John-Louis Ernest Meissonier – Part 2

The Siege of Paris in 1870 by Ernest Meissonier 1874

……………………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.

Napoléon III at the Battle of Solferino by Ernest Meissonier (1863)

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.

La Rixe (The Brawl) by Ernest Messonier (1855 )

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.

Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet) by Ernest Meissonier (1861)

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.

A Man in Black smoking a Pipe by Ernest Meissonier (1854)

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.

Le Voyageur by Ernest Meissonier (c. 1880’s) s
Statuette in wax, fabric and leather

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…”

Campagne de France (Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after the Battle of Laon), by Ernest Meissonier (1864)

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.

Friedland 1807 by Ernest Meissonier (1875)

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.

Advance Guard of an Army by Ernest Meissonier.

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.

Street Scene near Antibes by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

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.

Napoleon and his Staff by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

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.

Jean-Charles Meissonier, son of the artist, in Louis XIII costume by Ernest Meissonier

His son, Jean Charles Meissonier, also a painter, was his father’s pupil, and was admitted to the Légion d’honneur in 1889.

Statue of Meissonier at Parc Meissonier in Poissy (Yvelines), France

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.

Daniel Ridgway Knight

Daniel Ridgway Knight (c.1908)

In my last blog I looked at the life and works of the Social Realist painter Walter Langley and his depictions of the hard life endured by the Cornish fishermen and their loved ones. Today I am looking at an American artist whose paintings could not be more different. Daniel Ridgway Knight chose to depict pretty young women enjoying life. The depiction of these ladies in beautiful countryside setting, lit up by dazzling sunlight  was, although very popular, so different to the work of artists of the Realism genre. So why would people want to buy paintings depicting scenes which in reality were just something we would like life to be? Maybe that is the answer to the question. Maybe whilst enduring real life with all its hardships we hanker after the perfect life even if it is just an imaginary idyll. If you had to choose a painting to hang on the wall of your lounge would it be one which depicts poverty or one which depicts sunny meadows awash with flowers and beautiful women?

The Well by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1880)

Daniel Ridgway Knight was born into a strict Quaker home, on March 15th, 1839, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town thirteen miles north of Maryland and the Mason-Dixon line. He attended local schools and his family intended that he would either work in a local hardware store or in his uncle’s ship building company, but for Daniel his love of art was his overriding passion and in 1858, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Fellow students at that time included Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, and William Sartain. Knight also became one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club which was founded by six students of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in November 1860 and is still in existence today.

Daniel Ridgway Knight

One of the PAFA students who became a friend of Daniel Knight was Lucien Grapon, a Frenchman, and he would often talk to Daniel about his homeland and how Daniel would love to live in France, with its great social life, fine ladies, and its even finer wines. Daniel must have been seduced by the thoughts of life in France as in 1861 he set sail for France, a journey many of his fellow PAFA students would later take. Cassatt and Eakins went to France in 1866.

Maria on the Terrace with a Bundle of Grass by Daniel Ridgway Knight

On arrival in Paris, Daniel Knight enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and attended classes run by Alexander Cabanel as well studying in the atelier run by the Swiss artist, Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre. During his time in Paris Knight made a number of friends with fellow artists such as Renoir and Sisley. He also took trips to the artist colony at Barbizon where he was influenced by the works of the plein air painters. His stay in France lasted just two years but was curtailed when he received grave news from home about  the state of the American Civil War which had started the year he left for France.   Even more worrying for Knight was that by 1863 the war had spread north with the soldiers of the Confederate army, led by General Robert E Lee invading his home state of Pennsylvania. In a patriotic gesture, twenty-four-year-old Knight returned to Philadelphia and on August 17th, 1864, enlisted in the Union Army as a Private in Company K, 5th Cavalry Regiment Pennsylvania. When not engaged in battle Knight took the opportunity to make sketches of the battle scenes as well as portraits focusing on the facial expressions of his fellow soldiers. Knight later presented many of his sketches at meetings of the Philadelphia Sketch Club.

Harvest Scene by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1875)

At the end of the Civil War, Daniel was discharged from the Union army and he returned to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. On completion, he went back home to Philadelphia and opened a workshop where he worked on his portrait commissions and also held classes for aspiring painters.

