Nearly forgotten today, Ernest Meissonier was the darling of the French Salon public during much of the 19th century. People flocked to see his meticulously executed, almost photographically precise, often very small pictures of battles, horses, landscapes, contemporary personalities and genre scenes; and even so forward-looking an observer as Delacroix thought Meissonier’s work as worthy to survive as anything then being produced. His canvasses sold for prodigious sums in the years following his death in 1891. The prices headed south soon enough, however, and Meissonier’s reputation with them; if we remember him at all today it is likely to be for his attempt to exclude Courbet from the 1872 Salon, for his outspoken opposition to the Eiffel Tower, or for Degas’s wicked mot that he was ‘the giant of the dwarfs’. Only recently have signs of a new interest surfaced: the first comprehensive exhibition of his work was mounted (in his native city, Lyon) in 1993; the new 19th-century galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum display his Friedland, 1807 in a prominent place; and now Marc Gotlieb has given us the first serious monograph to be devoted to him.
Gotlieb is not out to restore Meissonier’s reputation. As a painter he was certainly talented, but even he suspected that he failed in the ways that mattered most. His story is no less significant for that, however. Meissonier’s limitations and failures are not to be attributed to the smallness of his gifts, nor was his project irrelevant to modern conditions or aspirations. Quite the contrary, the Salon artist here emerges as an exemplary modern – which is not to say modernist – figure, his ambitions, renunciations, triumphs and defeats as revelatory of the conditions and dilemmas of making art in his time as the careers of his more progressive contemporaries. Gotlieb’s case is often ingenious and engrossing, illuminating some dark corners of 19th-century visual culture. Still, readers may end up feeling less than fully persuaded, and doubtful in particular whether Gotlieb’s arguments justify our writing off the old ‘emancipatory narrative’ that relied (as he puts it) on a ‘seemingly Romantic but in fact vague and hackneyed vocabulary of genius, imagination and artistic freedom’.
Gotlieb’s account is structured round a polarity between originality and emulation. To get the attention of Salon-goers a painter needed to become known for some novel and recognisable quality. But this originality had to be achieved against the example of the Old Master painting that defined the terms of artistic excellence, and that was the problem: modern painters were, and knew themselves to be, ‘latecomers’ (in Harold Bloom’s sense), faced with accomplishments so exalted and so tied to conditions which no longer obtained, that the attempt to form their own practice on the model of their great forebears ‘brought not a dialogue between master and disciple but an always unequal contest for power’.
It was principally to escape this contest, and not, as a more sympathetic understanding would have it, to ‘broaden the field of pictorial inquiry in the name of experience’, that painters like Meissonier turned away from the historical and religious subjects still generally regarded as the most dignified and ambitious, to devote themselves instead to genre scenes from everyday life. Meissonier had tried his hand at historical and religious themes in his youth, but his contemporary biographer, Vallery Gréard, recounted how he shifted his focus after his more intellectual friend, Paul Chenavard, told him that his portraits of apostles remained inferior to their pictorial models, whereas his depiction of an ordinary young man playing a cello was ‘really personal and most excellent’. Moral: only by abandoning the unequal contest with tradition and moving down the recognised hierarchy of subjects could Meissonier establish himself as an original artist. But this path to originality led into a swamp, condemning those who took it to produce work that they and others regarded as strictly limited in value, unable to address the large-scale public themes that lent painting its traditional honour and dignity, and powerless to resist the currents that were carrying 19th-century art into the narrow, private realm where pictures became mere commodities, destined to gratify the rich and line the walls of their apartments – emphatically so when the pictures were, like Meissonier’s, done in diminutive formats.
Where others have emphasised the success Meissonier achieved by applying his particular talents within the limits he chose, Gotlieb focuses on the powerful residue of dissatisfaction with which he struggled, the criticism his work increasingly drew from contemporaries, and the contradictions into which he fell in his headlong flight from emulation. Not content with the ‘little folk’ (bonshommes) he depicted, Meissonier longed for the subjects he had renounced, and the large formats and public wall-surfaces most appropriate to them. Only such work offered him – or any other artist – the chance (in a phrase Gotlieb repeats too many times) to ‘secure his position as a leader of the French school’. In 1874 he sought and obtained a commission to do a grand mural in the Panthéon; the project was never carried out, but for years Meissonier occupied himself with preliminary sketches that served both to prolong his involvement and to defer execution. Unable to bring himself to the public contest with the Old Masters that putting his work on the Panthéon wall would have proclaimed, he displaced his emulative impulse into his own home, sketching a series of large-scale images on the walls of his house in what Gotlieb likes to see as a ‘decorative compulsion’.
