Meissonier- a painter of history
Some painters do not achieve their fame until they are dead, others are hugely successful in their lifetime and then are forgotten by history.
Some painters do not achieve their fame until they are dead, others are hugely successful in their lifetime and then are forgotten by history. Ernest Meissonier, arguably, belongs to the latter group. During his lifetime he was the grandest, richest and most expensive painter in France. Today, you can find a few of his paintings in the Wallace Collection if you know where to look, but do not rely on the guides being able to help you find them. By contrast, in Guy de Maupassante’s 1885 story of Parisian high society, Bel Ami, the hero notes that one of the aristocratic families he visits are so rich “They even owned one painting by Meissonier.”
As can be seen from his 1861 painting, A Game of Piquet, he was one of the rare painters, like Vermeer, who mastered using tonal values to create atmosphere, before the invention of tonalism.
Meissonier was attached to Napoleon III and is perhaps best known for his paintings of battles during the emperor’s campaigns. However, due to their elaborate compositions these paintings could not be mainly based on direct observation are generally not as accomplished as his smaller works. He painted on a small scale, perhaps partially as practice for fitting detailed miniature subjects into his larger works. The work below, A Cavalier: Time of Louis XIII, is roughly eight inches tall by six inches wide.
With the earnings from his art, he built probably the most extravagant artist’s house ever built, known as the Grande Maison at Poissy. Not only did the house contain two studios, an indoor winter atelier and a glass roofed summer atelier, in 1869 he built a full-scale railway outside his studio for the purpose of studying the anatomy of galloping horses, a subject central to his painting of the Battle of Friedland. One such study is shown below.
Perhaps Meissonier’s flaw, in the eyes of his critics, was that he was an old fashioned painter at the beginning of a new age of painting. His career overlapped with Monet and the birth of impressionism and Courbet and the birth of Realism. In contrast to these modern movements, Meissonier looks romantic and dated. His technical genius remains undeniable and both his subject matter and, perhaps fittingly, his own personal story remind us not to forget the past. In his own words he was ‘a painter of history’.
Meissonier – Soldier Playing the Theorbo 1865
Author: Tom Greenwood