The Judgement of Paris
Now that modernism has been proclaimed bankrupt, even by some of its previously staunchest advocates, a reverse psychology has set in, provoking a rush to resurrect the Academy and traditional art genres. The problem with this response is to rely too heavily on a narrow ideological approach. As we try to show with each issue of American Arts Quarterly, there are wonderful, major talents among the new Realists. Clearly, these artists can draw and sculpt. The question remains, what to draw and sculpt? The interdisciplinary education of nineteenth-century artists included a treasury of classical literature, religion, history, philosophy and mythology. Students knew what to draw before they learned how to draw. Today, young artists rush to embrace a classical style without an appreciation of its deep roots in centuries of storytelling.
New books continue to perpetuate the old patterns of thinking, the canonical genealogy of art history that has prevailed on both sides of the argument since the birth of modernism in 1860. Indeed, to sample some of the vilification cast on modernism in its early days, I recommend dipping into Great Works of Art: What Makes them Great by the American classical sculptor F.W. Ruckstull. Occasionally, a scholar such as Robert Rosenblum juxtaposes works of early modernism with those of the Academy, as he did when he curated “1900: Art at the Crossroads,” a landmark exhibition in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum of Art, with interesting results. Usually, players prefer to advance their own perspective. Such is the case with a new book by art historian Ross King.
The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walken and Company, 2006) chronicles the tumultuous decade that began with the opening of the Salon des Refusés—the notorious 1863 exhibition which introduced the early modernists to a scandalized Parisian art world—and concluded with the first Impressionist show in 1874. King has done an exemplary job researching the era, which witnessed the military defeat of Napoleon III’s short-lived Second Empire by Prussia—whose army occupied Paris in 1870—and Benito Juarez’s defeat of the imperial French forces occupying Mexico City a year earlier. Humiliation was followed by civic unrest and riots throughout France, culminating in the bloody revolution of 1871, led by the Paris Commune, that left 20,000 citizens dead in the streets. Prior to the Prussian invasion, a rag-tag bunch of bohemians, artists, poets and rebels successfully mounted the first of a series of challenges to the cultural establishment that ruled supreme not only in the academies of France but throughout those in Europe and the United States. The revolution continued to gather energy from a growing dissatisfaction with the established order, initiating a profound transformation of the West. It’s a story, worth retelling, of passionate heroes and great art. At first scorned and ridiculed by the public and those occupying positions of power and influence, they would prevail, artists and writers such as Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissaro, Henri Fantin-Latour, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola.
It’s an important story because modernism, as it evolved hegemonically over the next hundred years, changed the way most people see and comprehend the world about them. It’s an important story, too, because in the aftermath of the Great War of 1914–18 artists and society grew apart, with self-destructive consequences for our own time. What was it initially about modernism in those early decades that made it so appealing? Ross, the author of the successful books Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, relies on the now too-familiar arguments to characterize the culture war waged between a reactionary, “blinkered,” conservative society and a revolutionary avant-garde composed of Impressionists and socialists.
Ross presents the careers of the two major protagonists in this struggle, to symbolize the old and the new, the archaic and modern: Ernest Meissonier (1815−91), “the most famous and successful painter of the nineteenth century,” and Manet (1832−83), “who heralded the most radical change in the history of art since the Renaissance.” Most historians and theorists would concur. As an art student, I was taught a contemporary art history that began with Eugène Delacroix and Courbet, and spiked with Manet, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Any references to Jacques-Louis David, the founder of neoclassicism, were limited to pious denunciations about Western cultural imperialism. A hundred-year history of the French Academy, from David, Théodore Géricault, Jéan Leon Gérôme, Hippolyte Flandrin, to Meissonier and William Adolphe Bougeureau, had been expunged from arts education, with disastrous results to studio skills and draftsmanship. This highly selective view of art history also left out the English Pre-Raphaelites and the German Romantics; I will have more to say about the latter further along in this essay.
