The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, Walker and Company
I love Ross King's writing about art history. His two other excellent books , Brunelleschi1s Dome and Michelangelo and The Pope1s Ceiling were both page turners that brought the stories of those artists and cities to life with a wealth of engaging detail.
This book by King takes an equally adept look at the Impressionist period and through amazing research it brings so many important details to our attention. We may have thought we knew some of the issues and challenges facing the impressionist artists, but with King1s help we see all the interconnecting currents that bring competing aesthetics to butt heads. Along with the artistic milieu we see how politics, cultural, industry and wars all played a part in this fascinating period.
One of the main protagonists is Ernest Messonier who is not exactly a household name, but nevertheless a larger-than-life figure whom the revolutionary impressionists began to rail against along with other academicians. Bougerau, Gerome, Ingres and Cabanel are few of those academic painters of a refined if not tight style aligned with Messonier whose work many of us now love just as well the impressionists. However art history has made a huge gap between the groups, which at times does injustice by exaggerating the differences. I have often looked at Messionier’s large scene of horses galloping with French soldiers as they pay homage to Napoleon on his white stead. I was impressed by the shear accumulation of detail, every blade of grass, all the uniforms looking accurate and its lighting on an overcast day. This painting titled “Friedland” for the battle of 1807 where Napoleon led the French to a decisive victory of the Russians.
The interest for us readers and artists is not so much the history of war but the way that Messonier is presented here as one of the main characters and leaders of the establishment to which Manet and Courbet are pitched as the upstart opposition. So when I look at Courbet’s 1866 painting of the nude in the Metropolitan Museum titled Woman with a Parrot and the nearby painting of Friedland, I will now have a much wider optic and appreciation for the way the two artists were diametrically opposed.
Manet takes an equal measure of importance to Courbet as the standard bearer of the revolutionary impressionists as his painting Dejuener sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) shares the cover of this book with Messionier1s work. We have little to compare how radical this vision of Manet1s was and King lets know of the hilarity and contempt it inspired. The book takes its title from two parts of history to which this Manet painting is related and another still life of apples by Courbet. The image of Manet1s was borrowed in Part from an etching by Marcantonio Raimondi, which in turn was based on a Raphael oil titled The Judgment of Paris, which of course refers to the event by the Greek God Paris that started the Trojan War.
Bringing the conflict to a peak was a rather innocuous still life of apples submitted by Courbet to the Salon of 1872, which Messonier, being on the jury for this exhibit rejected and all the other work submitted Courbet. Messonier’s decision was partly aesthetic because his highly meticulous style was in his mind and in the opinions of most contemporaries, at odds with the brushy realism of Courbet and Manet. Messonier’s decision however was more related to his contempt for Courbet as the ringleader of a group of activists who were agitating for democratic and social reform, who had toppled a statue of Napoleon. One critic of the time called the painting of Courbet's “The Apples of Discord” which wittily underscores the connection to the Greek myth, as Eris was the goddess who threw the golden apple of discord on the table in front of Paris with the directive to choose the fairest of the three goddesses in front him. The decision or “Judgment of Paris” that resulted eventually caused the Trojan War. By extension this still life of apples was the seemingly harmless painting that served as symbol for all the strife and opposition of the Academy and the new vision coming in through impressionism.
Artists will especially enjoy this book as King shows such splendid working knowledge of paint, materials and the motivations of painters.
The Judgement of Paris- (above) by Brian Keeler, a 36" x 40" oil on canvas, reinterpreting the ancient myth.