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4.8 out of 5 stars
The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
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on 5 May 2017
Ross King has written a number of popular art histories. This too is enjoyable and informative. However, the title misleads. The decade in question runs from 1863, the years in which the Impressionists began their careers, but not a period in which they enjoyed any success. Indeed their first exhibition was in 1874, when, notoriously, their work was derided.

Moreover, and even so, most of the group are introduced to us only briefly. Manet alone receives significant attention, although he showed at none of their Exhibitions and indeed “cannot properly be called an Impressionist” [364]. Even he plays a supporting role to a painter hardly known today, Ernest Meissonier.

As a study of Meissonier this is compelling. He was recognized as the greatest artist in Europe by the 1860s and his paintings commanded extraordinary prices. Only after his death did his reputation begin to falter and then dissolve, just as, and not coincidentally, Manet’s star begin to rise.

Throughout the text and in an epilogue the author seeks to explain their respective careers and posthumous fates. I think the reader is rather left to draw her own conclusions.

The narrative is told through the annual Salons that in this period determined success and failure, fame and forget. We read how often Manet was rejected and if accepted mocked. Meissonier rather went from triumph to glory. Interwoven is a general history of the Second Empire culminating in the disaster of Sedan the Commune. King does not throw up anything new here but he does show how to understand art we must have context. Less attention is paid to technique and style, but key works are discussed and analysed.

The two painters can be seen as poles apart, but their paths did cross – literally – and they had many things in common. At the end one must wonder if Meissonier was treated too generously then and too unkindly now.

What about Manet? The reception of his work is told through liberal quotes from contemporary critics. Today these are themselves offered up to students to be mocked. And yet I think they may have had a point. King shows just how much Manet owed to the Old Masters – Velazquez and Goya in particular. He gave them a modern, ironic twist but even so. His style was very flat, composition awkward and maritime scenes depict sails blowing in opposite directions. Some of his pictures – Dejeuner sur l’Herbe - have now passed into another zone altogether, beyond criticism, but others might repay a more questioning look and indicate a contrary impression.

The story catches some neat details. The feline on Olympia’s bed is well-known [is there a better known cat in art?]; King suggests that her sisters may have been on Manet’s plate during the Siege of Paris.

In all a good read and thought-provoking. Perhaps too many questions, not enough answers. And – as noted – an odd title. I assume that “Art in the Second Empire” would not have shifted so many copies.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 February 2014
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!
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on 30 December 2010
I have just finished reading this amazing book which is full of detailed information and history of the time of the emergence of the Impressionists.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in painting and who thinks they know all they need to know about this time in the history of art.

It's an exhilarating read which I could not put down. Well done Ross King!

I have read King's 'Brunelleschi's Dome' and 'Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling'
both brilliant books which I have bought for friends to enjoy as I have.

I would thoroughly recommend 'The Judgement Of Paris' as once it's finished you will miss it.
Ross King thank you for introducing me to Meissonier who was completely wiped out of my art education.
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on 4 November 2016
I'm still reading this book, but so far it's been an absolute pleasure to read. Ross King's knowledge of this time period is first rate, as his is writing.
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on 9 February 2017
I had read biographies of most of the people mentioned in this well written book, this gave a wonderful over view of their times.
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on 15 November 2010
It's a fantastic study of different styles of work and personalities during that time. I could not put the book down and used the internet to read more about certain paintings and artists.

My book has a different cover to the one I am writing the review for. Mine is dark blue with the Arc de Triomphe on it. The bibliography in the book has references to many, many interesting reads.

Despite giving this book a 5-star rating, I was annoyed not to have the picture of each of the painting referred to by the author, in the book itself. Having a picture of each of the paintings would have made this book an even better experience. I finally got over the frustation of not being able to study a photo of the paintings by searching for them on the internet.

This is the first book by Ross King that I have read and it's been a very rewarding read. I am looking at his other books.
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on 23 September 2016
great book
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on 2 April 2013
Haven't finished reading yet, but so far offers a fascinating background into two contemporary artists with different experiences of showing their art in Paris in mid 19th century, can't wait to see how these two stories come together!
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on 30 July 2015
new. arrived in good time
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on 15 October 2014
Quick and value.
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