So great was Meissonier’s anxiety about being compared to his predecessors that he feared relying on his memory, lest traces of other work were lodged there; he based his images instead on natural observation and live models. But because the models he employed were recognisably the same in different scenes, and because he usually put them in period dress, his audience began to see the result as the opposite of natural. The artist’s typically modern attempt to escape the power of tradition by way of realism and naturalism thus backfired, since it led to a practice that fruitlessly sought to deny both the ‘fictional nature of all historical painting’, and the artificiality of his models’ gestures and poses. As a way to avoid such failures Gotlieb points to the explicitly non-realistic, dream-like murals of Puvis de Chavannes, where human bodies and gestures were spiritualised and endowed (as one contemporary critic put it) ‘with the immateriality of symbols’.
Gotlieb thinks that the blind alley into which Meissonier’s passion for naturalism drew him is still more clearly revealed in the light of a subject he especially favoured, horses. Gotlieb proposes a novel and arresting reason for this equine passion: namely, that in contrast to nude human beings (whom Meissonier seldom depicted), ‘nude’ – directly and naturally observed – horses could be included in modern scenes without fear of anachronism. Indeed, here Meissonier could enter into a contest with the ancients which his status as a modern gave him a chance to win, by observing the animals’ movements more carefully than earlier artists had, and correcting their factual errors. Thus he would restore to painting, but in the modern terms of science, the public purpose it had once pursued by way of its exalted subject-matter. The project worked well for a while, especially in regard to walking gaits, which Meissonier studied with the aid of various contrivances, allowing him to represent moving horses in positions no one else had attributed to them; some protested, but Meissonier’s claims were validated by early time-series photographs.
Observing horses walking was one thing: using the naked eye, however studiously, to seize the truth about the gallop was another, and here Meissonier’s attempt to base progress in art on up-to-date knowledge collided with the limits of natural vision. Like many before him, he believed in the ‘flying gallop’, in which all four of the horse’s legs pointed directly away from the body. Eadweard Muybridge’s camera showed that no such moment occurred, and in a meeting with Meissonier in 1881, Leland Stanford showed him the photos, convincing him of his error. According to a newspaper account, the artist tore at his hair and exclaimed: ‘Never again shall I touch a brush!’
Meissonier recovered and went back to painting, but Gotlieb uses the incident to demonstrate that the artist’s compulsion to substitute observation for tradition pushed him into a dead-end, since it caused him to equate art with science. As Gotlieb tells the story, Meissonier’s response can ‘be said to have brought the tradition of French Salon painting to its terminus’. Much more viable for art’s latecomers – again as he sees it – were the paths marked out by Puvis de Chavannes’s turn to an art of pure aesthetic contemplation, and by those modernists who abandoned any objective imperative in favour of ‘what they imagined themselves to see’.
By placing Meissonier in the frame he does, Gotlieb makes the Salon painter part of some exemplary modern tensions and dilemmas. This is a genuine achievement and should be saluted as such. But it is troubling that a sometimes subtle and probing book often conducts its arguments in rigid and/or hyperbolical ways. Certainly Meissonier aimed to incorporate a kind of scientific observation in his pictures of horses, and was troubled to discover that the flying gallop was a myth. But it does not follow from this that he ‘drew no distinction between the domains of art and science’. Gotlieb points out that others thought the horse pictures beautiful whether the movements represented in them were accurate or not, but he wants to deny a similar satisfaction to Meissonier himself, apparently in order to show how the painter’s subjection to the ‘emulative dilemma’ forced him into a more extreme and contorted position. Had his confusion of art and science been that thoroughgoing, we would have expected him actually to have renounced painting after the revelation of Muybridge’s photos. Gotlieb writes as if an artist who seeks to incorporate ‘objective’ knowledge in a work could not at the same time explore subjective states or consider things in the world as occasions or correlatives for them. Such a view may lend support to an aesthetic like that of Puvis de Chavannes or the Symbolists, but it gives short shrift to the possibility – seized on by a number of Meissonier’s contemporaries – that imagination can serve to deepen interior experience and expand worldly knowledge at the same time.
