The Richest French Artist of the 19th Century, Unknown Today

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The Richest French Artist of the 19th Century, Unknown Today
Ernest Meissonier and Édouard Manet were contemporaries whose works showcase a revolution in art The richest and most popular artist in France in the 19th century wasn’t Renoir, Monet or even Manet, but an artist whose reputation languishes in obscurity. Ernest Meissonier, born 1815, was a Realist painter who would end up as a footnote to the history of French painting when the free-hand of the Impressionism took over from the painstaking minutiae of Meissonier. Meissonier was a self-taught artist who started his career with small, meticulously detailed book illustrations. It was this exacting detail that would make Meissonier‘s name; it would also be the ruin of him. He enjoyed incredible success in his lifetime. He first showed his art at the prestigious Paris Salon at the tender age of 19. Ernest Meissonier, Autoportrait. © Wikipedia, Public Domain His paintings harked back to the Revolutionary and Empire periods. He often portrayed masculine scenes of derring-do against a backdrop of 17th and 18th-century life. He also developed a military genre capturing Emperor Napoleon and his descendant Napoleon III on their respective battlefields. Meissonier was twice elected as the President of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the first artist to receive the Grand-Croix in the Légion d’honneur. Meissonier’s small paintings relied on scrupulous research and close work with models whether they be horses or humans. When he didn’t have a live horse to work from he would recreate one, out of wire, wax, and leather. He dressed his studio models from his personal collection of armor and 18th-century costumes, with collars and cuffs suitable for gentlemen and musketeers. He would spend all his daylight hours creating wonders of precision and meticulousness. The Judgement of Paris. © Ross King. As early as the 1840s Meissonier’s works prompted effusive reviews. Ross King quotes in his 2006 book, “The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism,” an anecdote that said “each year at the Paris Salon… the space before Meissonier’s paintings grew so thick with spectators that a special policeman was needed to regulate the wealthy connoisseurs as they pressed forward to inspect his latest success.” Meissonier’s micro work commanded macro prices. Members of the social elite, like the Rothschilds, vied for them. Napoleon III bought a painting called The Brawl for 25,000 francs, which was, according to Ross King, eight times the salary of an average factory worker in 1855. Another commission for Napoleon III resulted in a fee of 85,000 francs.

Lead photo credit : Ernest Meissonier. © Wikipedia, Public Domain

More in artists, Ernest Meissonier, Impressionist art, Manet, Monet, painting, Realism, Renoir

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  •  Marilyn Brouwer
    2021-04-10 01:51:31
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Immaculately researched as always Hazel. Fascinating details I didn't know before. Thank you


  • Blair Jackson
    2021-04-08 06:44:28
    Blair Jackson
    Thanks for this! I , too, will HEARTILY recommend the Ross King book alluded to, 'The Judgment of Paris,' not just for its coverage of Meissonier, but also the French art world in general in that era. Really fantastically interesting and well-written!


    • Hazel Smith
      2021-04-09 08:22:49
      Hazel Smith
      Agreed Blair, also Ross King's Mad Enchantment - Claude Monet and the Painting of the Waterlilies.