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.

Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier – Part 1.

The Wallace Collection, London

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.

Wallace Collection gallery

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.

Self-portrait by Ernest Meissonier (1889)

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.

An Artist showing his Work by Ernest Meissonier (1851)

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.

L’Expédition d’Egypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte (in 1798), by Léon 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.

Dutch Burghers by Ernest Meissonier (1834)

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.

Chess Players by Ernest Meissonier (1853)

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.

The novel, Paul et Virginie, with illustrations by Ernest Meissonier

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.

The Recital by Ernest Meissonier (1853)

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”.

Isiah by Ernest Meissonier (c.1838)

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.

Smoker by Ernest Meissonier

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…”

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

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.

The Barricade by Ernest Meissonier (1848)

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.

The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 by Ernest Meissonier (1849)

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.