I have had a travailed relationship with the work of Ross King. I loved Brunelleschi’s Dome, and used it to teach my Florentine Renaissance class at John Cabot. Then The Pope’s Ceiling came out, and my father bought me a hardcover version because he knew how eagerly I was awaiting it. I found that book however, bitterly disappointing--- superficial and with no understanding of the iconography of the ceiling. Hearing him speak at a special event in the Sistine chapel a few years later, did not dispel this impression.
Therefore, one might understand if I picked up his Judgment of Paris with a bit of trepidation, only to be delighted with this effort. King navigates the thrilling era of art history when French academic painters clashed with rebellious innovators during the second half of the 19th century. The rise of nation states, advances in artistic techniques (everything from new colors to paint tubes to collapsible easels and the nascent art of photography) as well as the political complexity of France’s dizzying shifts from republic to kingdom to empire to republic marked the canvas of this febrile age of art.
Ross King brings us into the captivating world of the salon, where academy-sponsored art was displayed to the public, and it is striking to discover how that public loved these displays much as the modern audience adores entertainment contests. He is not unsympathetic to some of the great academic artists (such as Gerome and Cabanel, whom I happen to love) but he is at his best when presenting the colorful characters who challenged the institution. He depicts them warts and all – Courbet comes across as fascinating and unsavory as some of his works.
The story is told almost as a duel between Ernest Meissonier, today a footnote in the history of art, but in 1863, the highest paid artist in France, and Édouard Manet, a privileged Parisian painter struggling to be accepted by the academy. Meissonier’s meteoric rise and fall contrasts with Manet’s slow slog to fame. Politics, the advent of outdoor painting and the burgeoning problem of the ever-finer line between art and pornography, make this story a page-turner. History that reads like fiction, with the personalities of the painters that shine from the page like the glazed oil pigments from their canvasses.
The only little disappointment was the lack of inclusion of the female artists of the era – short of Berthe Morisot, who is given cursory treatment, Eva Gonzales is only treated insofar as painted by Manet, while Mary Cassatt, the only American woman to venture into the Impressionist circle, is reduced to basically a footnote. But given that the book is focused on the antagonism between the “sketchers” and the “finishers,” it is likely that King wanted to avoid digressions and distractions in what is already a very information-rich book.
A wonderful introductory book before a visit to the Musee D’Orsay, The Judgement of Paris will entice you to look at the whole museum, and to seek out Meissonier, instead of simply racing up to Monet’s Poppy Field.
The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, Walker & Company 2006