The Judgment of Paris: Edouard Manet’s Cultural Legacy

Not about the Greek myth—take this book’s title literally. In the mid-1800s, Ernest Meissonier followed the rules of the French Academie des Beaux Arts and was revered as an artist, while Edouard Manet defied them—employing freer techniques and painting life as he saw it being lived—and was reviled. Such was the judgement of Paris.

Manet’s paintings Olympia and Le Dejeuner Sur L’herbe caused scandals that attracted big crowds of oglers, to mock, get titillated, or simply to satisfy their curiosity. And his paintings didn’t sell. Meissonier got rich and Manet, who luckily came from a wealthy family, would have starved had he depended on his art.

Olympia_Edouard Manet

But we don’t often recognize great talent, or we fear disturbing the status quo. And time and other climes await their opportunity to express their judgement.

Manet was not isolated in his unfortunate notoriety. He attracted young artists who embraced the message in his paintings and branded themselves impressionists. Manet unintentionally ushered in a revolution in art and left a cultural legacy:

“by recasting artistic tradition in his own idiosyncratic vision in order to forge entirely new forms.”

The impressionists didn’t impress French critics and their public. But they persisted.

With help from gallery owner Durand-Ruel, they took their art to fresh eyes and fresh views across the ocean in London and New York. And the rest, you could say, is history.

A-Bar-At-The-Folies-Bergere_Edouard Manet

By the early 1900s, the fortunes of these artists began to reverse. Now Manet is famous and regarded as the father of modern painting. And his Olympia—mocked for a long time—is credited by an art professor at the Sorbonne as marking “a momentous date in the history of nineteenth-century painting and art generally.” His paintings have sold for millions of dollars.

But how many of us in this new millennium know the works of Meissonier? While famous during his lifetime, the valuation of his work plunged after his death, and in at least one art history book he “had vanished from the history of French art like a murdered enemy.”

Ross King’s book is doubtless an informative read. But it’s also as gripping as a thriller. He presents this period of art history in the sort of vivid narratives we’re advised to use in fiction. He draws us into his history of art as if we’re in the time and place when events happen.


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