Sunday, February 05, 2006

Eve vs. eye: Ross King's The Judgment of Paris

Eve vs. eye

In his third book of popular art history, Ross King chronicles a radical shift in the way we see the world.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

On September 19, 1870, the Prussian army of Kaiser Wilhelm I began bombarding Paris with long-range Krupp cannons. Within two weeks, the painter Édouard Manet, who was serving as a lieutenant in the National Guard responsible for defending the city, acknowledged the situation was desperate: "We can no longer get cafe au lait," he wrote in a letter to his wife. In November, he wrote that "there are now cat, dog and rat butchers in Paris. We no longer eat anything but horsemeat."

The resolution to turn horses into food would have been particularly unsettling to Manet's rival Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, the most celebrated painter in late 19th-century Paris, and a man known for his precise depictions of horses. As befitted his higher status, Meissonier served as a lieutenant colonel in the Guard. For a short time, Manet worked on Meissonier's staff, where he mocked the older painter's habit of doodling during staff meetings, much to the amusement of their colleagues.

Within a half century, Meissonier would be reviled by art historians and Manet revered. How this reversal of fortune came about is the story Ross King tells in "The Judgment of Paris," his third work of art history.

King, a former Canadian academic who now lives near Oxford, England, began his writing career by penning a pair of historical novels. Accordingly, he brings an instinct for storytelling to his nonfiction, which features strong narrative arcs and a surfeit of historical detail. He first came to the attention of American readers six years ago with "Brunelleschi's Dome," a compelling book about the construction of Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. The follow-up, 2002's "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," had an even more mainstream subject, the painting of the Sistine Chapel. It hit the New York Times best-seller list and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

"The Judgment of Paris" tackles a somewhat more esoteric topic: the Paris art scene from 1863-1874, when Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and others challenged the establishment with their radical visions.

In the 1860s, the French art world was dominated by academic painters who rejected contemporary subjects in favor of romantic images of classical Greece or the Renaissance. Meissonier, their champion, favored miniaturized portraits of "silk-coated and lace-ruffled gentlemen" and photorealistic scenes of Napoleon's military victories.

The period itself favored what King calls "gauzy nostalgia"; the fashions of the court of Napoleon III mimicked the bicorn hats and silk stockings of previous centuries. The rest of French society dressed more practically, with the men in top hats and black frock coats. King notes that Manet's first act in defiance of convention was to depict Parisians in this contemporary style, earning him the moniker of a "realist" painter and the unflinching support of the writer Emile Zola.

King structures his book around the annual Paris Salon, "a rare venue for artists to expose their wares to the public and ... to make their reputations." It often attracted a million visitors — more than half the population of Paris.

Manet first submitted a painting to the Salon in 1859, entitled "The Absinthe Drinker." It depicted a drunken "rag-and-bone" man, and, as he expected, it was rejected. What dismayed the judges, even more than the debauched subject matter, was Manet's thick application of paint, broad brush strokes and suppressed details. Another Manet painting, "Music in the Tuileries," offered "a chaotic-looking blaze of figures painted with a smeary lack of fine detail." It so incensed the public that "they threatened violence."

The problem, writes King, was that the painting literally forced a viewer to look at it in a new way:

The viewing public was accustomed to standing close to paintings, studying them minutely and marveling over the delicacy of the handiwork. The work of a master like Meissonier even repaid, as John Ruskin would discover, the scrutiny of magnifying glass. But Manet's apparently clumsy brush strokes and lack of clarity in "Music of the Tuileries" did not lend themselves to this sort of appreciation.

During the next decade, though Manet endured still more critical ridicule, he forged a new direction in art that culminated in his masterpiece, "Olympia," a picture of a nude prostitute staring directly at the viewer. It appropriated the establishment icon of the classical nude and modernized it.

At the same time, Meissonier was mired in his own personal Waterloo, a painting called "Friedland, 1807." The painting, which depicted Napoleon's eponymous military victory, showed hundreds of horses in military formation, some at full gallop. Meissonier's painstaking technique required that he took almost a decade to complete the work. Typically, he built wax dioramas of the scene and made dozens of studies. He even went so far as to build a small railroad in his garden that enabled him to ride alongside galloping horses so he could accurately sketch them.

In "The Judgment of Paris" all this foment takes place against the backdrop of Napoleon III's Paris, a place awash in booze and sex (King estimates some 13 percent of the population was involved in prostitution) that eventually succumbs to the Prussians, the short-lived establishment of the Paris Commune and the adoption of la vie moderne. The painters themselves might admire King's skill in using this backdrop to highlight the artists in the foreground.

Though reading a book about 19th-century art-world politics may sound like a chore to some, King rarely descends to the level of pedagogy because he treats his story like a horse race between two very different artists. Meissonier sought to represent an idealized past as agreed on by all. Manet sought to represent the world around him through the haze of his own individuality.

By the end of the book, it is clear who has run the better race. Manet has finally won the favor of the Salon, where in 1873 his painting "Le Bon Bock" created a sensation. It inspired a restaurant in the Latin Quarter to change its name and helped turn Montmartre into a cultural center. Meissonier, for his part, has finished "Friedland, 1807," which was shown at an even bigger exhibition in Vienna, Austria. Today, it hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — just outside the "Manet Room."

"The Judgment of Paris" might not be as immediately accessible as King's previous books, but it offers a clear sense of how the politics and personalities of late 19th-century Europe fused to push art in a new direction — and, at least as far as the impressionists are concerned, onto the dorm room walls of college girls everywhere.

Austin writer Edward Nawotka is a book critic for Bloomberg News.

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