Cleverly named after Paris’ ordeal of picking the most beautiful goddess of them all and the resulting Trojan War, King covers the tumultuous birth of a new style of beauty in The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism. King chronicles the decade between the Salon des Refuses and the First Impressionism exhibit arguing that these years “witnessed a struggle between the votaries of the past and those of la vie moderne. This struggle concerned rival ways of painting as well as, ultimately, rival ways of seeing the world, and it would result in the greatest revolution in the visual arts since the Italian Renaissance.” These years laid the seeds for the transformation of visual art being less about what one sees and more about “how one sees or expresses it.” The book follows two artists, the then most successful artist in the history of France, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (who?), and the vilified Edouard Manet.
King cleverly documents the rise of Meissonier knowing that most of his readers have never heard of the artist. Meissonier is elected repeatedly to the Salon Jury, given Salon awards, showered with accolades, and paid unprecedented amounts of money for his pictures of horses and soldiers. While an unpleasant and vengeful man (he campaigned for the exclusion of Courbet from the Salon due to his opposing political views), he had an incredible work ethic. His major paintings took years (he worked on ‘Friedland’ for over ten) because of his painstaking studies and re-creation of the scenes. Artistically and politically he was a mover and shaker, critics repeatedly called him the greatest living artist. In addition to King’s lively telling of art and French history, he spins a moral tale of hubris by describing the heights to which Meissonier climbed during his lifetime, only to be largely non-existent.
In comparison, Manet was the dog almost everyone liked to kick. He abandoned chiaroscuro, underpainting, and invisible brushstrokes to create a “new style better suited to capturing the energy and spirit of the modern age.” King accurately casts Manet as the turning point of change. Manet was constantly rejected from the Salon and ridiculed by critics, yet his works are deeply rooted in academic painting. While his painting techniques were unconventional, he strove for the approval of the conservative art establishment. He painted modern life, but in the studio, only taking up plein air painting late in life. Manet refused to join the Impressionist exhibitions, yet he was publically appointed their leader because of his risky painting and his nightly gathers with them in the local cafe to discuss art. While still maintaining the distance required of a non-fiction narrative, King wrote with such clarity that at times it was heartbreaking to read about Manet’s continual attempts for acceptance being repeatedly met with verbal disparagement, and even worse, no sales.
Art is a reflection of the era the artist lives in even if the work doesn’t portray the present. Style, taste, appropriate subject matter, and technique all influence an artist’s work. King brilliantly interweaves the governing and cultural politics of the time. I’m frequently confused by the Second Empire and Third Republic and the Commune or I wonder which barricades Hugo portrayed in Les Miserables. I’m indebted to King for clearly explaining the political events that significantly influenced the art, he showed how they go hand-in-hand in a lively manner. Ross effectively portrays the decade that witnessed the birth pangs of significant shift in what is valued as beautiful in art.