During the time period covered by this well-researched tome of 448 pages, Meissonier was considered by many the greatest living French artist. His paintings brought astronomical prices, which he lavished on beautiful homes, stables and furnishings. Meissonier’s favorite subject was Napoleon, who remained very much alive in the hearts of the French people, the subject of countless romances by artists and poets. The image of Julien Sorel, the young hero of Stendhal’s 1831 novel The Red and the Black, carefully tucking a forbidden portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte under his pillow before retiring at night comes to mind (it was John F. Kennedy’s favorite novel). Bonaparte continued to fascinate until the end of the nineteenth century. “The life of Napoleon is our country’s epic for all the arts,” declared Delacroix. No figure except Christ has been so ubiquitous in French art, observes King.
During 1863, the same year Napoleon’s nephew Emperor Napoleon III gave permission for several hundred artists, rejected by the Paris Salon, to exhibit their paintings at what was soon dubbed the Salon des Refusés, Meissonier was hard at work. Dressed in a uniform copied from one originally worn by Bonaparte, stitch by stitch right down to its frays and creases, he swung into a saddle cinched to a wooden replica of Napoleon’s white charger, set up on his balcony. In imitation of the famous gesture Meissonier tucked one hand inside the grey riding coat. Examining his reflection in a large mirror, he resumed painting The Campaign of France. The saddle on which Meissonier sat had belonged to Napoleon, supplied by another of the Emperor’s nephews. So was Napoleon’s riding coat. Meissonier selected himself as the model because his own short, powerful physique perfectly matched the Emperor’s. The finished painting of Napoleon’s retreat across France in 1814 was rendered with historical accuracy, right down to the former leader’s suspensoir (truss). Over the years Meissonier painted many scenes of Napoleon’s victories. In this painting, which chronicled a major defeat, he desired to capture the Emperor’s courage in misfortune. The Campaign of France took two years of intensive work to complete and won instant honors at the Salon of 1864. In 1890 this unusually small history painting, measuring only thirty inches wide, was acquired by a wealthy French businessman for the incredible sum of 850,000 francs, more than the entire annual budget of the Paris Opera.
Immediately, Meissonier began research on Friedland (1865), depicting Napoleon’s 1807 victory over the Russian army, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meissonier’s intensive research included many studies of mounted soldiers, complete to the finest details on the uniforms. He also sculpted for study a dozen figurines of horses, complete with flared nostrils, teeth and hooves, with small leather saddles and bridles to fit over their heads. The Battle of Friedland had taken place in the middle of June, and so precise was Meissonier’s research he never worked plein-air except during the same season, so that his landscape sketches were set with the correct light and shadows. Throughout his long career he brought this same intense dedication to all his work, which was much appreciated by the public and the critics. Gallery visitors brought magnifying lenses to study the minute details. He was awarded the Grand Medal of Honor an unprecedented three times. In 1889 he became the first artist ever to receive the Grand Cross, the highest order of the Legion of Honor. Friedland was purchased by Alexander Stewart, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York City. William Vanderbuilt purchased seven Meissonier paintings and also sat for a portrait, which were installed in Vanderbilt’s block-long Greek Renaissance townhouse on Fifth Avenue, nicknamed the “palace.”
King has much more to tell about Meissonier’s unflagging energy and ambition. He served as juror several times for the annual Salon and was supportive of other artists, even some of the avant-garde. He was the chief curator and a primary contributor to the Triennale of 1889, organized by the Ministry of Culture. Meissonier died in 1891 at the age of 76, while his reputation was still intact and unsurpassed. By the turn of the century, a short decade later, however, his reputation and his prices had collapsed. By that time, Manet’s reputation had soared, as indeed had the reputations of the other seminal modernists. Today, Meissonier’s celebrated Friedland does not hold up to close critical examination. For one thing, the much-lauded accuracy of the battle scene detracts from the overall composition. Lacking plasticity and chiaroscuro, it has a uniform blandness of color and tone. In short, it sacrifices aesthetic considerations for historical accuracy. Meissonier’s Campaign of France, however, holds up very well. It is a genuine masterpiece in terms of composition and drama.
