By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Tristan Layton
The Judgment of Paris offers a story of rebellion and art’s transition from classic to impressionistic realism. Though Ross King’s book is largely about an art movement, it is also about France’s transition from monarchy to republic. King shows that art, war, and rebellion are judged by Paris’ events. Art’s transition takes place in the context of war.
Visual art begins a return to classic realism in the Renaissance. The Renaissance culminates in 19th century Paris exhibitions of “ideal art”– an art with the correct balance of light and dark, and near photographic representations of reality. Though Ross King does not write about Cimabue’s historic return to art’s past, he offers a story of art’s transition to something different, something considered new in the 19th century; something greater than mere representation of reality.
The new art is called impressionism. King suggests it is a revolution, wrought by The Judgment of Paris. In the 19th century, art exhibitions flourish in Paris. The exhibition coveted by all is the Paris’ Salon.
An artist exhibition in the Salon offers fame (sometimes fortune) to all that are selected by the Academie des Beaux-Arts of Paris. Without the judgment of Paris, artists exhibiting in early 19th century France have little hope for success. Between 1825 and 1865, the most coveted French’ artists paint historical scenes of Napoleon, other great men, their horses and equipment, and epic battles between great armies. The greatest commendation went to the most idealized and perfect representations of historic events.
However, in this age of classic realism, the advent of photography challenges the meaning of idealized art. Photography mocks idealization. Impressionism adds something, an emotive truth to stories reflected in pictures. King’s book tells the story of a revolution in art; it takes place in mid-19th century Paris.
An artist that is perennially rejected by the Salon is Paul Cezanne either because of judged banality or notoriety.
As in most revolutions, tradition resists innovation. Artists of the mid-19th century move away from idealized realism (the perfect person; the perfect scene). While classic artist’s bathe in adulation, they ridicule innovation by Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Whistler, and Renoir. Traditionalists mock those who have become bored with convention; those who seek something different, something universal, something real.
King suggests leaders of Paris’s art revolution are writers and painters. The painters of note are Delacroix and Edouard Manet. The writers are Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola. King identifies Manet’s paintings as the initiators of an art explosion. The support of Dellacroix, an established painter, and Zola, a professional writer, are matches that light the fuse.
Manet’s paintings incur the wrath of established artists and critics. The greatest artist of the age, the “cock of the walk”, is Ernest Meissonier. King explains that Meissonier spends months studying circumstances of historical events before rendering a work of art. Meissonier’s most famous paintings recreate precise conditions of historical events; down to the uniform that is worn, and the horses that are ridden.
King recounts Meissonier’s obsessive habit of re-creating battle scenes before beginning to paint. If a scene reported to or experienced by Meissonier involves snow, he creates a field of snow from white baking flour. If topography is reported as rough, with furrows on the sides of roads, Meissonier hires laborers to lay roads and dig furrows. Meissonier is alleged to have waited until the date of historic battles to record light and shadow characteristics of the season. King shows Meissonier to be obsessively focused on idealized realism. Meissonier’s most famous painting (Friedland) took ten years to complete. That reputation makes Meissonier the most respected and financially successful artist of his time.
King intersperses French history in his story of Impressionist art. Napoleon III is defeated in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871. Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, is taken prisoner by Otto von Bismarck. The second French Empire is dissolved and the Third French Republic is proclaimed. Alsace-Lorraine is taken by the Prussians as a reward for victory. (A part of WWI’s stage is set.)
France, a defeated nation, is a cauldron of discontent that comes to a boil in Paris. With communists fighting nationalists for control of what is left of the nation, the Commune of Paris is formed. The Commune rejects monarchy and the church and begins to dismantle the royal history of Paris. Nationalists create a second siege of Paris, after the Prussian invasion.
Artists are torn between loyalty to the goals of the Commune and Nationalist interest in preserving the proud history of France. Gustave Courbet, an impressionist, sides with the Commune. Edouard Manet sides with Meissonier and other Nationalists. Courbet makes an enemy of Meissonier.
Meissonier’s fame with “Friedland” is superseded by Edward Manet’s “A bar at the Folies-Bergere”; which is superseded by Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Napoleon III’s France is superseded by the Commune of Paris; which is superseded by the Republic of France. Meissonier reputation fails the test of time; Manet becomes the catalyst for change; Manet, not Monet (according to King), becomes the father of the Impressionist’ movement, and Picasso adds another dimension to impressionist perception.
King cleverly melds the transition of art with transition in politics in The Judgment of Paris. Change is shown to be hard; with unpredictable consequence. Consequence of change is measured by time and recorded history. Change of minds and alliances inch society closer to something different; both in art and politics. History records the value of the difference.