A painter meets his Waterloo

The paintings are well known, but the painter has been largely overshadowed by the Impressionists. The bicentenary of the birth of Ernest Meissonier is an occasion to revisit his extraordinary achievements.

MeissonnierJean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier had a remarkable career in 19th century France. Largely self-taught, he avoided the cliché of the poor artist in the garret to become one of the highest paid artists of his time, working as painter, engraver, sculptor, and book illustrator.

Meissonier was born in Lyon on 21 February 1815, four months before the Battle of Waterloo sidelined Napoleon from European politics. His father, a dye merchant, moved the family to Paris three years later. By the early 1830s, Meissonier’s artistic inclinations led him to take drawing lessons from a teacher alongside fellow students such as Charles-François Daubigny and Honoré Daumier. But he also learnt from 17th and 18th century Dutch, Flemish, and French masters whose works hung in the Louvre.

Meissonier’s submission to the 1834 Salon (the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris) was a small painting called “Flemish Burghers”, essentially a costume piece featuring three sober-looking gentlemen in traditional clothing. The play of light and shadow, as well as the delicately rendered still life, reveal his attention to detail. Critical and popular acclaim was immediate and the painting was purchased for 100 francs. Meissonier’s career was launched before he had reached the age of 20. Two years later, he produced “Chess-players”, the first in a series depicting groups of gamblers, dice-throwers, and card-players dressed in costumes from the time of Louis XIII. Photography had yet to be invented and such paintings found a ready market.

1814-CampagneMid-century, Meissonier accepted an invitation to accompany the army during the Franco-Sardinian Alliance’s campaign in Italy. In 1863 he unveiled his painting of Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino and followed it with more canvases depicting the romanticized military exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte. One of the most famous is “1814, The French Campaign”, painted for the fiftieth anniversary, which critics say singlehandedly revolutionised the genre of war painting. It was shown as one of 14 works at the 1867 Great Exhibition in Paris and Meissonier was promoted to Commander of the Legion of Honour.

Around 1875, the painter began to be represented by the Georges Petit Gallery (which later rivalled the famous Durand-Ruel Gallery in the acquisition and sale of impressionist paintings) and American collectors paid enormous sums for his works.

Horseman-in-a-stormIn May 1884 a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Meissonier’s Salon debut displayed 146 examples of paintings, engravings and sculptures. Among them were wax maquettes of horses and military figures that Meissonier had used to paint his battle scenes. Many were later cast in bronze, including “Horseman in a Storm” (1894) on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

In 1889 Meissonier accepted the position of president of the Exposition Universelle, France’s extravagant celebration of the centennial of the Revolution – for which the Eiffel Tower was built. He exhibited 19 paintings and became the first artist to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. Meissonier died in Paris on 31 January 1891.

To commemorate his birth and as part of year-long celebrations, the Commune of Poissy (where Meissonier once lived and is now buried) is currently holding an exhibition of some 50 of his works. The self-deprecating words of Eugène Delacroix, leader of the French Romantic School of painting, have finally come true, “All of us will be forgotten, but Meissonier will be remembered.”

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