The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1867)

In 1867 Daniel Knight completed an historical painting, The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which depicted an infamous incident in the Civil War. On July 30, 1864, Brigadier General John McCausland and 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen entered Chambersburg and demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks. The residents of Chambersburg failed to raise the ransom, and McCausland ordered his men to burn the town. Flames destroyed more than 500 structures leaving more than 2,000 homeless. Chambersburg was the only Northern town the Confederates destroyed. The attack inspired a national aid campaign and spurred the Union Army to a more aggressive approach that finally won the war.

Un Deuil (Bereavement) by Daniel Ridgway Knight,(1882)

It was at his Philadelphia studio that he first met Rebecca Morris Webster, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Webster Jnr, who was one of his students. On September 20th, 1871 the couple married in St Luke’s Church Philadelphia. For the next twelve months Daniel took on many portrait commissions and with the money he earned from them, he had enough for two boat tickets for himself and his wife and they returned to France where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Ridgway Knight painting in front of the front facade of his house in Poissy, [1883]

Daniel and Rebecca first went to live in Saint Germain Des Prés, on Paris’ Left Bank and then later in 1872, they settled in Poissy, where Walter had bought a vast 17th century house. The property had belonged before him to the Arbien-Caulaincourt family. The house, which until the early 1920’s, was located at what is now, 24 avenue Meissonier and was sometimes referred to as the Abbey Castle.

Daniel Ridgway Knight in his studio (c.1889).

To ensure that he was able to capture the true colours of the daylight which may have been lost in studio painting he built a glass-enclosed studio, separate from the house, so he could paint comfortably “indoors” while still capturing the true colours fully in its natural surroundings. This would allow him to position his models there notwithstanding the weather conditions outside even during the coldest winter’s day, and still make the best use of the natural light. Such protection from inclement weather in a controlled environment made for a perfect studio. His models would be dressed in peasant costumes and sometimes he would actually use local girls to sit for him.

The Poissy enclosure of the abbey, years 1870-1880. From left to right, Meissonier’s house, Ridgway Knight’s house (center) and Notre-Dame collegiate church.
Photo Agnès Guignard

The French Classicist painter, Ernest Meissonier, had occupied the neighbouring property since 1846 and it still exists. Meissonier completed most of his paintings in his studio there as well as conducting art classes for his students. In the photograph above, dated around 1880, we see three buildings. On the left is Meissonier’s house, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s house can be seen in the centre and to the right is the Notre-Dame collegiate church, which was once the l’abbaye aux dames.  It was a truly magnificent building which Knight spent years and much money on restoring and refurbishing it.

Article from The Decorator and Furnisher March 1886

The interior of his house was commented on, and a sketch made of the elaborate main staircase in the March 1886 edition of the New York published magazine The Decorator and Furnisher:

“… In our illustration will be seen a rough sketch of a fine old staircase in the house of the excellent painter Mr. Daniel Ridgway Knight, of Philadelphia, Mr. Knight has settled at Poissy (Seine-et- Oise), near his master Meissonier. His house is a part of the old Abbey of Poissy, a splendid dwelling, with lofty rooms, which Mr. Knight has filled with choice furniture and objects of art. The staircase, broad enough for four people to walk up it abreast, has an elegant wrought-iron balustrade, and Mr. Knight has completed the decoration with a fine old German wrought-iron lantern, the potence of which is peculiarly graceful and delicate in design. The walls of the staircase and entrance-hall are hung with red cloth, over which several fine pieces of tapestry are stretched, with, on the landings, a profusion of flowers and plants. -In the sketch the balustrade and the lamp alone appear; the accessories are barely indicated…”

The Knight family on the steps of their house in Poissy, [1883].

His neighbour was the painter Ernest Meissonier who had bought his large mansion which was sometimes known as the Grande 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. Meissonier, not only became a good friend of Daniel Ridgway Knight but acted as his artistic mentor. Daniel Knight and his wife Rebecca went on to have three children, all boys. Louis Aston Knight was born in August 1873. His godfather and godmother were the son-in-law and daughter-in-law of Meissonier, Gustave Méquillet and Jeanne Gros. Louis became a very talented and successful landscape painter.  Charly Meissonier Knight, was Rebecca and Daniel’s second child, born in 1877, and Meissonier himself was his godfather.  He later became a well-known architect and made a speciality of restoration of houses in Paris and country chateaux. The youngest child, Raymond Knight, was born in 1878 but died at the age of thirty-six in 1914.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

By 1874, Knight had to decide what he wanted to paint. In the early days he was happy with his historical paintings and on his return to Philadelphia after the Civil War he had made money with his portrait commissions but now he wanted to do something altogether different. That year he again visited Barbizon and saw the works of Jean-Francois Millet with his depiction of French peasantry and he believed he should follow this theme for his paintings. The one thing he didn’t like about Millet’s depictions was that Millet’s works were of the Realism genre and the artist had focused on the hardships suffered by the peasants.