Much has been written already about Manet, and King adds little to our knowledge here. Manet’s contribution as the father of modernism remains unchallenged, and his work continues to draw huge crowds. The retrospective hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art some twenty years ago broke attendance records. King provides numerous quotes to buttress his own opinion that “More than a century after his death, Manet endures in glory, flooded with light and fame.” In contrast, he writes, Meissonier was the “representative choice of the limitless stupidity of the bourgeoisie and the nouveaux riches.”
The title of King’s book, The Judgment of Paris, has a double meaning, first, comparing the achievements of two important Parisian artists and second, drawing on an ancient Greek myth. At a banquet on Mount Olympus in celebration of the marriage of the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis, Eris, the goddess of discord, appeared uninvited. Angered, she threw among the guests a golden apple bearing the inscription “for the fairest one.” Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all claimed the apple and called upon Zeus to decide. Zeus wisely turned the decision over to a mortal, Paris. Hera, Zeus’s wife, offered to make Paris ruler of the world if he chose her. Athena offered him wisdom and skill in war. Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. Paris chose Aphrodite and received Helen, then married to King Menelaus, and set in motion the events of the Trojan War. The Judgment of Paris became a popular subject for Renaissance painters. Raphael’s The Judgment of Paris, translated into an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, was the inspiration for the figures and composition in Manet’s controversial 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”).
Denied a place in the official Salon of 1863, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe caused a public outcry when shown at the Salon des Refusés. What offended nearly everyone was Manet’s audacity in mocking a famous icon of the old masters. In place of the classical female nude, Manet substituted a frank, nude portrait of his favorite model, Victorine Meurent. She stares back shamelessly at the viewer, a faint lascivious smile tugging at the right corner of her lips. The models for the two men shown reclining next to her on the grass were Manet’s brothers, fully clothed in modern suits. The demand for the painting’s removal drew the attention of Emperor Napoleon, who denounced its “obscenity.” Few critics came to Manet’s defense. Even fewer critics had the temerity to question the Emperor’s personal choice for the best painting in the official Salon of 1863, Alexandre Cabanel’s cloying The Birth of Venus (1863). Ironically, Cabanel’s painting of a voluptuous female nude floating miraculously above the surface of the sea, attended by several putti, has far more frontal nudity. Unfortunately, the Emperor’s lack of aesthetic acumen set the cultural tone for the nation. Too bad, because Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is a great painting, for reasons that have nothing to do with nudity but everything to do with what modernism was about: “art for art’s sake,” formalism, flatness, phlegmatic brushwork, bold colors, abstraction and a break with traditional values. Few critics even now bother to observe that the still life occupying the left side of the painting’s foreground is one of the finest “abstract” arrangements of fruit and vessels in modern art and was clearly the progenitor for Paul Cézanne’s proto-Cubist still lifes.
King clearly sides with Manet in the controversy, but he fails to come to grips with the aesthetic issues. For King, Manet is Mozart, Meissonier is Salieri. Is this a fair comparison? Not if it is a question of aesthetics and craft. Meissonier was a very good painter, much better than Cabanel. He earned his awards and success through a rigorous work schedule. His subject matter was not limited to grand historical themes; he made numerous paintings and drawings of contemporary life and many of the negative effects of war and civil strife. The Siege of Paris (1870) and Remembrance of Civil War (1850) were made from first-hand observations. The Ruins of the Tuileries (1871)—depicting the result of the Commune uprising—was the most-honored painting at the Triennale of 1889. The comparison between the two artists lacks dimension. King refers to Manet and Meissonier as the “two opposite poles of the arts.” But, I would argue, Meissonier is not the only exemplar of good history painting, nor was Manet the greatest modernist of his time. Such honors rightly belong to Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. There is some question whether Manet was as good as Monet or Pissarro. What cannot be denied is that Manet was the first artist to successfully separate aesthetics from content.
