacher commented:
“…[he showed] too marked a tendency to draw sketches in his copy-books instead of paying attention to his teachers…”
Meissonier’s father was concerned about his son’s leaning towards art as the Romantic painters in those days did not have a great reputation and he believed that the likelihood of his son becoming successful was unlikely. Later during his stay at a school on the Rue de Jouy his teacher reported on Meissonier’s love of art and the part it played in his failing at other subjects:
“… Ernest has a decided talent for drawing. The mere sight of a picture often takes our attention from our serious duties…”
By now Meissonier’s father was alarmed with his son’s progress and in 1832, when Ernest was seventeen years old, his father decided to pull him out of school and had him apprenticed as a druggist. Ernest was not happy with his father’s plan for his future and presumably after many months of conflict between father and son, he was allowed to study art at the atelier of Jules Potier. His stay there was short-lived and from there he moved to the atelier of the French history painter and portraitist, Léon Cogniet. However, Ernest was more influenced by the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Masters which he saw at the Louvre than the teachings of Potier and Cogniet.
However, it was whilst studying at Cogniet’s studio that Meissonier witnessed his master painting a military work which when completed in 1835 would be referred to as L’Expédition d’Egypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte (in 1798), (The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte). Meissonier was fascinated to watch Cogniet working on the painting, soldiers were hired in for the day, dressed in republican uniform as well as dragoons and artillerymen and their horses. He realised that he would like to become a military painter, but that was some way in the future.
Meissonier’s first breakthrough into the art world was when he had one of his paintings, Les Bourgeois Flamands (Dutch Burghers), also known as The Visit to the Burgomaster, accepted into the 1834 Salon. This very small oil painting measuring 18 x 22cms was, in essence, a costume piece depicting three sober-looking gentlemen dressed in traditional seventeenth century clothing. It is fascinating to see how Meissonier has depicted in this work the light and shadow. He has also inserted a still-life depiction into the painting with his rendition of the silver tray, jug, and glasses atop the table to the right of the painting. This work of art was acquired by Sir Richard Wallace for his Wallace Collection.
Meissonier in the mid-thirties soon realised that the life of an artist was one of depravation and living hand to mouth and had to turn to his father on a regular basis for financial assistance. Notwithstanding the financial hardships he endured, he had further success at the Salon in 1836 when two of his paintings, The Chess Player and The Errand Boy were accepted into the exhibition. It is interesting to note the vagaries of the Salon jury system as both these works had been rejected by the Salon jury in 1835. The chess player theme was evident in another painting he completed almost twenty years later. It was a miniature (9.5 x 12.5cms) which he painted in 1853.
Financial salvation for Meissonier arrived in the form of book illustrations. He produced many woodblock illustrations for the publisher, Henri-Léon Curmer, for his edition of the popular 1788 novel Paul et Virginia, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Meissonier also supplied a full set of diminutive illustrations for another edition of a novel by this author, which he wrote in 1790, La Chaumière indienne (The Indian Cottage). They were well received, and book sales flourished. Financially, the tide had turned for Meissonier.
One of Meissonier’s artistic friends was the Strasbourg-born painter Auguste Steinheil and through this friendship, Meissonier met his sister Emma. A courtship followed and on October 13th 1838 Ernest and Emma married. The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Thérèse in 1840 and later a son, Jean-Charles. Maybe Meissonier had plans for his artistic future as on Thérèse’s birth certificate, Meissonier’s occupation was given as “painter of history”.
In the late 1830’s Meissonier embarked on religious paintings and around 1838 produced Isaiah which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1840. This was to be one of only a few religious paintings by Meissonier and so, with little success with this genre and advice from the French painter Jules Chenavard, he stopped painting religious scenes and returned to his small genre pieces featuring scenes of bourgeoise domestic life which proved so popular. One of the reasons why miniature paintings were preferred to the bygone grandiose history paintings was that smaller canvases such as landscapes or portraits, because they fitted more easily onto the walls of Paris apartments, were big sellers. Meissonier was often referred to as the French Metsu, likening him to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu, who also specialised in miniature scenes of bourgeois domestic life.
The significant year in Meissonier’s life was 1842. It was in that year that he produced two beautifully painted genre works, The Smoker and The Bass Player. Critics were overwhelmingly complimentary and one of the leading critics at the time, Théophile Gautier commented:
“…In their small scale, we place these inestimable works without hesitation beside those of Metsu, Gerald Dou, and Mieris; perhaps even above them, because Meissonier has the truth of drawing, the fineness of tone and preciousness of touch joined with a quality that the Dutch hardly possess—style…”
Such critical praise made Meissonier one of the most sought-after painter of the decade, and his works of art appealed to a wide range of collectors. Such a demand for his work meant that the prices he could achieve for his work also rose and the money flowed in. The fruits of all this labour were rewarded and in 1847, he was able to purchase an elegant suburban home in Poissy, known as the Grand Maison. The Grande Maison included two large studios, the atelier d’hiver, or winter workshop, situated on the top floor of the house, and at ground level, a glass-roofed annexe, the atelier d’été or summer workshop. This rise in wealth and artistic status was a great achievement for somebody who had taught himself art and had no great financial backing from a well-to-do family.
Things had settled down in France politically since the Revolution of the 1790’s and the Napoleonic era but in 1848 the situation changed for the worse. In Paris, Louis-Philippe, known as the “citizen king was forced to abdicate that February, and the country descended into civil strife and anarchy. Meissonier was an artillery captain in the National Guard, and one his responsibilities was for his troops to defend the Hôtel de Ville. In June 1848, Meissonier witnessed a bloody struggle and resulting carnage with the massacre of the insurgents on a barricade of the rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. He produced a watercolour which depicted the outcome of the massacre. Meissonier neither forgot about the incident nor the painting for in the 1890’s he talked about his love for the work, in a letter to Alfred Stevens, the Belgian painter:
“…I am not modest about this drawing, and I am not afraid to say that if I were rich enough to buy it back, I would do so immediately […] When I painted it, I was still terribly affected by the event I had just witnessed, and believe me, my dear Alfred, those things penetrate your soul when you reproduce them […] I saw it [the taking of the barricade] in all its horror, its defenders killed, shot, thrown out of the windows, the ground covered with their bodies, the earth still drinking their blood…”
The watercolour was hailed as truly remarkable and it was acquired by the painter Eugène Delacroix and is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay.
This watercolour, depicting the outcome of the fight, was always considered, by both the artist and his contemporaries, as a remarkable and an unusual work. The history of this drawing also makes it special with Eugène Delacroix being its first owner.
Meissonier did a follow-up oil painting depicting the massacre the following year entitled The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 which can now be found in the Louvre. Once again, the depiction is based on Meissonier’s memory of what happened on that fateful day. In the work we see numerous corpses and severed limbs of the rioters lying amongst the cobblestones in the middle of a street lined with old houses. Meissonier had hoped to exhibit this painting at the 1849 Salon under the title of June 1848, but he gave up on the idea saying that the horror of the incident was too fresh in people’s minds and many wanted to eradicate the incident from their memory. The art critic Théophile Gautier was the only one who dared to admit being disturbed by the work and talked of “this trusty truth that no-one wants to tell.” This unidealized work not only presents a denunciation of civil rebellion, but also highlights the growing tensions between the social classes in Paris.
………….to be continued.