Whch makes the book sound dry as dust. But the genius of Ross King is that he can take this tiny little bit of history and weave a story which incorporates so many other things. Because this was the Paris of the Second Empire when Emperor Napoleon III ruled over a city which had been transformed by the Boulevards of Baron Haussman; the Paris of cafes, artists, prostitutes (one in six Parisians was a sex worker) and the demi-monde; the Paris of the Universal Exposition, of glamour and glitter and industrialisation; the Paris of the secret police, of censorship, of political repression. And in 1871 it was the Paris which was beseiged as France lost the Franco-Prussian war and the Emperor fled; it was the Paris of the Commune.
This was a fascinating time, a revolutionary time, and art underwent its own revolution. But, as always, the opponents in the revolution were so much more interesting than their stereotypes.
Meissonier painted tiny oil paintings of incredible and exacting detail. He had made his fortune with pictures of Bonhommes (a bit like the Laughing Cavalier) but he longed to do more heroic work. He toiled for years over (slightly) larger works depicting the glories (and the tragedies) of the first Napoleon. He was a studio painter who rarely painted outdoors but his preparations and research were meticulous. He attended the Battle of Solferino for research and he had a train track laid in his garden so that he could move alongside galloping horses and study them precisely.
Manet really wasn't an impressionist and he certainly shouldn't be confused with Monet, who was. Manet's inspiration came from the old masters. His controversial Dejeuner sur l'Herbe featured a riverscape inspired by a Titian in the Louvre, a female nude inspired by Rubens and a clothed man who reclines in the same position as Adam on the Sistine chapel ceiling, albeit reversed. His even more controversial Olympia was a copy of another Titian. But both paintings owed much of their daring and their notoriety from the clever visual hints added by Manet (such as a black cat with an erect tail hinting at pussy); even the name Olympia hinted that the woman was a prostitute and the position of the left hand suggests that she isn't just being modest (and did you know that our word pudenda for female genitalia comes from the Latin pudens which means shame).
Manet must have been a resilient man with enormous self-belief. Year after year he exhibited to howls of derision. People laughed at his paintings, they said he was useless. It must have been hard for his models. Victorine posed naked for Dejeuner sur l'Herbe; many horrible comments were made about her ugliness; it was assumed she was a prostitute; she was laughed at. Next year she posed again, naked again, as Olympia (clearly a prostitute), and again was on the receiving end of ridicule and scorn. It wasn't even as if the pay was good and Manet took hours and hours over his models!
I learned so much from this book, from the controversial career of Napoleon III (two failed coups before he came to power including escaping from a French prison by dressing as a workman and walking out of the door with a plank across his shoulders) to the derivation of pompous (the French called the overblown toga-and-sandals paintings of David and fellows 'pompiers' because the helmets of the heroes resembled the helmets of French firemen) to Baudelaire, notorious author of Fleur du Mal, who so courted notoriety that on a visit to Belgium he pretended that he had killed and eaten his step-father to Whistler who had been expelled from West Point by Robert Lee to Manet who failed his naval training (proved by the fact that on one seascape the flags and sails of one of the boats are being blown in opposite directions) to the fact the landscape painting only really took off after oil paints began to be available in metal tubes rather than the much less wieldy pig's bladders ....
Written in 38 short chapters, this is a very easy read. It is so packed with characters and incidents that it never flags. It is brilliant and deserves a wide readership.
Ross King also wrote (reviewed in this blog):
- The wonderful Leonardo and the Last Supper about Da Vinci's iconic painting
- The even more brilliant Brunelleschi's Dome; the history of the second largest dome in the world atop the Duomo in Florence
- The excellent Michelangelo and the Pope's ceiling about the Sistine chapel, what else?
November 2015; 374 pages