The Reapers by Jules Breton (c.1860)

Knight decided that his depictions of the peasantry would focus on the joys of the countryside and the happiness of the peasants whether they were at work or enjoying their leisure time. He was influenced by the works of the French artist, Jules Breton and, although he too is classed as a Realist painter, his depictions, which are also heavily influenced by the French countryside and the peasants working the land, are, in the main, a celebration of the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, as can be seen in the painting above, The Reapers which he completed around 1860.

Les Laveuses by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1875)

Meissonier was a great believer in Knight’s talent as an artist and one day set him a challenge to produce a large painting from a sketch he had made. The result was Les Laveuses (Washerwomen) which resulted in Knight’s first big success at the Salon in 1875.

Hailing the Ferry by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1888)

In 1888 Daniel Ridgway Knight painted several large paintings for major exhibitions, and Hailing the Ferry, was regarded as one of his masterpieces. When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888, it was awarded the third-class gold medal. He was also awarded a Gold Medal at the Munich Exhibition that same year for this work. It can now be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The depiction is of two peasant girls calling for the ferryman on the other side of the river. The beauty of this work is how Knight captured all the elements of the subdued light and colour, together with the way he added the finely detailed figures which highlighted his constant focus on detail.

Coffee in the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1924)

Daniel Knight’s genre scenes were very popular with buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and they enhanced his reputation as a great painter. One of his popular works was entitled Coffee in the Garden. The setting is the outside of a rural house/café. The pink and grey colour of the rough plaster of the building contrasts with the various colourful flowers in the window boxes and plant pots which brighten the building’s façade. In the background our gaze is carried along the River Seine.  We can see the calm waters of the river meandering quietly on its journey along the wide valley towards the sea. In this work we see a group of three women sitting around a wooden table on cane-bottom chairs and a wooden stool. A young boy approaches them carrying a large pot of coffee. The ladies await patiently holding their empty porcelain cups in readiness. To the left we see a carved wooden table bearing a tureen of soup, a ladle, and a pile of empty shallow bowls. Next to the tureen are two empty bottles and a broken loaf.

Portrait de femme (Mme Knight ) by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1892)

In the mid-1890’s, Daniel Ridgway Knight signed a contract with the well-known and much respected art dealers, Knoedler, who had many galleries in New York and Paris. The company would act as sole agents to sell all his paintings. This was an added boost to his income stream and shortly after the contracts were signed Knight decide to buy another large house.

Julia in the Corner of the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight

It was around 1896 that Daniel Knight and his family left their home in Poissy to live in their new home at Rolleboise, some forty kilometres down river from Poissy. The Knight family’s new residence had breathtaking views of the River Seine as it was positioned atop an elevated headland overlooking the river. His home had a beautiful garden and terrace that overlooked the Seine and it was that view that often appeared in his painting. It was a stunning vista which overlooked the cascading rooftops below, and, all the way along the River Seine which flowed between miles and miles of fields, meadows, and lines of trees. Besides carrying on with his own paintings, Knight held classes at his house for aspiring artists and this led to the foundation of the Rolleboise School.

The Sheperdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1896)

One of his first paintings after he moved to his new home was his 1896 work, The Shepherdess of Rolleboise. In the painting, which combined a grey and silver palette, we see a French shepherdess. Her youth and loveliness are seen against a pastoral background on the bank of the River Seine. As she gazes out at the water her charges feed themselves on the grassy bank. The work was exhibited at the 1896 Salon and was well received. It was Knight’s take on peasant life that appealed to the many American buyers who would rather witness the beauty and romanticism of peasant life rather than the harsher realities of their lives depicted by the Realism painters of the time. Knight’s work was closer to the Naturalism genre which was practiced by the great French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

A Garden above the Seine, Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight

In 1889 Knight was awarded a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition and was knighted in the Legion of Honour, and later in 1914, becoming an officer. In 1896 he received the Grand Medal of Honour at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Daniel Ridgway Knight died in Paris on March 9th, 1924, a week before his eighty-fifth birthday. Ridgway Knight’s paintings continued to be popular in the twentieth century, particularly in America and still, even now, realise high prices at auction.