This is a magnificent story that pits Meissonier - the ultimate establishment artist of historical realism - against Edouard Manet, who created a revolutionary style of subjective imagery, offering the "impression" or personal perception of life rather than an exacting replica. At first glance, this might seem like a rather dull subject: we all know that stuffy realism was replaced by an astonishing array of visionary artists, culminating in Van Gogh, Gaugin, and later, the Surrealists and on into Abstract Expressionism. What King has accomplished with absolute brilliance and clarity is to show how this happened, not only from a handful of artists struggling to develop new techniques, but from inside the institutions that wielded great power over their careers, for the most part in the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
In the beginning, Ernest Meissonier dominated the artistic scene of Europe. His work was of the most painstaking craftsmanship, taking years and sometimes even a decade to produce a single work that was only a few feet square. Beyond the popular bourgeois scenes he produced (of men playing cards or drinking together), he recreated historic scenes of Napoleon on horseback at the moment of his greatest triumph. To do so, he worked the details in such exhausting exactitude that he would spend years studying the anatomy of horses, the crease in a uniform, and even wearing himself the hernia strap that Napoleon had to wear so that he could transmit the experience in his scene. He won innumerable prizes, dominated the institutions that enabled artists to mount an annual exhibit, and sold his work at the highest prices that anyone earned in the 19C.
Meissonier's work fit into the traditions of his time. There was his scientific exactitude right down to the blood vessels in the legs of each galloping horse, the choice of ennobling scenes to enhance national pride, and the moralistic lessons to inform the public regarding "proper" behavior. This was a era when painters tended to portray exaggerated gestures for dramatic effect, such as the Romantic Delacroix with his topless Liberté and self portrait with rifle or ruminative scenes of the Roman rivals, Marius and Sulla, who are now obscure except to classicists. The orthodoxy was guarded by aristocratic bureaucrats in the École des Beaux Arts and Institut de France.
The upstarts, led by Manet, wanted to replace such didactic exactitude with freer flowing images, which reflected perceptions and a gestalt of emotion - theirs. Moreover, with photography in development, the appeal of better than life apocryphal images of Meissonier and his ilk was losing its allure. It was time for something new, but the establishment resisted it all the way - refusing to approve paintings for the official showing with the most arrogant dismissals. Though a cohort of open-minded critics, led by none other than Emile Zola, championed the emerging movement, establishment critics also disdained them. In spite of this rejection, Manet kept going. The opprobrium he experienced would have destroyed less narcissistic men, but he gathered a following that came to include Monet, Renoir, and Degas, all of them revolutionaries in their way. The personalities involved provide their own fascination.
The political context is also vividly drawn. Napoleon III was an autocrat, merging his egotism with the glory of France, which was the pinnacle of European civilization as the colonial expansion began. He had installed a coterie of the most arrogant and hidebound aristocrats in his court, all of whom despised the democratic impulse. It was a time of terrible unrest: Napoleon III came to power shortly as a reactionary after the Revolutions of 1848 and, at his resignation in 1870 after his capture by the Prussians, the violence of the communards in Paris. This swept away many of the old attitudes, and though this is a simplification, opening the way for the movement, which was dubbed "Impressionism".
Once the public began to buy Manet's work, the flood gates opened and their popularity grew until they were seen as the exemplars of modernism, the breakers of the mould that had dominated painting since the techniques developed by Leonardo da Vinci. For his part, Meissonier remained famous during his lifetime, but after his death has come to embody reaction and the last gasp of historical realism - he is completely forgotten and despised by art historians (perhaps wrongly so).
If I have any criticism of the book, it is that there is too little analysis that explained the meaning of what was happening in terms of art history. It is there, but mentioned more as an aside than you would find in a academic work. But the writing and narrative flow are truly sublime.
Reading this is a great pleasure. Though I have seen and studied many of the individual works, this is the first time I have read a history that puts everything into context. In this I was lucky to have found this book, which is a true masterpiece. (I had read Brunelleschi's Dome and wasn't anywhere near as impressed as I was with this volume.) I will now be able to revisit all the museums I knew from childhood with an entirely new perception of the work and its meaning. There is no greater intellectual satisfaction. Highest recommendation!