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Reader’s Den

June 2014 Reader's Den: "The Judgment of Paris" by Ross King, Part 1

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Welcome back to the Reader's Den! This month we'll be looking at The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, about a turbulent era in art history.

At the same time as America’s Civil War, two controversial exhibitions in Paris led to a revolution in French artistic sensibilities. King focuses on the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the first Impressionist showing in 1874 where the artists Manet, Monet and Meissonier shook the conventions of the academy, often by incorporating traditional or classical techniques or composition and then pushing the boundaries of convention through another aspect. This sometimes subtle and occassionally not-so-subtle cultural snubbing helped pave the way for works like Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades and even today’s artists. In the context of their contemporary supporters and critics, including Zola, Delacroix, Courbet, Baudelaire, Whistler, Monet, Hugo, and Degas, the critical back-and-forth raised profound issues about the role of art.

King’s writing style lets this historical account read like a novel and the backdrop of Paris in the 19th century contributes to the element of escapism. He focuses a lot on Meissonier, one of the most successful artists of the 19th century, now lesser known. However, King gives equal space to Meissonier's contributions to the art world in a way that the casual reader can appreciate as much as the art historian. Although technically superior to Manet and famous at the time for his works on the Napoleonic wars, Meissonier's renown has faded with time and Manet's formerly derided works have stayed with us.

King touches on the fourth French "M" painter, Berthe Morisot, who painted at a time when Pierre-Auguste Renoir wrote that "while he regarded female writers as 'monstrosities,' female painters were 'simply ridiculous.'" (p. 241) Her still-lifes and portraits were less controversial than those of Manet, but she was a stalwart supporter of him. King suggests that she may have been romantically involved with him; though the exact nature of their relationship is unknown since the letters she and her sister, Edma, who also had a crush on Manet, wrote to him, were burned by them to hide any such sentiments. King also mentions a "Room M" exhibit featuring other "M" artists such as Gustave Moreau and Jean-Francois Millet. Another "M" of renown was Victorine Meurent, the model and inspiration for many of Manet's most famous works, including Olympia, which was so ridiculed that Manet was nicknamed "the Apostle of Ugliness". However, Manet managed to find many sources of support in addition to Morisot. Charles Baudelaire encouraged Manet to rail against the vitriolic insults: "Do you think you are the first man put in this predicament? [...] Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner? And did not people make fun of them? They did not die of it." (p. 151)

"In this bitch of a life, one can never be too well armed" —Edouard Manet


Manet had a rough time trying to sell paintings. At one point, he enlisted his mother and a local gallery owner to help him display his artwork. Fame and fortune came after his death. Manet was not alone. Impressionism was seen as violating the rules of the Académie des Beaux-Arts which preferred realistic imagery and subtle brush strokes. Only after Emperor Napoleon III saw the rejected works of 1863 and decided that the public should be allowed to decide for themselves did the Impressionists gain widespread attention in the Salon des Refusés.

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