King’s dichotomy is too limited. He overlooks a third alternative, which had elements of both modernism and traditionalism. In the original story there were three goddesses for Paris to choose from. To fill out the analogy, I would suggest a third contestant worthy of consideration, the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829−80). The nephew of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, Anselm studied history painting at the Paris Academy under Thomas Couture, a much-honored master from the École des Beaux Arts. In 1855 he settled in Rome, where many other expatriate German painters, including Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Arnold Böcklin, Phillip Otto Runge and Johann Friedrich Overbeck went for inspiration. In Rome he found his muse in Nanna, a tall Mediterranean woman with classical features. She modeled for many of his most soulful history paintings, including several versions of Iphigenia. In Iphigenia (1871) the daughter Agamemnon sacrificed to appease the gods in his quest for Troy rests her arms on a wall as she gazes longingly out to sea. Feuerbach’s motif of the lonely priestess looking out to sea became the archetype for German longing, for a national homeland and the ideals of classical Greece. Feuerbach painted in a loose broad style, unlike Salon painters such as Meissonier and Cabanel. In 1870 he painted his own version of The Judgment of Paris, but it is very different in temperament from Manet’s version of the myth. There is no attempt to desacralize or hold the classics up to ridicule. It also differs from the traditional French school of history painting in significant ways. He frees myth from its archaelogical past and makes it contemporary. The classical figures in Feuerbach’s graceful composition have a formal, abstract quality that we instantly recognize as modern, comparable to Manet’s secular formalism. While Manet intentionally dehumanizes his figures to emphasize their abstract qualities in formal terms of line, shape, color and texture, Feuerbach uses these same formal qualities to emphasize their spiritual nature.
While the French modernists were desacralizing the classics, many German artists—Feuerbach, Friedrich, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Böcklin, Runge, Overbeck and the Nazarenes—were infusing their own brand of modernity with pagan mythology, classicism and Christianity. Fervent nationalism was driving hundreds of small independent German-speaking principalities to seek union with one another and become a great nation (Germany was unified in 1871). In the arts this “longing” (sehen) found expression in German Romanticism, a cultural movement that can be compared to the American Hudson River School, with notions of Manifest Destiny, the sublimity of Nature and spiritual transcendence. For the emerging new nation, art became a moral compass for the German people.
Politically and artistically, traditional academic French culture was perceived at home and abroad as bankrupt. The artists of the Academy were encouraged to paint pictures about the past. In contrast, Germany was enjoying a renaissance, not only in the arts but in music and literature. Their “modernists” were using the past as metaphors for the future. The subject is too rich to address adequately here, but what interests me is the fresh way they approached traditional subject matter, in, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), with its comparison of Dionysian and Apollonian values, or Richard Strauss’s avant-garde opera Elektra (1909), based on the ancient Greek tragedy. How the German renaissance was subsequently appropriated by militarists such as Bismarck, however, is a sad story, a prelude to the disastrous turn the nation would take in the twentieth century. The point I am making is that traditional values in nineteenth-century Germany were not under attack as they were in France. In Germany the arts were regarded as a sacred path leading to nationhood and spiritual transcendence.
Paris, the city of light and Enlightenment, had chosen wrong, just as Paris the man who started the Trojan War had chosen wrong. The gods of ancient Greece were not always just, a defining characteristic of Greek tragedy. A great nation such as France stumbled toward the abyss of history, controlled by events its people could barely discern. Modernism was their finest response to a national decline they could not seem to avoid. We need to open up the dialogue between modernism and traditionalism. Right now, it’s far too contentious and political. Modernism, before it was politicized in the twentieth century, was about aesthetics and sensory perception. The Academy, before its decline into the polished hypocrisy of Cabanel, offered powerful stories of virtue and faith. Making a hero out of either Meissonier or Manet, to the exclusion of the other, invites artists today to repeat the mistakes of the past. The “apple” we choose will ultimately determine the culture we choose. This is an important way to define who we are, who we were and what we hope to become.