A similar rigidity surfaces when Gotleib speaks of Meissonier’s relationship to artistic tradition. He declares at one point that Meissonier succeeded ‘in suppressing from his painting any reference to the art of the past’, yet this is clearly not the case with the genre pictures in which many observers saw allusions to 17th-century Dutch painting. We are given an involved, even tortuous argument on this score: first, the Frenchman was less indebted to past realistic schools than he appears, because his historical scenes ‘evinced a manifestly retrospective quality totally absent from the contemporary scenes of his Dutch and Flemish predecessors’ (how better to declare a connection to them?); and second, in negotiating his borrowings from tradition, Meissonier sought to ascribe the greatness of his predecessors to their determination to wrestle directly with nature. By continuing that struggle – instead of following some particular school – he could identify with them without copying them, relieving their work of its ‘inhibiting priority’ and finding ‘in a certain reading of tradition the authority to render it weightless’. ‘Weightless’ seems a hyperbolic way of saying ‘bearable’ or ‘negotiable’, and it is hard to read this without wondering whether the ‘emulative dilemma’ was ever so overpowering in the artist’s psyche as it is in the historian’s imagination.
Finally, we need to ask whether Gotlieb succeeds in establishing the claim on which much of his argument rests: namely, that 19th-century artists in general, and Meissonier in particular, were drawn to large-scale mural projects because the alternative available to them, easel painting, appeared as ‘a transitory format that doomed them to minor achievement’, and because they yearned for a situation like that of the old workshops, where a more co-operative, artisanal form of organisation lessened the differences between individuals and thus eliminated the competition between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ figures. That Manet was one painter who considered doing murals is a big strike against the notion that those who were drawn to them saw their other work as minor. But it is the argument about the attractions of workshop practice that is most problematic. Gotlieb constructs it out of bits and pieces: Gustave Planche wrote that artists could be inspired to overcome their personal limits by the sheer size of mural projects; Chenavard hoped to achieve unity and coherence by means of collaborative interaction between the artist who bore chief responsibility and a team of ‘artist-workers’ who would aid him; Gautier interpreted Chenavard’s ideas as an attempt to fuse all the individual personalities involved into a larger whole, so that master and helpers together would constitute ‘one brain and a thousand arms’; and Baudelaire sometimes preferred the old system, where a few strong personalities imposed their visionary passion on lesser people, to the modern cacophony produced by a horde of ‘emancipated journeymen’ all raising their trivial voices. The trouble with this list (interesting enough in itself) is that the single entries do not come together into a coherent statement: Chenavard and Gautier finessed the problem of whether communal projects were dictatorial or democratic, whereas Baudelaire had no hesitation in calling for the individualism of the few over that of the many. As Thomas Crow has recently shown, all kinds of reciprocal rivalries and tensions could contaminate the relations between master artist and disciples: thinking that 19th-century artists looked to such arrangements to diminish emulative conflict requires seeing them as remarkably naive.
Worst of all, there is no good evidence that Meissonier shared any of these ideas. Gotlieb tries to ascribe them to him, first by claiming that a declaration preferring good shoemakers, ploughmen or joiners to bad painters ‘articulates a distinction between major and minor achievement along artisanal lines’ (it does nothing of the sort), and then by taking Meissonier’s reported offer (the interpretative leap is breathtaking, especially given that we know nothing about the offer’s details) to execute some of his, by then infirm, friend Chenavard’s designs for Panthéon murals as evidence for a ‘complete endorsement of Chenavard’s visionary project’. Only someone with a heavy predisposition to a favourite theory could draw such a conclusion on such slim evidence.
At one point Gotlieb contrasts Meissonier’s supposed flight from ‘the self-referentiality that defines the history of Western painting’ to Manet’s attempt to ‘thematise’ modern art’s relationship to tradition ‘in his major canvasses of the 1860s’. It’s a promising comparison, but Gotlieb’s way of proposing it (very fleetingly) seems not to take much account of the intense charge of irony with which Manet invested the relation between modern art and tradition in Déjeuner sur I’herbe and Olympia. Manet’s way of affirming self-referentiality implied no flight from realism, certainly not in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes, and he may not have been so far from Meissonier’s belief that the best way to appropriate tradition was to struggle to paint what he saw, just as other ambitious painters had. Invoking Manet as a reference point suggests that what was missing from Meissonier was the sense that art in the present had to take account of features of modern experience that demanded attention for their own sake, and with techniques appropriate to them, an issue put in the shade when so much is referred to the fear of losing the emulative contest.
Gotlieb is right to tell us that the Salon painter and the modernist shared more ground than we had thought, but he leaves the contrasts between them largely undiscussed. Between a Manet and a Meissonier there remains a gap of vision and courage that only a more finely tuned attention to individual differences can explore.