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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier

The Siege of Paris, 1870s, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier                
Portrait of a Sergeant, 1874,
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
From time to time I choose to write about artists whose work I simply don't like. I do so because the artist is important in the overall scheme of things having to do with art, both past and present. More often I'm rather ambivalent as to the artists I write about...I can take'em or leave'em. Therefore, it's a real pleasure to encounter an artist whom I know and like, and whose work I've used in various other contexts, but whom I've never actually explored individually. I've mentioned that having happened before. Today I found another one, this time a 19th-century French painter, engraver, sculptor, and something of an odd fellow, all of which, in my eyes, makes him all the more fun to write about--Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (pronounced: Mez-a-NAY).
Les Oliviers to Antibes, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier,
watercolor and graphite with gouache highlights

Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
Self-Portrait, 1865
In looking over his life's work, given the era in which Meissonier lived (1815-1891), you would expect to see the paintings of the typical academician of that time. But, you don't. Meissonier was what we might term today, "old school." That is, he was a product of the old apprenticeship system, not a graduate of the rigidly classical Academie des Beaux-Arts, though he was, later in life, elected a member of that august body of artists, and longed to teach within its walls. But despite a wall-full of honors and medals, he was never afforded the privilege. Meissonier also hoped to be elected a deputy or senator (equivalent to U.S. members of Congress) but fell short of that as well. He was, however, elected president of the reorganized Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890, but didn't make much of an impression in that he died the following year.
At the Relay Station, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier
Mounted Cavalier,
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier was born in Lyon, to an upper-middle-class family. His father owned a factory making dyes for the French textile industry. Naturally he expected his son to join the business. He apprenticed the boy to a druggist presumably to learn chemistry. Naturally, as often happened, the headstrong teenager rebelled, leaving home at seventeen to apprentice himself to the atelier of Léon Cogniet, a colleague of Delacroix and Gericault. Though Cogniet was French, and a graduate of the Academy, his art was as much in the Dutch tradition as it was French. It was a trait Meissonier picked up as well. Cogniet specialized in history painting and portraits (a common combination). Meissonier did also. It was also common for such artists to sometimes turn out large paintings bearing religious scenes. Meissonier tried that too but quickly found he wasn't very good at it. He was, however quite good at painting the colorful figures filling the ranks of the French military, from Napoleon Bonaparte himself on down to the lowliest musketeer.
Diderot's Library, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
Barricades in June, 1848,
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
It was common in the mid-19th-century for would-be painters to travel about Europe topping off their formal education with exposure to the art and ambience of the grand masters of the past. Here Meissonier took something of a shortcut, spending a little time only in Rome and Switzerland. He exhibited in the Paris Salon as early as 1831 (he was sixteen at the time) and continued to do so most of the rest of his life, even as he'd made something of a name for himself. Meissonier married in 1838 and was the father of two children, one of whom, Jean Charles Meissonier, he taught to paint. The family settled in Paris where Meissonier found little market for grandiose history paintings, but was able to carve out a niche for himself painting smaller, apartment sized versions of genre, history, and battle scene with the same, almost microscopic, detail as in his larger works.

The Battle of Solferino, ca, 1960, Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier
The Lovers of Painting, 1872,
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

During the reign of Napoleon III, Meissonier's history paintings and military portraits came to be admired by the French court, which sometimes purchased them as gifts to foreign governments, which in turn, purchased more of his work to add to their collections. (The 19th-century was a great time to be a painter.) As Meissonier hit his stride as an artist, he was submitting works to the Salon competition at the rate of a half-dozen a year (nine, in 1857 alone). The Emperor Napoleon III like Meissonier's work so much he was commissioned to paint battle scenes for the next upcoming war (1861) with the Habsburgs in northern Italy. It was a little outside his expertise, but Meissonier rose to the challenge, his work matching expectations to the point he also began turning out paintings and portraits of the earlier Napoleon.
Napoleon and his Staff, 1868, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
The Traveler, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier,
painted bronze sculpture.
Later in life, Meissonier "sort of" retired to Antibes on the southern coast of France (almost Italy) to paint and bask in the Mediterranean sun. His earlier works began selling for handsome prices and his fame was such that he turned to creating and selling etchings, a lower-level art market, but one nonetheless quite lucrative due to their numbers. Meissonier continued to paint and submit works to the Paris Salon, and was involved in the "politics" of the Paris art world right up until his death in 1891. However, after his death, as Realism gave way to Impressionism, Post-impressionism, and all the isms of the 20th-century, Meissonier's reputation suffered. However, in more recent years, as his lesser works, etchings, highly detailed draughtsmanship, and exquisite painting technique began to be appreciated separate and apart from the history/propaganda content of his large-scale paintings, Meissonier has come to be regarded as one of the most outstanding painters of his time and place.
Street Scene Near Athens, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
How to sell a painting in the 1850s.
The artist depicted in The Sign Painter is obviously not a self-portrait.

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