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From the Publisher
The fascinating new book by the author of Brunelleschi's
Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's
Ceiling: a saga of artistic rivalry and cultural upheaval
in the decade leading to the birth of Impressionism.
If there were two men who were absolutely central to artistic life
in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, they were
Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. While the former has been
labelled the "Father of Impressionism" and is today a household
name, the latter has sunk into obscurity. It is difficult now to
believe that in 1864, when this story begins, it was Meissonier who
was considered the greatest French artist alive and who received
astronomical sums for his work, while Manet was derided for his
messy paintings of ordinary people and had great difficulty getting
any of his work accepted at the all-important annual Paris Salon.
Manet and Meissonier were the Mozart and Salieri of their day, one
a dangerous challenge to the establishment, the other beloved by
rulers and the public alike for his painstakingly meticulous oil
paintings of historical subjects. Out of the fascinating story of
their parallel careers, Ross King creates a lens through which to
view the political tensions that dogged Louis-Napoleon during the
Second Empire, his ignominious downfall, and the bloody Paris
Commune of 1871. At the same time, King paints a wonderfully
detailed and vivid portrait of life in an era of radical social
change: on the streets of Paris, at the new seaside resorts of
Boulogne and Trouville, and at the race courses and picnic spots
where the new bourgeoisie relaxed. When Manet painted Dejeuner sur
l'herbe or Olympia, he shocked not only with his casual
brushstrokes (described by some as applied by a 'floor mop') but
with his subject matter: top-hatted white-collar workers (and their
mistresses) were not considered suitable subjects for 'Art'. Ross
King shows how, benign as they might seem today, these paintings
changed the course of history. The struggle between Meissonier and
Manet to see their paintings achieve pride of place at the Salon
was not just about artistic competitiveness, it was about how to
see the world.
Full of fantastic tidbits of information (such as the use of
carrier pigeons and hot-air balloons during the siege of Paris),
and a colourful cast of characters that includes Baudelaire,
Courbet, and Zola, with walk-on parts for Monet, Renoir, Degas, and
Cezanne, The Judgment of Paris casts new light on
the birth of Impressionism and takes us to the heart of a time in
which the modern French identity was being forged.
From the Hardcover edition.